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What Snow Can Tell You About Russia's Local Politics

Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Local politics in St. Petersburg can confound one's expectations of a Russian city. In a country notorious for its moribund civil society and oppressive state, St. Petersburg citizens have a habit of challenging the authorities in small, but significant ways. In November last year, a team of ecologists used GPS trackers to sniff out the city’s polluted waterways, discovering rivers of untreated sewage flowing into Neva Bay.

This month, one journalist, Pavel Smolyak, launched a public campaign against the local lieutenant governor, Igor Albin, accusing him of failing to manage the city's snow cleanup during the winter holidays.

Do it yourselves
The trouble started for Albin, who recently changed his surname from Slyunyayev to reclaim his more “sonorous” roots, with a January 9 Facebook post, where Smolyak described an evening spent looking out his window, waiting in vain for Albin and the city’s workers to dig him out from beneath the snow. The issue might have died there, but Albin took it upon himself to respond to Smolyak’s post, writing ungraciously:

Павел, а может вместо прослушивания очередного сериала и ожиданий манны небесной стоило пригласить друзей, взять лопаты и навести порядок хотя бы в своем дворе? Это и для здоровья полезно ,и мысли в порядок приводит… Труд облагораживает человека. Равнодушие и иждивенчество убивают и отдельную личность и целые государства. […]

Pavel, maybe instead of binging on another TV show and waiting for manna from heaven, you ought to invite over some friends, grab a few shovels, and start cleaning up [the snow], at least in your own yard? It’s good for your health and it will help put your head in order… Manual labor makes a man stronger. Indifference and dependency can kill single individuals and entire nations alike. […]

Albin’s riposte inspired dozens of responses, most of them criticizing his reluctance to hold state officials responsible for their apparent failure to remove snow from the streets during the holidays. “A brilliant idea!” Mikhail Shevchuk wrote sarcastically. “And if there’s a fire, you don’t need to call the fire department,” Shevchuk added, “you need to call on your friends to bring buckets and start pouring.”

The public backlash
A day after angering many with his “grab-a-shovel” advice, Albin wrote on Facebook again, trying to defuse the situation, saying he was “surprised by what a stir one private conversation [sic] has caused in the media.”

On January 13, city council member Boris Vishnevsky also complained on Facebook about Albin’s management of St. Petersburg’s snow removal, saying the city’s workers come too late in the day, if they come at all. “My aide’s grandchildren,” Vishnevsky wrote, “were late to kindergarten and missed their breakfast.”

Oleg Nilov, another council member, is trying to capitalize on Albin’s publicity misfortunes by challenging him to a “Snow Shovel Challenge,” in the spirit of the “Ice Bucket” phenomenon, daring the lieutenant governor to hit the streets himself and help shovel snow somewhere that needs it (or pay 4,000 rubles to a local charity).

Some citizens are calling for Albin’s job. In fact, a petition on Change.org demanding Albin’s ouster has attracted more than 5,000 signatures in roughly 24 hours. That document accuses Albin of “blatant disrespect for the city’s residents,” and describes a broken social contract:

Мы считаем, что Игорь Албин, проявил вопиющее неуважение к жителям города, которые не только оплачивают уборку улиц и благоустройство города, но и платят из своих же карманов зарплату самому Албину. Мы не готовы и далее продолжать платить зарплату этому работнику по причине не только серьезных сомнений в его профессиональных компетенциях, но и неуважения проявленного в отношении реальных работодателей Албина.

We feel that Igor Albin blatantly disrespected the city’s residents, who not only pay for street cleaning and the city’s beautification, but also pay out of their own pockets Mr. Albin’s salary. We’re not prepared to continue paying the salary of this [state] employee not only because of serious doubts about his professional competence, but also because of his disrespect toward his real employers [St. Petersburg taxpayers].

Meanwhile, elsewhere
For contrast, consider Ingushetia, where the republic’s head, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, recently visited a town and fired two chief officials in the local government for failing to clean the streets of snow. Yevkurov made a show of it, reporting the dismissals with snarky messages on Twitter:

Yesterday I drove through Magas. I wanted to see how much work the city’s crew is managing. None, it seems.

The city’s cleanup crew is on Winter Vacation. I’ve fired the local public utilities heads. Let them relax a bit longer!!!

Yevkurov’s response to the snow-removal problem was traditional: a staged publicity stunt, catalogued in the media, perpetuating his reputation as a caring executive who chases off negligent bureaucrats. In the short-term, Magas residents can probably expect safer streets, until Yevkurov turns his attention elsewhere, and the snow again begins to pile.

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