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Antarctic Misadventure Sparks Scandal for Russian MPs

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Alexander Sidyakin, a Russian Duma deputy from Tatarstan and member of the ruling United Russia party, boasted last December that he would plant the Russian flag atop the highest mountain in Antartica—if he received 11,000 retweets by the New Year.

Ratcheting up his patriotic tone even more, Sidyakin ended the Twitter proposal with the hashtag #антарктиданаша (Antarctica is ours!), a play on the now famous “Крым наш! [Crimea is ours!]”  slogan.

To this day, Sidyakin's post still has fewer than 2,000 retweets, but that didn't stop him from heading off on a holiday adventure to Antarctica. A fellow member of parliament, United Russia member Oleg Savchenko, even joined him.

Then, on January 14, the pair suddenly made national news, when Sidyakin's press secretary tweeted that he and Savchenko had fallen out of contact and perhaps something had happened to them out in Antartica's wilderness.

Later that day, BBC correspondent Olga Ivshina succeeded in contacting the Duma deputies through their travel company and Sidyakin's spokesperson again took to Twitter to confirm that he and Savchenko are alive and well. 

These patriotic Antarctic explorers did not escape the national spotlight unscathed, however. Instead, they found themselves in the middle of an unfolding political scandal.

Sidyakin and Savchenko

Graphic from Navalny website post. Translated caption: 

On the Modest Life of Deputies: These deputies set off for Antartica to conquer a mountain, aided by the travel company “Seven Summits.” According to calculations by “Moskovsky Komsomolets,” each deputy's trip cost 3.5 million rubles [$53,695]. The Antarctic expedition, which they undertook during working hours, cost almost as much as Sadyakin's entire official annual salary and one-third of Savchenko's official salary. “United Russia”—the Party of Crooks and Thieves. Always Vote and Agitate Against “United Russia.”

Various media outlets in Russia, along with anti-corruption activists such as the team working around Alexey Navalny, quickly seized on two problems with Sidyakin and Savchenko's expedition.

Writing in his blog, Navalny summarized these two issues:

Правда, сразу же выяснились ещё два интересных факта:
1. Депутаты нарушили их собственный закон о порядке посещения Антарктиды гражданами РФ.
2. Поездка осуществляется в рабочие дни, и непонятно какого чёрта вся страна работает, а депутаты с зарплатой в 450 тысяч рублей в месяц шастают по Антарктиде.

In reality, two interesting facts immediately become clear:
1. The deputies have violated their own law on the procedure for visiting Antarctica as Russian citizens.
2. Their trip is taking place on working days, and it's a mystery how the hell the country functions at all when deputies with a monthly salary of 450,000 rubles [$6,903] are running around Antarctica.

As reported by Slon.ru, both deputies supported a 2012 law requiring Russian citizens to obtain permission from the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring for any travel to Antarctica. According to a federal official, Sidyakin and Savchenko failed to follow the correct procedure for their current trip.

Online and in the media, questions about how two deputies could afford such travel have generated even more discussion.

According to calculations by Moskovsky Komsomolets, the total cost of the trip must have equaled at least 3.5 million rubles [$53,695] for each traveler. Navalny's website emphasizes that this amount of money is almost as much as Sadyakin's entire official annual salary and about one-third of Savchenko's official salary.

Based on the most recent Twitter update from Sidyakin's spokesperson, it appears Sidyakin and Savchenko have indeed succeeded in planting Russia's flag atop the highest mountain in Antartica.

It remains to be seen, however, whether they receive a hero's welcome when they return home or simply a lot of questions from their constituents.

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