In Siberia, a First Female Mayor Builds a National Profile
YAKUTSK, Russia — Admirers call her the “Terminator,” the “Iron Lady” and the “Queen of the North.” But that is hardly the only unusual thing about Sardana V. Avksentieva.
She is the first female mayor of Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, a sprawling region in eastern Siberia that constitutes 20 percent of Russia. What’s more, analysts say she won the office last year in what was considered a fair election, a rarity in Russia.
Most unusually, she has built up a cultlike following nationally on social media. This stems from a series of highly publicized efforts to cut costs — virtually unprecedented for any Russian official.
Notably, Ms. Avksentieva sold off the mayoral Toyota Land Cruiser, making do with a simple sedan, and dismissed an official who planned a $16,000 New Year’s Eve celebration at public expense. She flies economy.
A typical comment on her Instagram account read, “Clone her please for every city!”
Ms. Avksentieva, 49, (her full name is pronounced Sar-DAH-nah ahv-keh-SEN-tee-AY-vah) laughs off her unexpected fan club.
“I am surprised by that, sometimes I don’t believe it is about me,” she said during an interview in a City Hall conference room. “People saw something different, so they began to spread the word whether I wanted them to or not.”
Russia remains a deeply patriarchal society despite decades of Soviet propaganda about equality between the sexes. A scattering of prominent women hold important official positions, but the political realm is generally a sea of navy blue suits.
Heating tubes in a residential area. Yakutsk bills itself as the coldest inhabited spot on Earth.Credit Emile Ducke for The New York Times
Ms. Avksentieva initially joined the race as a “spoiler,” a common practice in which an ally of a leading candidate runs to draw voters from the competition. In her case the aim was to win over Yakut women. The Yakut, also known as the Sakha, the main Indigenous ethnic group, account for about 50 percent of the electorate in a city of around 320,000 people.
At the last minute, though, the party sponsoring the front-runner rejected him, and Ms. Avksentieva, a former deputy mayor and administrator in various state-run enterprises, found herself challenging the remaining candidate — the Kremlin favorite.
“To start a campaign without the blessing of the head of the region is a big risk,” said Ilya Paimushkin, a Moscow-based political consultant who served as a campaign adviser.
That became evident when she found major assembly halls suddenly closed to her, for example, and all the billboards in central Yakutsk occupied by the ruling party.
Undaunted, Ms. Avksentieva campaigned among small groups outside individual apartment buildings and deployed a fleet of trucks that carried her image everywhere.
Her aloof opponent underestimated her, various analysts said. She ended up beating him by eight percentage points in a field of a dozen male candidates.
Ms. Avksentieva’s parents were from Yakutia, and her mother returned to her native village to give birth. But she took the infant back to Georgia, where her husband worked as a Soviet air force technician. Among friends, Ms. Avksentieva still likes to sing Georgian songs that she learned as a child.
A fish stall at a market in Yakutsk. The city has no direct road or rail link to the outside world.CreditEmile Ducke for The New York Times
The family returned to Yakutsk when she was 5, and she soon enrolled in a selective, much-sought-after school known for its math and physics programs. Her childhood home was right behind where City Hall now stands, and on weekends, when the Communist system required that citizens “volunteer” for construction and other projects, she actually helped to build it.
She has been married twice, with one daughter from her first marriage and three children that her husband, Viktor Avksentiev, brought from his first marriage. They have one granddaughter.
Divorced for over a decade, she was a childhood friend of Mr. Avksentiev’s younger sister. When he first approached her for a date, while they were both senior officials in City Hall, she was shocked because he had kept his divorce quiet, no mean feat in a city where the elite all grew up together.
Ms. Avksentieva has always had a knack for retail politics, another rare quality in Russia.
Yana Ugarova, the editor of a local magazine called JurFix, remembered her at age 13 actively leading older students in producing slogans and other cheerleading efforts for the Young Pioneers and Komsomol, the youth branches of the Communist Party.
In the years before the campaign, however, she focused her energy on her new family. “I knew that at some point she would get bored solving small issues like where to take family vacations,” Ms. Ugarova said.
The mayor puts it slightly differently: “I realized that I was 48 years old and I had not done anything of which I could be proud.”
In office, Ms. Avksentieva has won a reputation for being approachable and extremely loyal to her friends. “She is like a neighbor on your courtyard,” said Fedor N. Grigoriev, a veteran journalist who has known her since they were university students 30 years ago.
A beach on a tributary of the Lena River. Yakutsk was promised a bridge over the river.CreditEmile Ducke for The New York Times
As mayor, she faced her first crisis in March, when an laborer from Kyrgyzstan raped a Yakut woman. Protests erupted, with roving gangs beating up immigrants who, terrorized, stayed home, shutting down the corner groceries and public transportation where many of them worked.
In a raucous town hall meeting with several thousand residents, she adopted a hard line, calling for limits on immigration from Central Asia and for an immediate halt to the unrest. Immigrants had established a kind of mafia in certain fields like taxis and vegetable stands, she said in the interview, adding, “It is a question about the economy, not ethnicity.”
The mayor broadcasts her weekly Monday staff meetings live on television and reposts them on Instagram. She frequently barks at aides about lax city services.
That plays well with the public, but critics label it a “good czar, bad adviser” public relations stunt, calling the improvement of city services the ultimate test of her five-year term. Garbage and snow removal, road repair and the basic cleanliness of the city have yet to markedly improve under her watch, they said.
“She has been called the people’s mayor, the miraculous mayor, but insiders are less impressed,” said Mr. Grigoriev, the managing editor of the state-run Sakhamedia publishing house and news agency.
Ms. Avksentieva acknowledged the challenge, compounded by running a city that bills itself as the coldest inhabited spot on Earth.
Global warming is thawing the permafrost — permanently frozen ground — that lies beneath the city. The shifting ground has left at least 1,000 buildings damaged, the mayor said, while roads and sidewalks repeatedly turn into washboards.
A statue of Lenin in the center of Yakutsk. While Soviet propaganda stressed gender equality, Russian politics is still dominated by men.CreditEmile Ducke for The New York Times
Outside the office, the mayor said, she plays with Martin, the family bloodhound, to relax. “When I get back from work, 120 pounds of happiness jump on me,” she said, laughing.
In an interview with JurFix, the mayor presented herself as something of a homebody who defers to her husband, a former deputy mayor who holds a Ph.D. in economics.
Ms. Ugarova said the couple played complementary roles. “He admires that she has such a post, that people support her, and that is a big achievement for a Russian man,” Ms. Ugarova said.
Some Russian political pundits interpreted her win as protest against the Kremlin, especially since in the last presidential election, President Vladimir V. Putin won fewer votes in Yakutia than in any other region.
Ms. Avksentieva and her supporters counter that she was the strongest candidate. “I am not an opposition mayor, and Yakutsk is not an opposition city,” she said.
The mayors of all major Russian cities should be elected, she said — only 10 in 85 regional capitals currently are — but the real problem is that city governments control little of their budgets. Her city’s spending of $250 million annually is mostly legally earmarked for education and social services.
Yakutsk does not exude the post-apocalyptic feel of some smaller Russian cities, but there are dirt roads near the center.
The city suffered acutely from one of Mr. Putin’s make-Russia-great-again projects, however. Lacking any direct road or rail link to the outside world, Yakutsk badly needs a bridge over the Lena River, and the Kremlin promised to build one. But in recent years the funding was drained away to pay for a bridge to the newly annexed Crimean peninsula.
Mr. Putin promised Yakutsk a bridge again this year, but there is no timetable.
The mayor wants the bridge because Yakutsk residents need it, she said, calling them her “employer,” a mantra salted liberally into her public remarks.
“I understand that I am a contract employee,” she said, “and I always repeat that, because I want our citizens to know that this means something in our city, that they make decisions.”
Follow Neil MacFarquhar on Instagram @nytMacFarquhar and on Twitter @NeilMacFarquhar
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting