Russians who tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election usually don’t have names: They’re known simply as “the Russians.” Vitali Shkliarov, however, kept a relatively high profile as a political operative working for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ understaffed and overworked campaign. His motive for taking that job and for later getting involved in Russia’s peculiar presidential election is the same: He doesn’t like entrenched elites.
The adventure-filled story of Shkliarov, 41, explains something about the nature of the complex relationship between Russians of my generation and the West. Born in the Soviet Union, many of us didn’t see the U.S. and other Western countries as adversaries but rather as models for our country to emulate. As the Soviet project failed and Russia and its satellites opened up to the world, we saw the West as a place to acquire knowledge and experience that would help us fix things back at home. But as we traveled to the West, we saw warts that hadn’t been visible from behind the Iron Curtain. Some of us saw them as evidence that the world was rotten in certain universal ways. Some of these people now power the troll farms, spy operations and corruption networks that exploit the warts. But others, Shkliarov included, stuck to the original plan — and besides, they tried to fix what they didn’t like in the West.
Shkliarov’s chosen arena was one of the most counterintuitive for a Russian in the West: politics. A native of Gomel, Belarus with a Ph.D. in political and social sciences from the University of Vechta in Germany, he married an American and moved with her to the U.S. There, Shkliarov began volunteering for political campaigns to gain experience. He worked on the second Obama campaign and canvassed for Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin’s successful Senate bid in 2012. In 2016, he says, he could have secured a paid job with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Instead he chose Bernie Sanders, serving as a jack-of-all-trades operative on mobile teams that worked state primaries. He managed get-out-the-vote efforts, recruited volunteers and did advance work for the candidate. Shkliarov ended the campaign as deputy national political director for outreach. That job was probably the most grimly thankless in the entire hopeful effort: attempting to persuade Democratic superdelegates to abandon Clinton for Sanders.
Why Sanders? As a “post-Soviet rebel,” Shkliarov told me he simply loves “underdogs.”
“I’d come to the U.S. from Germany, where I had mandatory health insurance, dental and all, and I could take a year’s paternity leave at 70 percent salary,” Shkliarov told me. “Suddenly health care costs thousands of dollars and my wife had to go to work six weeks after giving birth. This was the richest country in the world that could afford things like the Iraq war. Bernie was asking these legitimate questions that even other liberal politicians don’t dare ask — they get steamrolled by this discourse about the U.S. being the best country in the world. There are a lot of lies in the system, just like in Russia.”
Shkliarov is open about his rejection of the system President Vladimir Putin has built in Russia. “You won’t keep a broken TV set in your apartment for 18 years, but somehow Russians have been persuaded to keep Putin,” he says.
In the run-up to the presidential election in March, he signed up to be a consultant to the campaign of TV celebrity Ksenia Sobchak, who is running on a vague liberal platform — and who, many say, is meant by Kremlin masterminds to drum up public interest in the vote to avoid a disappointing turnout that would delegitimize Putin’s certain victory. Shkliarov says he doesn’t believe Sobchak is a Kremlin decoy — but, in any case, “Ksenia is secondary.”
His goal, he says, is to gather targeting data and test a campaign-organizing software suite he’s designed with a team of techies while running lower-level election efforts for anti-Putin candidates in Moscow. One of those efforts recently helped lead to more than 200 surprise victories for liberal candidates in Moscow’s municipal elections. But a national campaign is a whole new level of difficulty.
“I want to be prepared for 2024, when there may be several democratic candidates if Putin leaves,” Shkliarov says. The Russian constitution currently bars Putin from running again in 2024. “It’s pointless to sit out this election because Putin is going to win.”
Willingness to get involved with dubious or losing causes in the hopes of learning the hard way is an American trait: The U.S. culture is tolerant of losing, and it celebrates the ability to get up after being knocked down. But it’s also part of my post-Soviet generation’s backbone. We grew up with destruction, disintegration, chaos, failure. We know both beautiful and ugly things can emerge from them. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would want to help Sobchak imitate an anti-Putin campaign — but I can see Shkliarov’s point. No one except anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has tried to run a modern national campaign against Putin, but it’s clear he won’t be allowed to run this time. So from a political operative’s point of view, any opportunity to test U.S. campaigning techniques in the hope that someday Russia will have real elections is to be treasured.
I find it unlikely that a real election will be allowed in Russia in 2024: Putin is likely to choose a reliable successor and push him through by the usual means, including relentless propaganda, vote-rigging and the suppression of opponents with a decent chance of winning. But, given the current political climate in the U.S., Shkliarov is forced to hope against hope. “People are scared even to talk to me in Washington,” he told me. “I’m Russian, so I’m toxic. Imagine if I tried to run somebody’s Senate campaign — ha, like anyone would let me! I might as well be from North Korea.”
That’s unfortunate. His love of the West and peculiar experience of failure, survival and playing long odds is the stuff of American dreams. The U.S. could only benefit from his kind of “election interference.”
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.