Geopolitics

Russian Operative: I Tried To Sway U.S. Election (For Bernie)

Now Vitali Shkliarov has headed home to oppose Vladimir Putin.

Why Sanders? As a 'post-Soviet rebel,' Shkliarov said.
Why Sanders? As a "post-Soviet rebel," Shkliarov said.
Leonid Bershidsky

Russians who have attempted 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 Senator 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, 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 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, 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 did advance work for the candidate Bernie Sanders — Vitali Shkliarov Twitter page

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."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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