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Aunty Valya Awaiting Orders from the Kremlin

Published: November 13, 2007 (Issue # 1323)



  • Governor Valentina Matviyenko taking part in a 10-kilometer run for women through the center of the city, which began on Palace Square in September of 2006.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

  • Governor Valentina Matviyenko being interviewed at City Hall in September.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

Valentina Matviyenko has been called an iron lady, an undemocratic ruler and the woman behind a business boom in the northern capital. But on the streets of St. Petersburg, she is more commonly known as Auntie Valya.

The nickname refers to a much-loved presenter on Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi, or Good Night, Kids, a television program that has sent children off to bed since 1964.

The nickname hints at Matviyenkos Soviet roots. She entered politics as a Komsomol youth leader in the 1970s and has managed to remain close to the nexus of political power as a diplomat, minister, presidential envoy and now St. Petersburg governor.

It is a light reminder that we know what she was before, said Anna Petrova, 34, a translator, who did not vote for Matviyenko.

Opponents say Matviyenko, with the Kremlins approval, has secured power in St. Petersburg as ruthlessly as President Vladimir Putin has across the country. Now some people speculate that she is a prime candidate to succeed Putin next year.

Matviyenko has repeatedly denied presidential aspirations, but in a political system as transparent as the Neva River, that means little. Putin would just have to give the order.

Ive answered that question more than once, Matviyenko said in an interview in Smolny, the heart of political power in St. Petersburg. I am completely satisfied with what I do now. I have no plans to take part in the election.

She added: Personally, I think I know who will be president. I think I am not mistaken [but] ... I dont have the right to say it out loud. We dont have long to wait. Lets be patient and wait until March 2008.

Political analysts believe Matviyenko has no chance of running in her own right but could run as a stopgap candidate while Putin waits on the sidelines for a possible return to the Kremlin in 2012. The Constitution bars a third consecutive term.

She is not ambitious and is 100 percent oriented toward Vladimir Putin, said Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

One of the few women in the upper ranks of the countrys politics, Matviyenko, 58, encapsulates a visual style that mixes Soviet bombast and Las Vegas lacquer. The style, whose other notable follower is State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska, combines femininity and power dressing to produce the impression of a formidable Soviet bureaucrat.

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