Maria Gaidar: Splendors and Miseries of a Gorgeous Anti-Putin Oppositionist

Russian enchantress who defected to Ukraine has mysterious and checkered past

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A happy Maria Gaidar shows off her Ukrainian passport

At 7:40 a.m. on January 20, 2011 the sleepy Russian provincial town of Kirov was destroyed by the tragic death of 13-year-old girl Alisa Souvorova, who was killed on the crosswalk on her way to school in a hit-and-run accident.

Local bloggers immediately began a campaign to find witnesses of the accident and to bring to justice the perpetrator of the crime. They pointed fingers at a gray SUV, seen on that very road speeding just before the tragedy happened. Soon after–to the general anger and disbelief of the town–the culprit was found and the discovery had nothing to do with an SUV. The Kirov police reported it was a female driver of a trolley who had hit Ms. Souvorova. According to locals, in this part of town–because of the need to change wires–the trolley couldn’t have moved faster than 10 miles per hour. The trolley driver denied the accusations and insisted she had passed the intersection where the tragedy happened some minutes before the young teenager was crossing the road.

The general public didn’t buy the police’s story. Kirov is a small town. Everybody knew who the gray SUV belonged to.

It belonged to Maria Gaidar, Deputy Governor of Kirov. The fact that Ms. Gaidar stopped driving the SUV and exchanged it for a new car immediately after the tragedy only increased public suspicion.

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Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh with his Vice Governor Maria Gaidar

The trolley driver–a mother of two–was sent to jail for two-and-a-half years. Some months later, Ms. Gaidar abruptly quit her job at the highest point of her career and moved out of Kirov to Moscow. She then moved out of Russia altogether, to study in the U. S. at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “I didn’t hit a girl,” she said in an interview with NBC News. Ms. Gaidar failed to convince everybody in Kirov.

Police and courts in Russia are notoriously corrupt, right? (The suspected involvement into the girl’s murder haunts Ms. Gaidar still–over and over she fights for innocence on her Facebook page.)

At the time of the Kirov tragedy, Ms. Gaidar was only 29, but her life story already reflected the twists and turns of at least three generations of Russians.

The scion of two Soviet literary giants–Arkady Gaidar and Pavel Bazhov–she was destined to a childhood of privilege reserved for offspring of the most elite Soviet aristocrats. Her great-grandfather, Arkady Gaidar, fought for the Soviet regime on the fronts of the Russian Civil war as a regiment commander at the age of 14, and was killed by the Nazis in September 1941 at the age of 37, having been sent behind the enemy lines on reconnaissance mission.

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Writer Arkady Gaidar, Maria’ s great-grandfather

Mr. Gaidar’s heroic stories for children, written in the 1930s, became classics. One of his anti-heroes–a pre-teen traitor Plokhish (“Bad One”), looking for ways to betray his countrymen to the foreign invaders for a barrel of jam and pack of cookies–became a household name in every Soviet family. Movies and cartoons depicted him as a scoundrel and a sneak not worthy of friendship by the Soviet youth.

Ms. Gaidar’s grandfather, Timur, had a rank of Counter Admiral, and was a personal friend of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. And her father, Yegor Gaidar, made the leap from young Communist apparatchik—he was the head of the propaganda Kommunist magazine—to the position of almighty Russian Prime Minister, and forever left his trace as a reformer in 1990s Russia.

But this script of a privileged childhood never materialized.

When Maria was three years old, her parents divorced and her elitist father remarried a descendant of another literary family—a daughter of celebrity writer of fantasy novels—leaving out-of-sight and out-of-mind his little Masha. Another child of Mr. Gaidar’s first marriage, his son Piotr, stayed with the father.

Disgusted, Ms. Gaidar’s mother changed the little girl’s second name to her own maiden one, and she became Maria Smirnova. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, together with her mother and stepfather she moved to Bolivia for five long years. Upon returning to Moscow, the 15-year-old established–for the first time in her life—contact with her “biological” father. By then, he had fallen out of grace and out of favors in the background of economic catastrophe that overwhelmed Russia, some say as the result of the “shock therapy” remedies prescribed to the country by Yegor Gaidar.

The first steps taken by the young future rebel were the elite “Spanish language-only” Moscow school, then Academy for National Economy under the auspice of the Government of the Russian Federation that she graduated from in 2005.

Ms. Gaidar married at the age of 19, divorced after ten years, and married again. Her private life has always been clouded in deep secrets—there have been rumors surrounding her family’s reasons for moving to Bolivia, who her stepfather was, who her spouses have been (in her words, the first was a “manager,” the second a “businessman”), and if she even has children. In Russia, only the private life of Mr. You-Know-Who is more secretive and protected from public eyes than that of Ms. Gaidar.

In 2004 she began her professional career at the Institute for Economy of Transitional Period, established and headed by her father. The same year, she re-acquired her famous second name, becoming Maria Gaidar once again.

She was 22 years old, open to everything.

”Inspired by Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution,” according to the New York Times’ recent profile on Ms. Gaidar, she co-founded the anti-Kremlin youth group “Democratic Alternative” or “DA!” which translates into Russian as “YES!” The organization was short-lived, one of the reasons being that her shrewd pro-Kremlin adversaries, also very young and also not shying away from modern-day and anti-campaign technologies, added just one letter to the catchy name, quickly re-branding Ms. Gaidar’s organization into “DAM!” which can be translated from the Russian slang as “I will give myself to you” (sexually, obviously).

In November 2006, using mountain-climbing ropes and hooks, Ms. Gaidar and her fellow oppositionists stretched a banner on the bridge over the Moskva River across the Kremlin which read, “Give back the elections to the people, bastards!” As expected, they were detained by municipal police for hours of questioning and later charged with an administrative offense. This was a brave act for a young rebel–and the argument that similar “brave acts” on the Brooklyn Bridge or Tower Bridge would have resulted in no lesser penalties, even if the banners had “I Love NY!” or “God Bless the Queen!” on them, were overlooked by her sympathizers.

After that, all short detentions of Ms. Gaidar by police during anti-government demonstrations were always called “arrests.” She always was either lucky or very careful to not cross the line with the law, since some of her fellow-demonstrators received significant jail terms.

The exciting experiments with political struggle often brought their share of disappointments—in August, 2007 Ms. Gaidar headed the Moscow list of the Union of Right Forces party (despite the opposition to her participation by some party leaders) and the party received only 0.96 percent of the votes.

In 2009, shortly before the sudden death of her father from heart failure, she left Moscow for Kirov to take the position of a Vice Governor of the region on social issues—she was invited by the pro-opposition Governor of the region, where she worked until the tragic death of a little Alisa Souvorova.

In 2012, having finished her course of studies at Harvard, she was invited to become an adviser to the Moscow Vice Mayor on social issues. Soon she decided it was time to quit again and to dedicate herself to the work of the foundation of social support and assistance, established by her. All the name-calling against Putin’s “anti-people government” and bridge-climbing arrests did not preclude her fund from receiving 5,000,000 ruble in grants from The President Putin’s Fund as recently as 2014.

While Ms. Gaidar was busy fighting political fronts, her personal fortune grew swimmingly. In 2009, she made public her tax return–$21,500, with no real estate or cars were declared. In 2010, her income rose to $31,000 and she acquired an apartment of 33 square meters. In 2015, she stated that, after the death of her mother, she had three apartments in Moscow which put her in a position of multi-millionaire. The apartments are rented out, and the income helps Ms. Gaidar to concentrate on her political struggles.

It was as if Caroline Kennedy had gone to Baghdad with the goal of turning Iran into a shining example of democracy for her fellow Americans.

In addition, some papers say, her brother Piotr Gaidar, the member of the Board of Directors of the Strategiya Bank in charge of the real estate investments and the member of the Board of Directors of Yegor Gaidar Foundation, also generously supports his rebellious sister. Through the octopus of non-profit organizations, the Gaidar Foundation is financed by a number of Russian oligarchs and quasi-oligarchs like Anatoly Chubays, former all-powerful oligarch-maker and today the head of RUSNANO corporation–a gigantic venture fund for investment in nanotechnologies of the future.

And, of course, there must be her fair share of royalties from her great-grandparents’ children’s books and from the sale of her father’s volumes of economic predictions.

During the summer of 2014 Ms. Gaidar took part in the election for the Moscow city government but twice failed to be registered as a campaign candidate because, according to the election committee, in the lists of the signatories for her candidacy there was an excessive number of the “dead souls” and names of people who had never been registered in Moscow as city residents.

There is other–although weird–proof that all of Ms. Gaidar’s efforts to break into the elite of the weathered Russian opposition until recently had been fruitless. All the available annual lists of so-called “Enemies of the Russian People” or “Members of Russia’s Fifth Column” composed by anonymous Russian ultra-nationalists have never mentioned Ms. Gaidar, though some of the lists are up to 50 names long.

Part of the Russian revolutionary tradition for centuries has been this: if one cannot change one’s own country, why not try another one? Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and Leon Trotsky are prime examples.

On July 7, Russians woke up to the surprise of their lives: it was declared that Ms. Gaidar became Vice Governor of the Odessa region.

The Odessa region is in Ukraine and today’s Governor is Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia, wanted for crimes against state in his home country and for war crimes in Russia. He is a personal enemy of Vladimir Putin’s. Accepting this position amounts to a strong political statement against the Russian government and also an insult to many Russians. It was as if Caroline Kennedy had gone to Baghdad with the goal of turning Iran into a shining example of democracy.

Ms. Gaidar said she would take the position of Saakashvili’s Vice Governor in charge of social issues. Mr. Saakashvili, for his part, was more blunt about the role Ms. Gaidar would play in his administration. Ukrainians in the Odessa region, he said, “watch all the Russian TV channels. When Maria Gaidar comes and tells them as a real witness that she is, how does Russia look like, this will be super-counter-propaganda!!!”

Mr. Saakashvilli’s face was beaming with joy. So far, this was his biggest personal PR revenge on Putin for the disastrous war he lost.

When asked how this leap of faith happened, Ms. Gaidar didn’t go into a lot of detail. “There were people that knew that there were such a Masha and such a Misha [Saakashvili]. So they connected us to each other, I came here [to Odessa] for the first time about three weeks ago, talked to Mikhail and his team. Everything that was happening here impressed me. After that Mikhail made me the job offer and I accepted it.”

Again, she was “invited.”

Ms. Gaidar has a thick volume of Ukrainian For Beginners textbook on her office desk–she can read and understand the language, she says, but she doesn’t practice speaking because Ukrainian is not spoken in Odessa, and there are too many foreigners on Saakashvili’s team who have no plans to learn the language. Some are Saakasshvili’s fellow Georgians—mostly in law enforcement agencies. Like their boss, some are wanted in their home country. There are some Americans in the IT sector. They work for the idea, not for the money—Ms. Gaidar makes $55 a month (Saakashvili himself makes $254), reports Doumskaya newspaper.

There are plenty of pretty girls surrounding Ms. Gaidar in Mr. Saakashvili’s administration–the governor has a penchant for them. One of his last appointments for the position of the city police’s Press Secretary, before taking new job, was a professional model. Like others in this reformists’ team, most likely, she also has to survive on $55 a month, unless, like Ms. Gaidar, she has a banker-sponsor or her own renters.

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Anna Pencheva, Press Secretary for the Odessa police, hired by Mikheil Saakashvili

The latest appointee for the region’s custom’s administration is just 26—she is very pretty, and educated in philology with no work experience of any kind.

The major obstacle for her reformer’s zeal in Ukraine became Ms. Gaidar’s Russian citizenship. On paper at least, Ukrainian law prohibits foreign or dual citizenship for holders of Ukrainian government positions. The people of Ukraine, sick and tired of the cronyism and strange unending row of foreigners coming to their country from all over the world and taking positions of power, started to raise their voices against a new outsider with another country’s passport. In Odessa, adversaries from pro-Russian camp were calling her a traitor to her country, adversaries from the camp of Ukrainian nationalists—one more good-for-nothing Russian.

At first, Ms. Gaidar said that she was not going to renounce her Russian citizenship. As oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky before her, who “copyrighted” his way of going around the law, she said that she was going to have three citizenships–Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli, for which she applied. “Some time ago I made a decision [and] applied for the Israeli citizenship. I have not received it yet, but I did all the [necessary] paperwork.”

Apparently, the same old Kolomoisky’s shtick was not appreciated in the depth of Saakashvili’s think tank, because suddenly, a few days later, Ms. Gaidar changed her mind and said she stopped the process of getting an Israeli passport, and since she was not ready to apply for Ukrainian citizenship, she would work on Saakashvili’s team but as a  volunteer, remaining a Russian citizen and not breaking Ukrainian law.

This too was not well received, this time by the Ukrainian political establishment.

Vaguely defined hopes, expressed in the interview to the Komersant newspaper on July 17, that “the representatives of the political obscurantism” in the Kremlin that “nowadays can do anything they want [in Russia],” will make the first step and brutally deprive her of her Russian citizenship–which would be a great personal tragedy for her, of course!–crashed into the wall of silence. The “Kremlin obscurantists” ignored the message.

On August 4, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko granted Ms. Gaidar Ukrainian citizenship. Mr. Poroshenko wrote on his Twitter page, “I gave to Maria Gaidar … the Ukrainian passport for bravery and civic position.”

Ms. Gaidar changed her mind again. On August 7, she publicly stated that she sent all the corresponding papers to Moscow, renouncing her Russian citizenship on her own free will. “It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good at all,” she admitted to The New York Times.

She still has some time to reconsider her life-changing decision since the procedures of depriving her of the Russian citizenship may take up to six months. ”For how long are you planning to stay here, in Ukraine?” she was asked soon after having received her shiny new Ukrainian passport. “We will see, I think for quite some time,” was the answer.

She didn’t say “forever.”

As recently as the middle of September, Mr. Putin’s spokesperson stated that the Kremlin never received any letter from Ms. Gaidar.

At her new job, she plans to focus on fighting the notorious corruption in Ukraine and cleansing the country from her Soviet past. She wholeheartedly supports the new government’s push to rename the streets of Ukrainian cities after the new heroes and realities of Ukraine. If this means to clean them from the name of her great-grandfather Arkady Gaidar–so be it.

Still, Ms. Gaidar is attentively involved in clarifying the copyright issues on his books to the publishers in Russia. And whatever the future brings, the royalties from his books are still flowing.

Maria Gaidar: Splendors and Miseries of a Gorgeous Anti-Putin Oppositionist