Who are the ‘New People’ in Russian politics?

The Bell

The big story in upcoming parliamentary elections is the New People political party. A survey by pro-Kremlin pollsters recently suggested they even have a chance of getting past the 5-percent threshold and into the State Duma as a result of next weekend’s vote — even if The Bell’s sources said this was not part of the Kremlin’s plan. New People was created in 2020 with the approval of the authorities, part of a plan to take votes away from opponents of the ruling United Russia party. New People was founded by businessman Alexei Nechayev, who denies any connection with the Kremlin.

Who is Alexei Nechayev? 

Nechayev is the founder of cosmetics company Faberlic, which works via catalogs much like Mary Kay or Amway. In pre-election interviews the businessman rejected suggestions his interest in politics is something new, insisting it was anything but sudden. And, if you look at his career, he has a point.

After school, Nechayev studied at the Law Faculty at Moscow State University and dreamed of becoming a police investigator. At the age of 19, inspired by a famous Soviet children’s writer Vladislav Krapivin, he set up the Rassvet movement to take children on sailing expeditions and train them in fencing and hand-to-hand combat. A year later, Nechayev met Krapivin himself. In conversation with The Bell, the businessman said that reading Krapivin helped him develop a concept that he calls ‘Humanism 3.0’ – according to him, this is the basis of New People’s ideology.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Nechayev went into business. He tried various activities – publishing children’s literature, selling toys and developing an investment company in Ukraine. In 1995, Nechayev was invited to invest in Swiss insurance company Fortuna. Nechayev turned it down, (correctly) recognizing it as a pyramid scheme, but he liked the underlying principle and set about creating a legitimate version.

Nechayev and his business partner Alexander Davankov (another New People founder) realized that cosmetics companies were the most effective vehicles for the network marketing tactics used by Fortuna. In 1997, Nechayev and Davankov sold the first batch of products under their ‘Russian Line’ brand. By 2000, the company’s revenues were about $4 million. In 2001, the brand was renamed Faberlic, from the Latin for ‘master’ and the old Russian for ‘face’. It paid $2 million for its own production facilities and began an aggressive TV advertising campaign. The results were immediate: Nechayev said that in 2001 turnover leapt to $10 million, and by 2004 it was $100 million. In 2020, Faberlic earned 28.5 billion rubles. That netted Nechayev 4.3 billion rubles in dividends for that year – more than enough to found a political party.

Faberlic’s range is currently sold by 2.1 million consultants. “We wanted to talk to people from a position of warmth and trust… Each month we hold 35-40 big seminars across the former Soviet Union, and about 100 smaller events. These train up to 30,000 people. Our consultants love to sing and compose ditties about Faberlic, about our products, even about an intimate gel. These are the quirks of a team of women,” Nechayev said in a 2004 interview with Vedomosti. For distributors, the company offers ‘Success Forums’ in Turkey, rafting on the mountain rivers of Altai and maternity bonuses for new moms. “All my life, I have been building social networks,” Nechayev said.

New People

Nechayev’s first foray into politics was prior to 1999 parliamentary elections. Back then, he founded the Russian Line group — but it never contested an election and shut-down in 2007. Nechayev said Russian Line was more of “a forum to search for answers to the turmoil of the 1990s” and when that turmoil eased there was no need for it.

New People emerged in March 2020 when the Kremlin green-lighted the creation of several ‘small parties’ with an eye to this month’s parliamentary vote. The idea was that they would attract votes away from larger opposition parties that had ‘overperformed’ in 2018 local elections. Even publications like newspaper Kommersant have written about the close links between Nechayev’s party and the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, Nechayev strongly denies such links. “Someone might call us a Kremlin project, but I don’t care,” he told The Bell. “I know for certain how I came here, what brought me here, and who is here with me.” A political strategist close to the Kremlin said Nechayev had been discussing political projects with the authorities as long ago as 2010. Nechayev denied this. “Nothing like that ever happened,” he said.

In its first election campaign in local elections last year, Nechayev’s party did better than expected. While other small parties struggled, New People took seats in four regional parliaments and several city councils. In Tomsk, the new party won over 15 percent of the vote.

Three political analysts attributed New People’s popularity to effective media and social media campaigns. According to official figures, New People spent more on campaigning in the first quarter than all the other non-parliamentary parties put together – 15 million rubles. Unofficial figures suggest the real spend was even higher.

At this year’s election, New People wants to end up with deputies in the State Duma. To achieve this, it must get at least 5 percent of the vote. If it succeeds, it may come as an unpleasant surprise to the Kremlin (political managers in the Kremlin reportedly do not want New People to get any deputies). A clutch of small political parties were apparently created to ensure the legitimacy of the polls and split the opposition vote — not to win enough votes to actually get representation in parliament. If parties do not win 5 percent of the vote, their votes are split between the parties that do. “The party [New People] was created for one reason – to collect protest votes,” according to one political analyst. “The 2020 election showed that it could get results, but the party started gaining votes not from supporters of [opposition leader] Navalny or the Communists, but from United Russia. It transpires there is a big overlap between the ruling party’s electorate and New People supporters.”

Why the world should сare: New People’s results are one of the most interesting things about this election. All the rest is — more or less — predictable. However, many analysts suspect New People may be another Kremlin ruse to create the ‘illusion of competition’. And even if the party does find itself in the Duma, it is hardly likely to foment revolution. Nechayev has said he doesn’t intend to ‘smash the system’, but, rather, to ‘start talking to it’.

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