The Bombastic Blonde of the Blogosphere

Maria Sergeyeva stretched out a slim leg to show off her boots and pulled on her gray ribbed sweater.

"I'm dressed completely in Russian clothes," she said, giggling. "That is, except for the belt. I have to admit that's Chinese."

With Hollywood looks and belligerent rhetoric befitting a Komsomol rally, Sergeyeva, 24, has become the new face of the country's patriotic youth and a polarizing figure in the Russian-language blogosphere, the country's most vibrant forum for political debate.

What sent her star rising was a nationalistic, muddled, yet memorable speech at a rally near Red Square last month in support of the government's measures to combat the financial crisis.

In the Jan. 31 speech, which has prompted both admiration and mockery among bloggers, Sergeyeva told the crowd that she knows "for certain" that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and pro-Kremlin party United Russia will "protect me" from the financial crisis.

"They'll give me work and won't let me be laid off illegally," Sergeyeva shouted.

In one of the speech's most widely discussed lines, Sergeyeva gave an impassioned defense of the country's embattled domestic automakers.

"Teach Putin to make a [Lada] better than a Lexus," Sergeyeva implored. "If you don't know any better, don't dare to criticize the Russian auto industry!"

The video of Sergeyeva's performance quickly became a sensation on the Russian-language Internet, or RuNet. It appeared on Sergeyeva's LiveJournal blog, which went on to get 140,000 hits, she said in an interview.

Numerous bloggers called her a hypocrite after a photograph of Sergeyeva emerged showing her at the wheel of a foreign-made SUV.

The photo was taken at a wedding four years ago, when she posed in a friend's car, Sergeyeva protested in the interview with The Moscow Times. "It's just a funny story," she said.

Sergeyeva has sparked such an online buzz that the moderator of the Russian blogosphere's largest community, Ru_politics, announced Wednesday a ban on further posts mentioning Sergeyeva.

"There has been too much Masha in the community," the moderator said.

A Budding Politician

Pro-Kremlin youth groups have been a platform for precocious politicians to launch their careers.

In 2006, United Russia declared that at least 20 percent of its tickets for regional legislative elections had to go to political activists aged 21 to 28.

One of the most prominent of these next-generation lawmakers is 24-year-old Robert Shlegel, a former spokesman for the country's most prominent pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, and now a State Duma deputy with United Russia.

Shlegel, who made headlines after joining the Duma by attacking readers of erotic magazines and sponsoring a controversial bill that would have toughened the penalties for libel, said Sergeyeva's overnight fame could pave the way for a future in politics.

"I think it was a good, emotional speech," Shlegel said of Sergeyeva's seminal Jan. 31 performance. "There are some problems, it came out a bit clumsy, but it's likely that her political career will turn out very successfully."

Arriving for an interview at a cafe near the Young Guard offices in northern Moscow, Sergeyeva said she had stayed up until 6 a.m. writing reports. She pulled out a pack of low-tar cigarettes and ordered a coffee.

After a stint in the Democratic Party of Russia, which she left because of the party's support for Russia's membership in the European Union, Sergeyeva joined Young Guard in 2006 and swiftly climbed the ranks.

"I was always proposing initiatives, writing scenarios for events and coming up with ideas," she said. "Then I began to give speeches myself at events."

The turning point in her career, she says, was a speech she gave at a 2007 protest organized by The Other Russia, a loose coalition of opposition groups led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and writer Eduard Limonov.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Maria Sergeyeva says everything but her Chinese belt is made in Russia.
In the speech, a video of which is posted on YouTube, she claims that Kasparov "sold himself to American spies" and says Limonov "has the face of someone who is psychologically abnormal."

"I personally consider them my enemies," Sergeyeva said. "They cast doubt on things that are very important to me: the integrity of Russia and its sovereignty."

Sergeyeva, who is strikingly similar in appearance and manner to actress Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 movie "Legally Blonde," has shown a penchant for sneering remarks about the appearances of those she deems political foes.

In her LiveJournal blog, Sergeyeva described liberal journalist and political commentator Yevgenia Albats as an "aging Komsomol worker" and suggested that radio talk show host and journalist Yulia Latynina was becoming increasingly unattractive.

"She used to be pretty as well as smart," Sergeyeva wrote of Latynina. "What do you need to do to turn into that in a photo?"

Sergeyeva suggested that excessive negativity was physically affecting Latynina.

"It's my personal opinion," Sergeyeva told The Moscow Times. "I'm not saying that Yulia Latynina is ugly. I'm saying that if a person experiences a lot of negative emotions -- and if you read Latynina, she is just always negative -- that negativity is reflected in the face."

Albats, editor of the liberal weekly magazine The New Times, could not be reached for comment. Latynina, who writes a weekly column for The Moscow Times, said that as a rule she does not comment on what "people paid by United Russia" say about her.

Sergeyeva denied that she received a salary from United Russia. "I do everything on a voluntary basis," she said, adding that she earns income from editing, writing articles and teaching writing skills.

Marginal opposition figures and Kremlin critics aren't the only people Sergeyeva has zeroed in on as enemies of Russia. Young Guard has also embraced an anti-immigration platform.

At one demonstration last year, she held up a checked suitcase and called on immigrants to "go home."

Sergeyeva said she dropped most of her party work in December but continues as a member of the political council. "I needed to take a break to decide what to do," she said.

She said she hopes to run for the Moscow City Duma, since she wants to work on local projects such as preventing the construction of a garbage incinerator in the city's southern Yasenevo district, where her retired parents reside.

Apart from her activism, Sergeyeva is studying philosophy, which she calls necessary for a political career. "You should study not contemporary textbooks but the works of great thinkers," she said. "I'm now rereading Churchill's speeches."

Oleg Kozlovsky, leader of the opposition youth group Oborona, dismissed Sergeyeva's significance in Russian politics and ascribed her rapid ascendancy to her blind loyalty to the ruling elite regardless of convictions.

"It's not the most talented or devoted person who wins the competition, it's usually the most loyal or active people," Kozlovsky said. "You need to be very cynical in order to succeed, you don't need to stick to any ideas or values."

Sergeyeva said she's not just a gimmick.

"On the blog, I am just the way I am," Sergeyeva said. "On the one hand, it is just the same kind of tribune as a stage at a political meeting. On the other hand, it is the place where I reveal myself as a person.

"I don't have the concepts of private life versus public life and work, I don't have the concept of weekends versus my work schedule. You could say that I'm always in the political fight."

Working Class Hero?

Sergeyeva says she comes from a working-class background: Her father was a metal worker and her mother an accountant.

Her own rhetoric is populist, punchy and a little bit vulgar.

A video posted on the Young Guard web site this month shows her sitting in a Lada. "The time is over for people who used to say that anyone without a billion could kiss their ...," she says, with the final word bleeped out. "Now, they will be doing the kissing, because they didn't work, they just consumed."

In a new video, she sings a nonsense song with arm movements, while a subtitle says, "The crisis is not in toilets but in people's heads." The video is interspersed with images mocking Kremlin critics.

It is exactly this earthy appeal that could propel Sergeyeva to greater prominence, said political commentator Alexander Morozov, a former senior official with the left-of-center, pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia.

"I think she will become even more famous," Morozov told The Moscow Times. "[She] is trying to find a new audience ... whom she sees as a new middle class, the people who will be the post-crisis middle class."

Morozov said he foresees Sergeyeva becoming a celebrity akin to socialite Ksenia Sobchak. "I think she will be become a new media figure," Morozov said. She will develop her activities not in the direction of pure politics, but will become ... a Ksenia Sobchak not for the rich but for the poor."