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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Unknowns, Race A Mix of Ego, Futility

Martin Shakkum is convinced that to know Martin Shakkum is to love Martin Shakkum.

"In the Far East, in the Primorsky Territory, I'm in third place. Yes, I have a problem with the media. But wherever I've been able to speak I do well. I have a small problem with being well-known, but I think I'll have a big finish," Shakkum said.

Shakkum is one of the "other" candidates on Russia's presidential ballot this year. He has absolutely no hope of placing any higher than seventh in a field of 10 candidates. Polls show him picking up 1 or 2 percent of the vote -- not bad for a loser. It is at least a bit higher than the big zero expected for his fellow sure losers Yury Vlasov, a weightlifter, and Vladimir Bryntsalov, a flamboyant businessman (who during a recent televised debate with the equally flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky brandished a pistol as a warning against any orange juice throwing).

Who are these fated losers? And what makes them run?

Some analysts argue it makes good financial sense to run a hopeless presidential campaign. Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, is running one about as hopeless as they come -- but even if he loses he wins, according to Yury Korgunyuk, a sociologist with INDEM: The Center for Applied Political Studies.

"So now [Gorbachev] will show his face again, and remind us all that he exists, and maybe it will impress someone -- not among us Russians, but in the West, where he enjoys a certain authority. Maybe he'll sell another book this way," Korgunyuk said.

But the profit motive often does not hold up. In the end, the losers are united by one common denominator: All either think they are wonderful, or are used to being told they are wonderful.

Weightlifter Vlasov, for example, by all accounts is a commanding personality used to special treatment (Vlasov declined to be interviewed for this article).

He is fluent in French, the author of eight books, a man who has set 28 world records and won an Olympic gold medal, and who, after spending a day with a dejected teenage Arnold Schwarzenegger, inspired him on to new heights.

"Schwarzenegger was thinking of leaving the Austrian weightlifting team, and the Austrian trainer begged Vlasov to work with him. So the two spent a day together, and Schwarzenegger was turned around. Vlasov has a book, 'The Justice of Strength,' and it is signed by Schwarzenegger, 'To my idol,'" said Vlasov's press secretary, Vyacheslav Timofeyev. "That was from just one day spent with him."

Timofeyev is full of such stories.

"Yury Gagarin was already world famous," begins one. "He and [fellow cosmonaut] German Titov were at the Defense Ministry one day, they were majors, and Vlasov was no one then, he was just a junior lieutenant. But when he walked past, Gagarin and Titov stood in surprise, called him back and ordered him to report who he was. Even then he had that sort of authority and presence."

Bryntsalov, meanwhile, is so outrageous that he has taken to out-Zhirinovskying Zhirinovsky. He has promised to disperse the Duma, on the grounds that all it does all day is pass laws. His wife says he has the strength of 10 men; he says his wife is his second, and probably not his last. Asked how he would run the country, Bryntsalov quoted Robert De Niro in the movie "Casino" -- where he plays an upper class thug -- to the effect that there is a right way to do something, a wrong way and my way.

At a press conference last month held at Bryntsalov's palatial pharmaceutical company compound and followed by a stunning dinner, journalists were given a two-page form upon arrival. Most forgot about it. But when they tried to leave, security checked them. "Nobody is leaving who hasn't filled out their form," a guard announced.

Journalists laughed. The guard repeated: "Nobody."

The form asked questions like, "Are you a Bryntsalov supporter?" "What can you do to help distribute the ideas and views of Bryntsalov?"

Shakkum, meanwhile -- a small, ordinary man who looks out of place in his fancy suit -- is arguably the least known of the unknowns. Yet he, like the others, does not lack an instinct for self-promotion.

His resume says he was an adviser in 1992 and 1993 to a vice prime minister and to Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin. However, when pressed, Shakkum added that those were unofficial, unpaid positions.

In fact, Shakkum may have no connection to high politics at all. (On the same logic, all you have to do is shout: "Martin! You are going to lose!" and then you, too, can claim, "I was an adviser to Russian presidential candidate Martin Shakkum in 1996.")

President Shakkum's first step would be to declare a state of emergency to fight crime and corruption, creating a Commission of the State of Emergency. It would investigate everyone in government, starting at the espionage and defense services, for corruption. Police would receive increased "combat pay" during the emergency. Shakkum would run the country directly, without a prime minister. Anyone who gives up anything that belongs to Russia -- the Black Sea Fleet, the disputed acreage on the Chinese border -- will be considered a "wrecker," which under Stalin was punishable by death, but which will carry an unclear punishment under Shakkum. Businessmen who pay their taxes will receive a new medal, Hero of Capitalist Labor.

Obviously, such a powerful and seductive vision has its opponents.

"There is resistance to me at all levels ... they are trying to silence me," Shakkum said at his lone press conference. "As to the concrete facts of government corruption, well we could talk about this for hours. If this [resistance] continues, I'll gather all of you [journalists] together again to open my archives and name names. But I hope it won't come to that. I hope we can all be reasonable."