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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Photographer Feted by Politicians




There are not many people who can count both Albert Makashov and Boris Nemtsov as their friends. And even fewer have seen Vladimir Zhirinovsky in his underpants.


But Canadian photographer Heidi Hollinger has done that and more. Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov took her to India to meet with the Dalai Lama. Oil and media tycoon Boris Berezovsky flew her to New York to have lunch with Rupert Murdoch. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has himself taken her picture.


Russia's politicial elite gathered Friday night at the Planet Hollywood restaurant for the launch of "Peculiarities of the National Politicians," a book of political portraits taken by Hollinger over the course of five years. The praise she got from many of her subjects was lavish.


"This woman is like Edith Piaf, Hillary [Rodham Clinton], Raisa Maximovna [Gorbachyova] and Alla Pugachyova for this country," said Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party - who turned up late and rather tipsy but as flamboyant as ever.


"She has encapsulated the history of turn-of-the-century Russia, the country which can start World War III. I'm ready to push the button, but I wouldn't because she ... wants peace for everyone," he went on, brandishing a glass of vodka and kissing male and female bystanders. "She wants freedom. She wants love."


Hollinger, 31, who graduated from McGill University in Montreal, came to Moscow in 1991 to perfect her Russian language skills. In 1993, she started photographing Russian opposition leaders and then moved on to mainstream politicians, capturing them at their offices, homes and dachas, and following them on rallies and trips to the regions. Her "Peculiarities" contains pictures of everyone who's anyone on the Russian political scene. Although it's a book about politicians - 72 of them - its text is surprisingly non-political. Her comments complementing the pictures are more of a private sort.


"He is nice," Hollinger - who drops names constantly but without showing off - writes simply about Albert Makashov, an outspoken anti-Semite.


"He's very graceful ... one of the most polite people I've met," she says about Berezovsky. For three months, she rang up the oligarch daily to arrange a shooting session, and every time received a polite request to call back the next day. Hollinger did.


"She worked very hard. Sometimes it took a year to get them," Hollinger's mother, Tuula, said. "The good thing is she's friends with everybody, left or right."


"I don't have any politics. These are just my friends," said Hollinger, who admitted, however, that she'd vote for the Union of Right Forces if she had to. Her formula for success is that she would never publish a picture if the subject objects. "I'm not into paparazzi, taking pictures of someone with noodles hanging out of their mouth."


And the politicians appreciate her loyalty. Ilyumzhinov, an ardent soccer fan, promised to give her a car when his favorite team, Uralan, reached the premier league - and did. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov promised to find a decent husband for her. Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she came on rollerblades to photograph, gave her a big hug when she rolled into his formal office.


Viktor Anpilov, the leader of the Working Russia party, whose angry tirades against the democrats has made him a favorite among elderly Stalinists, went all gushy at the presentation. "When I met Heidi, she was like a little exotic flower in the frozen field of Yeltsin's Russia. She is a simple girl, but when she talks to politicians, she is a lady," he said.


Anpilov said he doesn't object to sharing his sympathy towards Hollinger with his political opponents. One of them, former Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said he is in love with the Canadian because she is "in love with Russia." Another, former Prime Minister and Yabloko politician Sergei Stepashin, gave Hollinger an 18th century gold-colored frog as a present.