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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vologda Nationalist Finds History in Forest

By Sarah Karush

VOLOGDA, Northwestern Russia f Mikhail Surov casually grabs a book from the shelf and begins flipping through its pages. He runs his fingers over the print the way you would with a treasured, dog-eared copy of a favorite novel.

When he's done, he gently nudges the book back into its niche f among some 500 other handwritten, leather-bound tomes, the oldest of which date from the 16th century.

The rare books f along with roomfuls of other artifacts from bells to weaving looms to clothing f sit tucked away in a depot on the outskirts of Vologda. Surov says the treasures were found in the homes of unappreciative villagers in isolated parts of the Vologda region. Today, they are the property of his unusual political party, the Vologda People's Movement, or VND.

Surov, a member of the regional legislative assembly, founded his party in 1993 on a nationalist, anti-Caucasian platform that earned him a reputation as a local version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But Surov, 45, may surpass even the flamboyant Zhirinovsky in eccentricity and populism.

A burly, plainspoken man, Surov says his party members stumbled upon the antiques accidentally while gathering cranberries, which grow abundantly in the marshes of the Vologda region and which the party relies on to fill its coffers.

"All this is found in those very hard to get to places where the cranberries grow," he says, gesturing to rows of ornately painted looms and pewter bells of various sizes and tonalities. "They throw all this stuff out, and we get to it before they burn it."

In addition to its cranberries, the Vologda region is known for its rich history. The city of Vologda, which like Moscow was first mentioned in 1147, features the 16th-century Sofiisky Cathedral, the construction of which was overseen by Ivan the Terrible. Not far from the city stand the Kirillov and Ferapontov monasteries, founded at the end of the 15th century.

VND veteran Ira Piminova says she has often stumbled on history during party-sponsored expeditions f by truck or armored vehicle f to the isolated spots where cranberries grow. Stuffed in trunks in storage sheds, antique clothes and crafts simply gather dust, she says. Often they look like nothing more than old rags until they are washed and restored.

"Those who loved and saved these things have died," Piminova says. "The present generation isn't interested."

Surov, on the other hand, has always valued antiques. In the 1980s, he spent seven years in prison for collecting icons, an illegal activity in the Soviet Union.

That jail time, as well as a two-year suspended sentence for libel in 1997, has contributed to Surov's reputation as a person who skates on thin legal ice. When VND exhibited some of its artifacts in Vologda last year, skeptical locals whispered that they were probably stolen, and not rescued from destruction as the party claims.

"Mikhail Vasilyevich [Surov] is an unusual person, so he's had run-ins with many organizations," says Vasily Vorobyov, a spokesman for the Vologda regional government.

On the basis of his long experience with law enforcement, Surov has written a book explaining one's rights vis-a-vis the police, called "What to Do If ?"

When he got out of prison, Surov took advantage of perestroika-era opportunities to start a pie-selling cooperative. His political career began when he organized a protest among fellow businessmen against what he says was criminal havoc wrought by migrants from the Caucasus.

Since he was first elected to the regional legislature in 1994, Surov has had to end his personal business activities. But he still runs a brisk berry trade for his party.

"How does it work? Our businessmen in the [rural] districts announce that we're collecting cranberries for 10 rubles a kilogram. And people bring in as much as they can," Surov says.

The party then organizes the sale of the cranberries in Finland, where they fetch $1.10 a kilogram. A similar scheme exists for blueberries, which are sold to the Swedes.

Ten percent of the profit, or some $75,000 a year, goes to the party, according to Surov.

Surov says all the money is used for charitable purposes, such as donations of food for prisoners and books for libraries. Last New Year's, the party gave away 450 fir trees.

"We're Santa Clauses," he says. "People don't think we're mafiosi anymore."