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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Career Jump From Death to Politics

A series of downtown billboards that popped up and disappeared in recent weeks left Muscovites wondering if they weren't the butt of a bad joke. "You Don't Need Workouts or Aerobics to Fit Into Our Coffins" or "Fragrant Coffins From Fresh Cedar," the ads read.

But for German Sterligov -- would-be politician, proud owner of the Sterligov Brothers Coffin Co. and the man behind the eyebrow-raising posters -- the advertisements are no laughing matter.

"This is business and we need to advertise our product to boost sales. What's so funny about that?" Sterligov said by telephone from the Siberian city Krasnoyarsk, where he is now angling for the Krasnoyarsk gubernatorial seat.

Sterligov's latest incarnation as a coffin tycoon and budding politician follows a colorful and varied career that he describes as a "chain of coincidences."

Sterligov achieved fame during the perestroika era as a wily entrepreneur who co-founded Russia's first private commodity exchange, named after his dog Alisa. He later campaigned against abortions, produced kvas and hunted for a long-lost library belonging to Ivan the Terrible.

Now 35, Sterligov describes himself as a "well-off man" who has finally found an occupation that has brought meaning to his life, as well as financial rewards.

"This business is close to my heart," he said about the coffin trade. "It has made me look more closely at my whole existence; it has made me live, always remembering about death."

Indeed, the only thing Sterligov says is as precious to him as coffins is his beloved Krasnoyarsk region, where he is busy trying to gather the 23,000 signatures needed to register as a gubernatorial candidate with the regional elections commission.

"I work a lot in and with the region and I am running because I feel like I owe it to residents," said Sterligov, who founded and previously led the obscure, ultraconservative Word and Deed movement, so named after the 16th-century system of political informing and interrogation introduced under Ivan the Terrible's secret police.

Sterligov has until Aug. 3 to collect the signatures needed to run in the September elections for the region's top post, vacated in April after then-Governor Alexander Lebed died in a helicopter crash. Thus far 23 contenders have notified the elections commission that they intend to run, including Sterligov's one-time business partner turned bitter rival, Artyom Tarasov -- another perestroika-era mogul and an Alisa co-founder.

A spokeswoman at Sterligov's campaign headquarters said last week that he was "very close" to collecting the necessary signatures.

Sterligov said he made the decision to run for governor at the request of the same friends and business partners in Krasnoyarsk who provided him with his campaign headquarters.

"I know that the analysts don't give me a chance, but I have seen many times how forecasts do not come true," Sterligov said, adding that if he loses he will turn his attention back to coffins.

Sterligov started his latest business five years ago and now considers himself an industry leader.

He specializes in gleaming, upmarket coffins made from a dozen types of wood in several Siberian regions, including Krasnoyarsk. He works as a wholesaler, providing minimum shipments of 500 coffins -- each priced $1,500 and higher -- to undertakers across Russia and in some European countries.

Sterligov said that frequent philosophical musings about life and death have convinced him that so important an acquisition as a coffin should be arranged "well in advance."

"It is surprising that we surround ourselves with luxury furniture but somehow fail to bother making arrangements for our final refuge," he said, conceding, however, that most people cannot afford to spare a room in their home to accommodate such a voluminous purchase. Sterligov added that he has already set aside his own coffin, although he has yet to take it home.

Undertakers estimate that some 300 to 350 funerals take place in Moscow every day.

But despite these impressive statistics -- and Sterligov's claim that ever more Muscovites are opting to bury their loved ones in style and the demand for luxury coffins is on the rise -- his concept has not found much support from advertisers, who have shied away from the subject matter.

"When we explained to these people what we wanted, they immediately started knocking on wood and spitting three times," Sterligov said, referring to the superstitious gesture meant to keep bad luck at bay.

Sterligov said he had submitted draft television commercials and poster designs created by his firm's marketing experts -- in collaboration with a poet who Sterligov said was too famous and too shy to allow his name to be mentioned in connection with coffins -- but most media outlets, including state-controlled ORT television, turned the ads down.

Ultimately, a handful of Moscow advertising agencies did agree to help sing the praises of Sterligov's coffins.

However, once Sterligov started collecting signatures for his gubernatorial bid, the controversial billboards disappeared as quickly as they had gone up, as electoral law places strict limitations on the ways candidates for public office can promote themselves during a campaign.

Sterligov said he doubts that signs like "All Roads Lead to Us" or "This Is Your Coffin, It's Waiting For You" will ever reappear on Moscow's streets because the advertisers he signed up for the campaign were no longer enthusiastic about promoting his wares.

Pavel Shmidt, deputy head of the city's outdoor advertising department, said his agency had sent a request to the Anti-Monopoly Ministry, which oversees the quality and content of street billboards, to evaluate "the ethical side" of Sterligov's advertisements.

"Not every product can be advertised that way," Shmidt said in a telephone interview.

Ministry spokeswoman Larisa Bulgakova said her agency has not yet looked into the request.

"Formally there is nothing wrong with their ads," Bulgakova said. "They contain no call for violence and cruelty, and they do not feature teenagers advertising tobacco or alcohol."