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Irina Hakamada: How to Survive as a Woman in Politics

Irina Hakamada was named “woman politician of the twenty-first century” by Time Magazine in 1995, and placed on Time’s list of “the hundred best known women in the world” in 1996. In her book she talks about her political career wittily and with a sense of self-irony. The former party leader and minister’s writing is uncommonly open, offering women a number of practical tips about how they can compete in politics or in business in a man’s world. In its first two months in print, the book reached first place on the Russian bestseller list, with over 200,000 copies sold thus far.

Women have a hard time of it in politics, especially when one’s name is “Hakamada,” which is quickly transformed into “Harakiri,” “Matahari,” or “Kamasutra” in the vernacular. Because of that, Irina Hakamada has become more inclined to tell her story herself. Her mother is Russian, and her father is a Japanese communist who emigrated to the USSR in 1939. She was born in Moscow in 1955. After completing a degree in economics, she became an associate professor. She was one of the cofounders of the first stock exchange in Russia, from which evolved the first commercial bank and the first independent television station. She was elected to the Duma in 1994, where, for a while, she was the deputy chair. In 1997, she became the minister for the development of Small Business and Economic Growth. In 2004, she campaigned for the presidency, and in 2004/2005 she was the leader of the political party “Our Choice,” which opposes the policies of Putin’s government.

Hakamada offers some unusual insights into Russian and international politics, and reports on notable meetings with Putin, Yeltsin and Condoleeza Rice. One does not, however, have to be a political scientist to enjoy this entertaining book, full of anecdotes.

 

Every caste has its own rules and regulations, and big-time politics is no exception. Irina Hakamada has lived in this elevated sphere and survived. In her book, she offers her comrades in gender concrete tips about what to do at receptions, at meetings and on business trips, and how to behave in front of the camera or on stage; about what clothing is appropriate or inappropriate; about how to recognize the dangers that one will face; about things that one can simply never do, even if it would be the logical thing; about the indications that signal the powerful whether one is well-liked or on the way out; as well as other battle tactics that women should master.

 

For instance, one should never go to Kremlin offices in search of decisions in the morning, because the decision makers are still nursing their hangovers. It is only in the afternoon, around four, after they have had a few glasses of whiskey or vodka, that the hour strikes when the gentlemen have reached normal operating temperature. Hakamada was always amazed at how politicians managed to pour themselves full of liquor, only to be able to hold their own at a meeting three hours later, as if nothing had happened. There are tricks that make this possible, but a woman has to learn them first. Hakamada passes them on to her readers.

 

Men see a woman, but cannot hear her. It is, therefore, useless to join an animated discussion among a group of men. It is better to wait to intervene until they are all tired and stuck in some dead end. The episode below is the one that helped Hakamada learn this lesson.

 

The political advisors for the “Union of Rightwing Forces” (SPS) political party invited her and the other two founders of the SPS, Boris Nemtsov and Sergej Kirienko, to go on a week-long retreat. To see if these three top politicians had already been fused into a leadership team, they were given a test. The goal was to find the most effective way to do three everyday things within a certain time: 1) to collect some furniture from a warehouse, to visit your mother in the hospital, and to pick up your child from kindergarten. The two men immediately set to work, and got wound up in an animated discussion, calculating the length of the route and the sequencing of the traffic lights, until, at length, they proudly presented the optimal route. Irina Hakamada asked the pointed question of what sense it made to whip by to see mother for a minute and drop off a bouquet of flowers just to be able to fit that in to the time frame that the test set for the three tasks. She suggested simply rescheduling the collection of the furniture for the next day. Nemtsov and Kirienko were, by the way, convinced that their ideal route had been the result of exemplary teamwork, until they watched the video of the exercise, which showed that they had not given Irina Hakamada a chance to talk even once.

 

Throughout the book there are tests and puzzles to help train budding women politicians in logical thinking:

 

“You are invited to a reception. How do you recognize the really important men in the room?

 

a)      Pay attention to their shoes. If they are covered with dust, then the wearer came on the subway. Look to see who is drinking and who is not. The latter do have a car, but have to drive it themselves.

b)      Sort out all those who have a briefcase with them, and then all those who are using a cell phone. The real boss is the one whose assistant hands him a cell phone to take important calls.

c)      And the most powerful one of all is the one who leaves the reception first.

 

When you are a born politician, however, you don not need tips like these. You rely on your instincts, and can already recognize whether the person in front of you has a future just by a handshake.”

 

“A man enters an exclusive Moscow apartment building, dressed in a suit from the 1980s that was manufactured by the clothing company ‘Bolshevik,’ topped off with a tie and a shirt from an open-air market. On his wrist he is wearing a ‘Vostok’ watch. An hour later, he leaves the building again, but this time he is wearing a Brioni suit, a Gucci tie, and a hand-made Swiss watch. Who is this man?

Answer: He is neither a secret agent or an eccentric millionaire, but rather the leader of a Duma party faction, who has just returned from a meeting with his constituents from the provinces.”

 

“With winter at its coldest, your PR advisor sends you off to swim in the ice-covered water to show the voters your courage and your sound constitution.

            1. Which swim suit should you choose? a) a one-piece swim suit, b) a bikini, 3) topless?

            2. Where do you change? a) in the car, b) in front of the viewers and reporters, c) behind a screen with your party’s logo on it?

            3. What do you do when you get back out of the icy water? a) you knock off a glass of a high-proof alcoholic drink like a real man, b) you dry off quickly and disappear in the car.

 

Now, please, score your test, and count your answers … Forget it! You don’t need to count. The only correct answer is to fire your consultant, because a woman who wants to make a career in politics should never under any circumstances appear in public scantily dressed. The newspapers will invariably run a picture of a young top model next to yours, and the gracious readers will learn of your unsuccessful battle with cellulitis.”

 

In general, you need to be especially careful with suggestions from image and PR advisors who have little or no experience with women in top positions. Hakamada relates her biggest fiasco with regard to clothing. On a disadvantageously designed couch, even with a modest skirt with a hemline at the knee, one can be exposed in a flash, as Hakamada herself learned the hard way at an appointment during Yeltsin’s state visit to Italy. The next day, however, she was able to recover her dignity at the audience with the Pope. Yeltsin’s wife was dressed in candy pink and their daughter in sky blue, while Hakamada was dressed all in black. Johannes Paul II called out to her in Russian “Molodets!” which means “good show,” and, in contrast to the journalists present, she immediately knew what had elicited the Pope’s praise. — High heels, by the way, as uncomfortable as they may be, are indispensable: they make you seem taller, force you to stand up straight and convey self-assurance.

 

In dealing with the press, it is always best to take the initiative. Just before the elections in 2002, Hakamada got a call from her party compatriot Nemtsov, who told her that he was finished. A journalist had found out that Nemtsov had two children with a woman other than his wife. Hakamada asked him: “Do you love the other woman?” “Yes,” answered Nemtsov. “Do you love your wife?” Nemtsov answered “yes” again. “Do you love all your children?” He answered “yes” yet again. “Then go and tell your story to the most important yellow rag you can think of!” That is what happened, and after his public confession, Nemtsov gained everybody’s sympathy.

 

And one last example that demonstrates Hakamada’s refreshing cynicism:

 

“You need a signature on an important form. The responsible functionary closes the door to his office, throws you on the couch and offers you a deal. What do you do?

  1. You say that you are: a) a virgin, b) a lesbian, c) a transvestite.
  2. You begin crying and insist that you love only your husband.
  3. You inform him that you are the lover of: a) his boss, b) a Chechen terrorist, c) a professional killer.
  4. You pretend to break out laughing at his offer.
  5. You ram your knee up between his legs. When he assumes the fetal position, you call the secretary and ask her to open the door and bring in two cups of tea, one without sugar, please.
  6. You tell him that, in principle, you have nothing against the idea, but you are on your period, but he has to promise you then and there that he will make up for it at the very first opportunity. Then, whenever you meet him in public, you give him  secret signs, until he begins to avoid you.

 

Answer: It depends on how badly you need the signature, but, in principle, all of the above are possible. In this case, I really needed the signature, and so I decided to use variant 6, because it is the most effective and least risky.”

 

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Galina Dursthoff
Literary Agency