WASHINGTON -- It's not every 22-year-old that gets a meeting at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama's national security adviser -- and shows up for it in peach-colored knee-high socks.
Meet Vera Kichanova, a young woman whose hipster garb belies her maturity, and whose fresh complexion has become one of the faces of the new generation of political opposition in Russia.
Kichanova, a journalist for the liberal news website Slon, was elected as a municipal deputy in Moscow's Yuzhnoye Tushino district in March 2012. A member of Russia's tiny Libertarian Party, she had campaigned on a ticket of transparency and democratic principles.
She concedes that her post is one that most Muscovites don't even know exists, but Russia observers and Kichanova alike say her election carries outsize importance. In a country where challenges to the establishment are routinely quashed and officials are usually installed, she says the opposition must be bold when it can -- but must also focus on making small political inroads.
Her perspective is one that has garnered attention from officials during this, her first trip to the U.S. capital. "The opposition is criticized by many people, even by those who dislike the government," Kichanova says. "It's criticized for not having a positive platform. [My job] is a good opportunity to show the people that we really can solve some problems, that we really have some answers to the most popular demands. Anyway, we should start from something."
The statement made by getting roofs repaired in a public housing block or fighting pollution from a local factory should not be underestimated, she says.
Setting A Precedent
Bur Kichanova doesn't hide her frustration, either. Even on the local level, her eagerness for change is tempered by the facts. "We have no real power, we have no finances, and even when we vote on some problems, we oppositionists are usually overruled," she says. Kichanova is one of just two opposition members of her district's 12-person council.
With a wry smirk, she says: "[My job is a] quite frustrating experience, so the best thing we can do is to make the work of the council more transparent. It doesn't affect directly what's going on, but it makes other deputies nervous because they are not used to it when some people are watching what's going on."
Indeed, Kichanova stresses that her real power is in the precedent she's setting. Her council's next elections are in 2017 and she says other young, liberal-minded members of Russia's opposition will vie for -- and win -- more of the minor seats.
"The atmosphere will be different when there are more of us," she insists, while aware that even low-level opposition officials are not immune to questionable arrests.
The National Endowment for Democracy, which organized her trip to Washington, bestowed an award on Kichanova due in large part to that spirit.
In Jail Or Running For Mayor, Navalny A 'Hero'
She admits that the atmosphere at home dominated her thoughts during her week abroad. Her trip coincided with the conviction of her friend, anticorruption blogger and Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny, on July 18.
"Certainly today is one of the saddest days for Russian civil society," Kichanova said, hours after Navalny's guilty verdict and jail sentence were announced. But she commends supporters for reacting boldly, and says the opposition must continue to seize such moments.
"Several thousand people should now continue to occupy Moscow for an indefinite time," Kichanova said, before Navalny's surprise release from custody on July 19. "That's what we should have done in December 2011," she added, referring to mass protests that erupted after allegedly flawed parliamentary elections.
Flipping open her iPad, which Kichanova always seems to have at hand, she displays a recent picture of herself alongside Navalny. About a month ago, she says he visited her and fellow municipal deputies to collect signatures for his mayoral bid.
"Some of them were asking him to take photos with them and I asked him to take a photo as well. He was laughing because, well, we have known each other for a long time and he couldn't understand why I would need this picture," Kichanova says. "I didn't want to tell him that he is soon to become a hero -- [whether] he will go to jail or become a mayor."
'We Have To Create Change'
In Kichanova's meetings with Susan Rice at the White House and officials at the State Department, she says she was also asked her opinion on what the United States can do to help promote reform in Russia.
She says she expressed support for the Sergei Magnitsky Act, the U.S. initiative implemented in April that sanctions Russian officials implicated in the prosecution and death of the eponymous whistleblower and in other alleged gross human rights violations.
"I think that this is just the correct way and I mentioned this during my meeting at the White House. We can see that the official policy of Putin and his government is very anti-American, but now it's for Putin like an idee fixe," Kichanova says. "This means that it really can influence their thoughts and their acts."
"I told officials that the list should be expanded to include others, like the people responsible for the arrests of protesters on Bolotnaya Square [in Moscow in May 2012]," Kichanova adds.
"But, of course, we know we really have to create change ourselves."