POVALIKHINO, Russia -- For five years, Marina Udgodskaya cleaned the administration building of this village in central Russia, and stoked the fire in winter to keep officials warm.
Now she runs the place.
Although she only entered a recent local election to help the Kremlin-backed incumbent stay in power, she ended up routing her opponent and taking over the office she used to scrub and mop.
From a desk flanked by a portrait of President Vladimir Putin and a map of her political domain, Udgodskaya now presides over a fiefdom comprising 29 villages in this poor but picturesque region, 500 kilometers from the country's capital.
"I'm not interested in politics," she said in an interview, breaking into the abashed smile that has rarely left her since her inauguration on October 1. "But if we hadn't found a second candidate, we would have had no election."
Recent days have been a whirlwind for the 35-year-old mother of two whose only previous experience of public administration was eavesdropping on exchanges between Nikolai Loktev, the man she replaced, and the two middle-aged women who assisted him.
After several potential challengers backed out, Loktev turned to Udgodskaya in a desperate bid to salvage the ballot. She agreed to run against him, expecting to legitimize his win. Instead she got 62 percent of the vote, despite not campaigning, and secured a political appointment that would upend her life and -- when her underdog tale appeared in the national press -- the life of the village she calls home.
"I don't need this fame at all," she said, a few steps from the house where she keeps a small farm comprising two geese, 15 rabbits, five dogs and cats, and an unspecified number of hens. "I want to live like I did before."
Life before national stardom involved feeding two teenage kids after their return from school each day and participating in the local gossip that drives a place where everyone knows everyone else, and secrets seldom stay secret.
The secrets became national news when journalists descended on Povalikhino, whose residents never wanted their problems aired. They came in droves, producing reports that prompted locals to raise their guard.
On October 8, a helicopter carrying a crew from a state-owned television channel landed on a patch of grass beside the village sawmill like an alien spaceship. News of a famous TV host's arrival immediately spread through Povalikhino, prompting wide-eyed villagers to crowd round and photograph the glistening machine.
During her inauguration on October 1, Udgodskaya told a gaggle of amused reporters: "I have no idea what people were thinking."
Since then she has been dodging journalists constantly, locking herself in the library, at home, and in the backrooms of the administration building. She's now accompanied by an eagle-eyed press-secretary tasked with fending off reporters.
"They've fixated on the fact that I'm a cleaner," says Udgodskaya, who only agreed to talk after some coaxing. "Is a cleaner not a human being too?"
Far From A Laughingstock
But far from a national laughingstock, Udgodskaya's story is seen as emblematic of a deeper disillusionment with mainstream politics in Russia. Loktev ran as a candidate for the ruling United Russia party, an outfit marred by evidence of endemic corruption whose popularity has tanked in recent years. Povalikhino and surrounding settlements took to the polls to snub the political machine he represents.
"What has United Russia given us?" asked Mikhail Fyodorov, a 58-year-old retired forestry worker whose house is opposite Udgodskaya's, 200 meters from the local administration. "Maybe it's doing something in Moscow, but it does nothing in the province. The village is falling apart."
Fyodorov voted for Udgodskaya, because, as he put it, "I like the woman."
But he cautioned, "she won't get anything done if no money comes in."
Indeed, conquering the local administration is hardly a gateway to riches. The building has a hole in the ground for a toilet, and no gas heating. And the area Udgodskaya now oversees suffers from a litany of woes.
With 250 residents, Povalikhino is the largest village in a district which serves as a testament to Russia's rural decline. Of the 29 settlements, some 20 are abandoned. The rest continue to see an exodus to Kostroma, the regional capital, and bigger cities like Moscow -- on whose handouts the entire Kostroma region relies.
"Everyone wants to leave," said Danil Smirnov, a 15-year-old who attends school in the nearby town of Chukhloma. He says there are only six teenagers left in Povalikhino, and all plan to work elsewhere.
Elsewhere in the Kostroma region, the medieval merchant town of Plyos now hosts the lavish estates of Russia's political elite, including the country home of ex-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- complete with a ski slope and chairlift, a man-made lake, and multiple helipads.
As a cleaner, Udgodskaya earned 14,000 rubles ($180) per month and like many others in the village, her husband is away two or three weeks at a time to make money in Moscow.
Nevertheless, skeptical of change and daunted by the magnitude of her task, her first instinct was to decline the new position.
"I was pretty terrified," she says.
But officials in the district capital promised to help and to teach her about taxes, budgets, and fire-safety protocols. "Why not try?" she recalls herself thinking. "Maybe it'll work out."
With its cleaner now sitting in the boss's seat, the Povalikhino administration is interviewing new candidates ready to roll up their sleeves and keep the place tidy.
"You can't just hire just anyone," Udgodskaya says. "It's a responsible job."