On a drizzly February night in 2015, Boris Nemtsov was walking home with his girlfriend just a few hundred feet from the Kremlin. A white car pulled up, and a gunman fired six shots from a silenced 9mm pistol. Four hit their target, killing Nemtsov almost immediately. Just hours before, Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure and the former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, had given a radio interview encouraging Russians to fill the streets to protest President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The assassination of Nemtsov sent chills through the resistance, and the rally he helped plan turned into a march where tens of thousands mourned his death. Even under Putin, a high-profile political figure’s being so brazenly murdered was shocking. In the West, Nemtsov’s death fed into the mistaken perception that there was absolutely no room for opposition in Russia. But, while the dangers remain, a small yet determined number of activists persisted, even grew. Now, two and a half years later, they’re running for office.
Nemtsov’s one-time ally Alexei Navalny is now Putin’s most famous living adversary in Russia. A handsome and passionate orator, the 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has amassed a following through his savvy use of social media. Navalny has two YouTube channels, tweets constantly, and has published exposés investigating the vast financial holdings of the country’s leaders. In March he released a video detailing the wealth of current prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev, which has racked up over 24 million views. His new report on Putin’s “secret dacha,” or country home, was published at the end August.
Navalny has undoubtedly gained prominence simply by surviving—he’s often viewed, incorrectly, as “the last man standing.” As such, he’s attracting increasing amounts of funding and Western press, especially since he announced plans to campaign for president in 2018 (though whether or not he will be allowed to run due to a legal conviction is an open question). But among the democratic activists in Russia, he’s a polarizing figure. A number of former allies have turned against him over personal squabbles and have expressed concerns over his willingness to tap into nationalist sentiment.
Many in Russia’s liberal-minded class say political transformation should not depend on a charismatic savior who topples Putin, but rather should be built on systematic reform that starts at the local level. Rooting out corruption will take more than cutting off the head of the snake.
Moscow’s municipal elections will take place on September 10, and Muscovites will elect 1,502 deputies across the city’s 125 districts. This year more than 8,000 individuals registered as candidates, and, out of that, over 1,000 are considered “democratic,” running as independents or with opposition parties. The four major parties that hold seats in the federal legislature are widely seen as toeing the Kremlin line, thus activists say the only parties willing to challenge the power structure as those currently existing outside of it.
Russia has 11 time zones and a population of over 140 million, but, as Moscow is the country’s political and economic powerhouse, the capital’s local politics should not be ignored. The city is a testing ground for activism, with organizers in other regions watching results and tactics. Signs of grassroots engagement in the September vote could augur a new countrywide push for a more independent politics.
I traveled to Moscow this July to measure the political climate and see my family. My mother is an elected official in the lower legislative body, the State Duma, and a member of the majority United Russia party. While there, I spoke with journalists, activists, and political actors about their views on Russia’s political future.
Not everyone believes the surge of independent and opposition politicians at the municipal level will seep into national affairs, but the mere fact that more people are attracted to civic life is an important shift. If Russia is to change, the public will have to demand it, and the following interviews highlight those individuals taking the first steps.
THE DREAMER: DMITRY GUDKOV
Dmitry Gudkov wants to be the next mayor of Moscow. At first glance, the 37-year-old seems custom-built for the public sphere. He has carefully coiffed hair, a dimpled chin, and deep blue eyes. A former basketball player, Gudkov is tall and muscular, and strikes a sharp contrast to the gray-haired men that have occupied Moscow’s top spot in recent years. But his progressive views have pushed him to the fringes of Russian politics. He, nonetheless, remains optimistic that democratic change is not just possible, it’s inevitable.
From his headquarters in the center of Moscow, Gudkov described his vision of a not-so-distant future where borders are irrelevant. The real global schism, he argues, is not between East-West geopolitics but between nationalist and liberal thought. “Putin and this whole political regime have no connection to the future. They’re synonymous with the past,” he said.
Gudkov is not a political newcomer. He followed in his father’s footsteps and served as an elected deputy in the State Duma. But his party, A Just Russia, expelled him after a 2013 trip to the United States where he met with lawmakers and spoke critically of Kremlin policies. A particularly touchy subject was Gudkov’s visit with American families who had adopted Russian children, which was seen as a repudiation of recent legislation banning adoption by American parents. As one a few independent lawmakers in the Russian legislative chamber, he fought against the Yarovaya Law (dubbed the “Big Brother” law for its restrictions on privacy and Internet freedom) and a bill allowing the National Guard to fire on protesters. He abstained on a vote to annex Crimea that passed by a 445-1 margin.
Without the support of a major political party, Gudkov lost his reelection bid in 2016, but he said running for mayor is in some ways a better way for him to make an impact. “Moscow is like a parade ground for democratic politicians, a place where democrats are powerful, and they can win,” he told me.
In order to be a mayoral candidate in 2018, Gudkov needs 110 municipal deputies to register their support of him—that means he’ll need at least that many opposition candidates to be elected this September. To help him do this, he’s set up this office, which helps recruit and train hopefuls for races across the city. Gudkov has been going door to door with candidates in their neighborhoods, and uses online publications and social media in order to bypass state-owned media and promote the coalition he’s attempting to build.
The Kremlin appointed Moscow’s current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, in 2010 after his predecessor was fired by presidential decree. But Sobyanin, Putin’s former chief of staff, has proven politically vulnerable in the past. In 2013, authorities allowed Navalny to run against the incumbent—a move widely seen as an attempt to portray an illusion of choice. But, to the Kremlin’s surprise, Navalny received nearly 30 percent of the vote, revealing an embarrassing overestimation of Sobyanin’s control.
Gudkov doesn’t have the popularity or pull of Navalny, but he also questions the benefits of building a cult of personality around one individual. “In this system if any good person wins, he immediately becomes a totalitarian, because he’s authorized to do anything; he could liquidate his party immediately,” Gudkov said. “I’m not out for a change of the Kremlin cabinet, I’m out to change our institutions.”
Gudkov is pushing for fair elections, term limits, an independent judiciary, and a budget focused on health care, education, and technology. While the US system is a model, he isn’t looking for outside help. “I fully understand it’s our business, and we’re going to have to figure it out ourselves,” Gudkov said.
While the current economic crisis might seem like an opportunity to convince the public of the government’s failures, Gudkov said he believes Putin is benefiting from being able to place the blame elsewhere. Mocking the official line, he told me: “It’s not this bad, because we’re such bad guys. Look, there’s a worldwide economic crisis, look how the Americans are messing with us. Endure this, because we Russians are proud. We don’t bend to anyone.”
Gudkov said he had a message for Americans: “Know one thing: Russia isn’t Putin, it isn’t the 86 percent of people who support Putin. In Russia there are a lot of progressive people who want a change, but they’re just scared.”
According to polling by the independent Levada Center, Putin’s approval rating currently lands in the 83rd percentile, but when asked specifically about elections, the results reveal political discontent. An April 2017 poll asked respondents whom they would vote for if the presidential election were held right away; only 48 percent chose Putin, with reluctant and undecided voters making up 29 percent of respondents and additional 13 percent saying they would not vote. The next presidential election is in March of 2018, although Putin has not confirmed that he will run for a fourth term.
Voter apathy remains a problem; turnout in Russia is low, with official figures showing only 47 percent participation in the 2016 parliamentary elections and just over 30 percent in the last mayoral race. But Gudkov isn’t deterred. “Right now it isn’t even necessary to take part in elections to be active in politics,” Gudkov said. “We are engaged in the formation of political opinion.” In order to play the long game, he said his first priority is getting people to think politics is worth their time.
THE SKEPTIC: ILYA AZAR
Ilya Azar rode up to meet me on a scooter. Bald, bearded, and with bit of a paunch that pushed out from his checkered button-down shirt, the 33-year-old looked like any other dad-to-be. But the cantankerous attitude of a war reporter was apparent the moment when we sat down for a beer. I asked him to explain what it meant to be a “liberal” or “democrat” in Russia, and he retorted, “I don’t know, that’s your job.”
Azar’s surliness is understandable. He has reported from conflict zones in South Ossetia and Ukraine. A story he wrote for Lenta.ru about a Ukrainian nationalist led to the removal of the publication’s editor-in-chief. Shortly after, Azar resigned from the publication, but his coverage of Ukraine earned him GQ Journalist of the Year in 2014. Within Russia, his work sent him undercover to expose a ballot-stuffing scheme, but Azar said investigative reporting rarely makes a difference in the country. That’s why he’s running to be a municipal deputy. “It’s interesting for me to see if I could, maybe at the deputy level, to… ‘to help the people’ might be a hackneyed phrase, but let’s say ‘to solve some of the people’s problems in a more effective way,” Azar explained.
Azar is running as an independent, and said he planned to continue as a journalist if elected. He scoffed at the notion that there would be a conflict of interest. “‘A Garbage Dump in a Residential Area Bugs Khamovniki Residents.’ Who is going to run an article like this?” he joked, implying that the issues he’d be dealing with are too minuscule to matter to anyone outside of his community.
While people like Gudkov see the proliferation of opposition candidates as a sign of a strengthening democracy, Azar is skeptical of the government’s motivation for letting so many hopefuls through: “We thought, many will be turned back during the signature collection.… But this time, they are registering everyone, so, probably, they have a different plan. Maybe, it’s to have 50 candidates everywhere, make them all shit on each other, fight each other.”
Azar hesitated to describe himself as a member of “the opposition,” but said he believes in the basic tenets of a free press, the freedom of speech and assembly, and free and fair elections. He said Navalny should be allowed to run, but sees the opposition leader’s popularity more as a result of circumstance than real grassroots support. “The field here is clear. Navalny is the only one playing it,” Azar said.
Azar said that the Russian decline in the 1990s contributes to current voter apathy. “Yes, you can talk to people, and they will tell you how bad everything is: no money, tired of Putin, factories shutting down, corruption, government officials, all that. But, they will say, ‘At least it’s not the ’90s. We have food, the salaries are being paid at least.’ So long as the overall impression that it was worse under Yeltsin is still out there, there won’t be a revolution.”
I tell Azar that based on our conversation, I wouldn’t label him an optimist. “Since everything is bad, I tend to view things as they are,” he responded. Even so, choosing to enter local politics means he must see some hope for improvement, or at the very least, the beginnings of a good story.
THE NEWCOMER: LUCYA SHTEIN
Lucya Shtein has had to learn quickly how to deal with media attention. The 21-year-old graduate of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography has been accused of agitating for attention rather than principle, attacked for her Jewish roots, and portrayed as a young Lolita using her sexuality to campaign for municipal deputy. Like many young people, her social media presence includes stylized selfies that have been dissected to judge her character. Rather than being intimidated, she’s come to embrace the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. “When you are not interesting to anyone, this means you are doing something wrong. But when you get this type of reaction, this means you hit the bulls-eye,” Shtein told me while sitting at the kitchen table in her shared apartment.
When I mentioned the latest gossip about her, she put on an air of indifference. Two days before we met, rumors were posted claiming that Shtein was having an affair with Gudkov, based on a photograph of her in a blue sweater that bore only a passing resemblance to one he had worn in a separate picture. “What didn’t they write! They wrote that I am having an affair with Khodorkovsky [once Russia’s richest man, who, now exiled, funds the opposition from abroad], that I am his whore, I am a porn actress who is here to make quick money,” Shtein said as she rolled her eyes.
For one of her latest displays of activism, she placed plaster molds of her breasts on Khrushchev-era buildings around the city that are set to be demolished as part of a modernization program. It’s one of the most hotly debated issues in Moscow, and Shtein is opposing the government-led razing. While she acknowledged that some buildings are decrepit and need to be rebuilt, she fears that buildings are being destroyed to make room for new and more expensive developments: “It’s just profitable for the people in power, and screw the people who have lived there for decades.”
Her other concern is the quality of the new accommodations being built for the expelled residents. “That’s the biggest issue, because it looks like it will be a horrible swindle, and the people will be resettled from their own apartments into who knows what,” Shtein said. “Nothing is regulated, or rather the regulations are very strangely formulated, as is usually the case with our laws.”
While some have characterized her tactics as PR tricks, Shtein said that it’s possible to raise awareness through art and activism. “This is not about my effort to get pipes fixed, which is great, but it’s boring and people who aren’t directly involved in it don’t care,” Shtein said. “But when they find out about the stunt, they try to find out what it’s connected to. ‘Aha!, it’s about the municipal election.’ And this is what draws attention and creates hype.”
Shtein had previously worked at the headquarters set up by Gudkov and helped guide candidates through the bureaucratic nightmare of registering. Her trajectory changed after she witnessed the arrest of a young boy reciting Hamlet in a public space. The video she posted on Facebook of the boy’s being put into the back of a police car went viral, and the notoriety propelled her into the public eye.
While Shtein was just a bystander in that situation, she’s been detained at other protests and is frustrated with the regular abuses of power at even lowest rungs of law enforcement. “The police aren’t working for the people, they aren’t protecting them,” Shtein told me. “Here, to be caught by a policeman means that’s it, they will get you. Police should help you; they should warn you when you are doing something dangerous for yourself and others. But here, to get stopped by a traffic cop means you will be fleeced.”
Like many Muscovites dealing with the construction in the run-up to next year’s World Cup, Shtein griped about how the government spends its money. She said she believes appearances are prioritized above the need to offer teachers and doctors better salaries or care for veterans: “Everything we do is done to create an illusion, so that people could watch from the outside, maybe from America.”
Of course, a municipal deputy will have no power over federal budgets, but Shtein sees this as her entry into politics. “The municipal council first, then the Moscow City Duma, then the State Duma, and so on,” she said.
Shtein sees hope for Russia’s progressive movement as more youths in Moscow become politically engaged. “I think, the young people just get provoked,” Shtein explained. “It doesn’t have to be connected with Navalny, they may simply be dissatisfied with something, and they want to voice their concerns. Then, they come and see that their friend or a girlfriend—without having done anything wrong—is being stuffed into the police van. So, of course, their youthful sense of unfairness takes over.” Social media and independent websites have helped advance the political dialogue beyond just anti-Putin sentiment to social issues and organizing techniques, but the challenge for Russia’s opposition is to direct that energy into a specific platform.
She told me that engaging the system is the most realistic way to effect change given the wall Putin has constructed around national-level politics. “We won’t be able to demolish the wall, but to try to breach it somewhere, to dent it in some places,” Shtein said. “To push some district-level initiatives through—that, I think, is probably doable, as opposed to a coup d’état.”
No one thinks political transformation will happen overnight. Putin has kept a tight grip on power, there are many wealthy and powerful people who benefit from the status quo, and the sheer size of the country creates divides between rural and urban populations. While the Internet has become an invaluable organizing tool, generational divides and censorship create constant hurdles. But if democratic activists intend to bring large numbers of Russians over to their side, their greatest challenge is proving that there can be benefits to political participation. In a holdover from the Soviet Union, too many Russians think to rely only on centralized government.
Measuring success on September 10 will look different depending on who you ask and how fair the results will be. For Gudkov, if just 110 of the more than 1,500 elected municipal deputies support him, it would set the stage for his mayoral run in 2018—and perhaps significant municipal reform. For other candidates, chances to solve neighborhood concerns would, at the very least, be building blocks for Russia’s democratic culture.