In a recent Instagram story posted from a secure Covid hospital in Russia’s Arctic city of Murmansk, Violetta Grudina flashed a weary smile. “This is my happy face,” she told her 1,427 followers, holding up a plastic cup of glistening red currants and gooseberries sent by friends in a care package.
Similar scenes were playing out across the country as Russia grappled with a severe new wave of infections, fueled by policy failures and extreme vaccine hesitancy. Except that Grudina, a 31-year-old activist running in the local and parliamentary elections taking place on September 17-19, did not have Covid.
Despite obtaining a negative test from a state-approved laboratory, Grudina was forcibly interred at the Murmansk Regional Center for Specialized Medicine on June 15, in a room with five gravely ill Covid patients. She was accused of endangering public health by campaigning to become the only opposition member on Murmansk’s Gorsovet, or city council. Soon, she began to fear catching the virus herself.
“Just consider the level of cynicism.” she said to me, referring to the local authorities she accused of locking her up. “How little my life matters to them.”
When I decided to follow Grudina’s campaign to find out what it’s like to be an independent candidate in Russia’s increasingly repressive political climate, I expected that she would encounter some official resistance. However, nothing prepared me for the improbable—and seemingly irrational—lengths to which the authorities would go to frustrate the campaign of one relatively unknown young woman seeking to represent a solitary ward of a remote Arctic city 1,200 miles from Moscow.
For the opposition, the last four months have been one of the darkest periods in living memory. The government abruptly renounced its elaborate game of cat and mouse with Alexey Navalny and his supporters in favor of naked repression. With Navalny in jail and his network labeled an extremist organization, the authorities have been rounding up his lieutenants in Moscow and the regions.
By the beginning of August, most of the organization’s former leaders had fled abroad or been arrested. Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and top strategist Leonid Volkov, are in Lithuania; Navalny’s wife Yulia is in Germany; Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s glamorous lawyer turned opposition leader in her own right, is under a 10pm curfew and has been banned from leaving Moscow; Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh is under house arrest.
I’ve known Grudina since 2017, when she headed the Murmansk branch of Navalny’s opposition movement. I was struck by her steely, self-possessed, and ironic persona, with a confidence and self-assurance that belied her age. Over the years, her political philosophy evolved with the times, shifting to the left as Navalny adopted a more socialist stance in place of his initial blend of economic liberalism and Russian nationalism.
A military brat, Grudina grew up in Murmansk, which is home to Russia’s largest submarine base and a cluster of secretive defense installations. She had a son—Daniil, now 21—before she began working at Maximum, a local NGO providing support to LGBTQ people, in the early 2010s.
Grudina found herself targeted in numerous homophobic attacks, including having a noxious gas canister hurled into her office. After leaving Maximum in 2015 (the organization’s leaders were later jailed and exiled), Grudina became instrumental in setting up Navalny’s chapter in Murmansk.
In April, she lost her job when the Navalny network disbanded after being designated an extremist organization. Shortly after announcing her candidacy in the local elections as an independent opposition candidate, Grudina unlocked her office to find it ransacked and its windows riddled with bullet holes. When police were called, instead of opening a criminal case, they detained Grudina and fined her for organizing illegal rallies.
Days earlier, every resident in her apartment block received an anonymous flyer accusing Grudina of corrupting children. The flyer contained personal details including her home address and phone number. “This is a political fight.” she told me, “and I knew there would be dirty methods used. It only makes me angrier and more determined.”
Grudina’s dogged fearlessness attracted the attention of Natalia Zamorskaya, 27, a political organizer from Moscow who was working for Sobol. With her platinum blond hair, fashion statement tortoiseshell glasses, and chic leather jacket, Zamorskaya cuts an exotic figure against the drab Murmansk summer. When she heard that Grudina’s regional manager was detained, she immediately decided to offer her services. “Her story bowled me over.” Zamorskaya told me.
For all of Grudina and Zamorskaya’s enthusiasm, the crackdown has taken its toll on the opposition’s morale as well as its popularity. A July 9 poll by the respected Levada Center showed Alexey Navalny’s approval ratings at 14 percent, a six-point decrease from last September. Even among those who are dissatisfied with Putin, only 30 percent of respondents approved of Navalny, against 45 percent who did not.
“Many of those who supported Navalny are disappointed in his strategy.” Levada Centre’s director Denis Volkov told me. “They ask, ‘What has he achieved? He sits in jail, his field offices have been destroyed, his associates exiled.’” Volkov added that Navalny’s approval ratings have never risen above 20 percent. “They are highest among the young and active Internet users,” he said. “But active Internet users are a small part of people who follow the news.”
Another potential factor behind Navalny’s ratings slide is his diminishing ability to make the news. Stuck in jail, he has not been able to make new viral videos. “If you’re not getting fresh content, you’ll lose interest. There are many other influencers out there,” said Zamorskaya.
So why are Murmansk authorities hell-bent on silencing a candidate whose entire political brand is built on her long-standing support for Navalny, a politician with little mainstream appeal?
According to Professor Grigory Golosov, head of the political science department at the European University of Saint Petersburg, it may pay to be paranoid. After all, people have previously caused upsets by voting in against the default United Russia candidate. He recalled a well-publicized incident last September when a United Russia mayor running unopposed for reelection persuaded his house cleaner to enter the race to meet the requirement for a minimum number of candidates, only to see her win in a landslide.
Golosov also believes that Navalny’s core support remains more stable than the polls suggest. And though it falls spectacularly short of an overall majority, it could still be enough for opposition candidates to triumph in specific parliamentary and local races—should they be admitted. “I do not find [Grudina’s] candidacy hopeless, and neither do the authorities.” Golosov said, before adding: “That is precisely why members of the real opposition will not be allowed to run.”
And yet Grudina deliberately chose to adopt a highly confrontational stance, positioning her campaign firmly not just Murmansk’s United Russia–led administration but the Kremlin itself.
Grudina’s inaugural campaign video threw down the gauntlet to Murmansk’s ruling elite. “My name is Violetta Grudina.” she declares to the camera, pale blue blazer over gray T-shirt, side-parting razor-sharp, eyes narrowed with determination from behind severe glasses. “I am an independent candidate standing against the thievery and corruption wrought by the United Russia officials that have captured our city.” If she wins, Grudina says, “I will not consider those people my colleagues.”
Nor has she tried to obscure her sexuality in a notoriously homophobic culture. “My orientation is irrelevant.” she says. “In a civilized society, it doesn’t matter whom anyone chooses to sleep with.” When I asked Zamorskaya if she feared a backlash from Murmansk’s traditionally minded voters, she said that Grudina’s sexuality is far less important to her political chances than her willingness to actually speak with ordinary people.
“In Murmansk, the most shocking thing for voters is not seeing a candidate that doesn’t look traditionally feminine or whatever.” she told me. “The real shock is seeing a candidate who actually deigns to knock on their doors and talk to them in person. Such politicians have never existed here. Grudina is the first and so far the only one.”
Grudina also used irreverent humor to highlight the disconnect between the public and the ruling elites. In one video, she posed as a United Russia volunteer, asking passersby to name reasons why they would be voting for the party. If the responses, ranging from incredulity to outright hostility, were anything to go by, the authorities acted rationally in taking no chances.
On Wednesday August 4, Grudina’s registration was officially rejected by the city’s electoral commission, on the grounds of her prior association with Navalny’s extremist organization (similar bans were handed to fellow opposition activists Ilya Yashin, Oleg Stepanov, and Irina Fatyanova, who were running in Moscow and St. Petersburg).
Grudina had just been released from hospital after a weeklong hunger strike, which she started in protest at her interment. She now faces two criminal cases, for allegedly violating the rules for holding political rallies and the second for breaking Covid quarantine laws. If convicted, she could spend up to two years in prison.
It’s hard not to see Grudina as quixotic or masochistic. By eschewing moderation in favor of charging head-on against a much more powerful enemy in such an uncompromising way, she seems to have invited a disproportionate response. And indeed, there is a long and powerful strand of martyrdom among Russia’s political radicals, going all the way back to Tsarist times.
Grudina acknowledges her utopian streak, but says that adversity has only made her more determined. “Five years ago I stood in the square alone holding placards, and they all said, ‘Look at her, tilting at windmills.’” she told me. “But today, if I call a protest meeting, 1,000 people will come. We took politics out of the kitchens.” Yet Grudina still uses the language of the lonely and besieged fighter in describing her modus operandi: “For me, there is no comfort zone; I have nothing to lose.”
In a recent New Yorker profile by Masha Gessen, Lyubov Sobol openly describes herself as a fanatic. “You cannot scare a fanatic,” Sobol is quoted as saying. “The only threat to a fanatic is disillusionment. But my faith is justice, and I cannot become disillusioned in the idea of justice.”
I asked Zamorskaya whether she feels her ex-boss’s label also applies to her and Grudina. “It’s true.” she replied between long pulls on her electronic cigarette. “We are fanatical. Most people see what we do as irrational and crazy: spending your best years doing something that brings no results.” She quickly clarified: “We never had any illusions about results. But activism in Russia can’t be about results. It is about process, the process of educating people, of incorporating as many people as possible into a story.”
Seen in this light—as a form of discussion and engagement rather than a straightforward electoral push—Grudina’s campaign and the strategy of the opposition at large appear less unambiguously bleak. After all, her dramatic conflicts with the authorities almost certainly generated more newsprint and web traffic than would have followed the simple win of a local seat in a provincial city on a moderate ticket.
“I want my son to grow up in a decent country with well-paying jobs and human rights.” Grudina tells me when I asked what drove her to run in the first place. Yet it’s not clear whether vehement preaching to the converted—a persistently niche number of Navalny supporters active almost exclusively online, and their broad base of sympathizers abroad—is the best way to start a truly inclusive conversation about what a free and equitable Russia should look like.
Levada’s Volkov acknowledges the limitations of the opposition’s approach, but struggles to see a solution. “Maybe it’s not a winning strategy, but what else is there?” he asked. Alternatives do exist, but they are far from ideal. There is the so-called systemic opposition, which comprises the largely discredited mainstream parties that have long abandoned any intention to contest Putin’s grip on power.
Despite their supine leaderships, some of these parties—in particular the Communists—have some younger members who have earnestly challenged United Russia candidates at local and municipal elections. They benefited from Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative, which invites people to vote for the most viable non–United Russia candidate, whatever their party.
Yabloko, Russia’s only mainstream liberal party, had also provided a berth for some opposition politicians, among them Vladimir Kara-Murza, a fierce Kremlin critic who narrowly survived a recent poisoning attack. Yet most Navalny supporters, including Grudina, view the systemic opposition parties as pawns in the Kremlin’s attempt to portray electoral legitimacy. She has refused to collaborate with Yabloko.
Grudina’s election slogan is “I’m not afraid, and you shouldn’t be afraid.” But with everything that has happened since April, it’s been hard not to surrender to fear, or despair. Several of her young volunteers have been arbitrarily detained and kept in jail cells for such ordinary acts as hanging up posters and handing out leaflets (before being released without charge).
The chill from the Kremlin has increasingly spread over parts of liberal Russia. “If some people have stopped supporting us, it’s not because they don’t like our views but because they no longer see the point.” Zamorskaya told me. It is an impression shared by Levada’s Volkov, who said, “In focus groups there’s increasingly a sense that in Russia nothing will ever change, that nobody can change the country.”
Grudina and Zamorskaya have not been spared the demoralizing effects of the crackdown. “For the first time in five years, I feel afraid,” Zamorskaya confided. “I seem to spend most of my time consoling my supporters, telling them to hold themselves together.” Grudina acknowledges with a laugh.
Being barred from the elections was a heavy blow. Yet, after all the hardship and heartbreak of the past eight weeks, there is at least now some time to recuperate, reflect, and catch a glimpse of normal life beyond the political struggle. Yesterday, Grudina got a haircut, had her eyebrows threaded, and went shopping for new pants, having lost 12 pounds during her hunger strike. What she will do next is unclear.
“Violetta’s goal in life is not to be a member of the Murmansk city council.” says Zamorskaya. “Deep down, no opposition candidates really believed that they would be allowed to win. Their true purpose is to provide the space for alternative ideas and beliefs to flourish.”
If that is the test that Grudina and her allies have set themselves, it will be long after the September elections before we will know whether they have succeeded.