Home World A Collective ‘No’: Anti-Putin Russians Embrace an Unlikely Challenger

A Collective ‘No’: Anti-Putin Russians Embrace an Unlikely Challenger

A Collective ‘No’: Anti-Putin Russians Embrace an Unlikely Challenger


His surname comes from the Russian word for hope — and for hundreds of thousands of antiwar Russians, that is, improbably enough, what he has become.

Boris B. Nadezhdin is the only candidate running on an antiwar platform with a chance of getting on the ballot to oppose President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia’s presidential election in March. Russians who are against the war have rushed to sign his official petition inside and outside the country, hoping to supply enough signatures by a Jan. 31 deadline for him to succeed in joining the race.

They have braved subzero temperatures in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. They have snaked down the block in Yekaterinburg. They have jumped in place to stay warm in St. Petersburg and flocked to outposts in Berlin, Istanbul and Tbilisi, Georgia.

They know that election officials might bar Mr. Nadezhdin from the ballot, and if he is allowed to run, they know he will never win. They don’t care.

“Boris Nadezhdin is our collective ‘No,’” said Lyosha Popov, a 25-year-old who has been collecting signatures for Mr. Nadezhdin in Yakutsk, south of the Arctic Circle. “This is simply our protest, our form of protest, so we can somehow show we are against all this.”

The grass-roots mobilization in an authoritarian country, where national elections have long been a Potemkin affair, has injected energy into a Russian opposition movement that has been all but obliterated: Its most promising leaders have been exiled, jailed or killed in a sweeping crackdown on dissent that has escalated with the war.

With protests essentially banned in Russia and criticism of the military outlawed, the long lines to support Mr. Nadezhdin’s candidacy have offered antiwar Russians a rare public communion with kindred spirits whose voices have been drowned out in a wave of jingoism and state brutality for nearly two years.

Many of them don’t particularly know about or care for Mr. Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old physicist who was a member of Russia’s Parliament from 1999 to 2003, and who openly acknowledges lacking the charisma of anti-Kremlin crusaders like Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.

But with a draconian censorship law stifling criticism of the war, Mr. Nadezhdin’s supporters see backing him as the only legal way left in Russia to demonstrate their opposition to Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And they like what the candidate is saying — about the conflict driving Russia off a cliff; about the need to free political prisoners, bring the troops home and make peace with Ukraine; about Russia’s anti-gay laws being “idiotic.”

“The purpose of my participation is to oppose Putin’s approach, which is leading the country to a dead end, into a rut of authoritarianism, militarization and isolation,” Mr. Nadezhdin said in a written response to questions from The New York Times.

“The more votes that a candidate against Putin’s approach and the ‘special military operation’ receives, the greater the chances are for peace and change in Russia,” he added, using the Kremlin’s term for the war to avoid running afoul of Russian law.

He has dismissed questions about his safety, noting in a YouTube appearance this past week that, in any case, the “tastiest and sweetest years of my life are already in the past.”

The Kremlin tightly controls the election process to ensure Mr. Putin’s inevitability as the victor, but allows nonthreatening opponents to run — to provide a veneer of legitimacy, drive turnout at the polls and give Russians opposed to his rule an outlet for venting their dissatisfaction. So far, 11 people, including Mr. Nadezhdin and Mr. Putin, have been allowed to register as potential candidates and are collecting signatures.

Many of Mr. Nadezhdin’s newfound supporters accept that he might have initially been viewed as just a useful tool for the Kremlin — a 1990s-era liberal with a folksy grandpa vibe who is willing to play the state’s game.

Of particular suspicion is his work in the 1990s as an aide to Sergei V. Kiriyenko, a prime minister under President Boris N. Yeltsin who is now the top Kremlin official responsible for overseeing domestic politics.

Skeptics also point to Mr. Nadezhdin’s presence on state television, where he has contributed to an illusion of open debate by serving as a token liberal voice, there to be shouted down by pro-Putin propagandists. Opposition figures the Kremlin considers a real threat, such as Mr. Navalny, have long been barred from appearing, let alone running for president.

Mr. Nadezhdin has countered that if he were a Kremlin marionette, he would not be scrambling for signatures and money, nor would the main state television channel have excluded his name from its list of presidential candidates.

“He may well turn out to be a decorative candidate, but if so, there’s a sense that everything hasn’t gone according to plan,” said Tatyana Semyonova, a 32-year-old programmer who showed up at a crowded courtyard in Berlin to sign her name.

She said she didn’t have any particular affinity for Mr. Nadezhdin but was signing as an act of protest.

Pavel Laptev, a 37-year-old designer standing next to Ms. Semyonova in line, said that even the smallest chance to change something should not be wasted. “Even if he is a decorative candidate, once he has all this power, maybe he will decide he’s not so decorative,” he said.

The unexpected groundswell of support for Mr. Nadezhdin has presented the Kremlin’s political maestros with a thorny question in the first presidential vote since Mr. Putin launched his invasion: Will they allow an antiwar candidate of any stripe to stand for election?

“I will be surprised, surprised but delighted, if I see you on the electoral ballot,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist based in Berlin, told Mr. Nadezhdin this past week during a YouTube show. “I’m not convinced that our political management at this stage in its development, of its evolution, can afford to take such risks.”

Mr. Nadezhdin’s campaign says it has far surpassed the 100,000 total signatures required, but a candidate is allowed to submit only a maximum of 2,500 from any single Russian region. On Friday, his campaign said it was on track to gather enough signatures from regions inside Russia and would not need any from abroad.

But even if Mr. Nadezhdin amasses enough signatures, the Russian authorities could find a way to disqualify him. The long, visible lines of support, he has said, will make that harder to do.

Many antiwar Russians initially coalesced around Ekaterina S. Duntsova, a little-known former television journalist and local politician who launched a campaign in November and quickly rose to prominence. But the Central Electoral Commission rejected her application to become a candidate because of what she called trivial mistakes in her paperwork.

She has since backed Mr. Nadezhdin.

Members of Mr. Navalny’s team, including his wife, have also publicly backed the former lawmaker. So has one of Russia’s most famous rock stars, Yuri Shevchuk, and another influential exiled opposition activist, Maxim Katz.

In Yakutsk, a frigid city in eastern Siberia, it was minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit when Mr. Popov, the head of the campaign there, started collecting signatures. Eventually, the weather warmed up and the crowd increased.

Few places downtown would allow Mr. Popov to set up a stand in support of an anti-Putin candidate. But he persuaded a shopping mall to give the operation a spot in a corridor, where people can sign their names at a school desk and folding table.

“If people don’t know Boris Nadezhdin, I can tell them who he is,” Mr. Popov said. But he emphasizes that he is not there because of Mr. Nadezhdin. “I am here collecting signatures against Putin,” he tells people. “We’re collecting signatures against Putin, yes, against military action.”

Those signing must give their full names and passport details — in effect a ready-made list of Russians who oppose the war — spurring fears of reprisal.

But that has not deterred Karen Danielyan, a 20-year-old from Tver, about 100 miles northwest of Moscow, whose entire adult life so far has been spent with Russia at war. “The fear that this will continue further is much stronger and heavier than the fear that they will do something to me for working as a signature collector,” he said.

Mr. Nadezhdin portrays himself as an unremarkable politician who decided to run as an “act of despair” and found himself accidentally at the forefront of a movement.

“But, comrades, I do have one quality — I endlessly love my family and my country,” he said this past week in a YouTube appearance alongside Ms. Schulmann, the political analyst. “I endlessly believe that Russia isn’t worse than any other country and can achieve, with the help of democracy, elections and the will of the people, tremendous results.”

Ms. Schulmann told him he would be judged by what happens to the people who have signed his petition.

“I won’t betray anyone,” he said. “I will fight.”


Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here