A collective “no”: anti-Putin Russians welcome an unlikely challenger


His last name comes from the Russian word for hope – and for hundreds of thousands of anti-war Russians, that, rather improbably, is what he became.

Boris B. Nadezhdin is the only candidate on an anti-war platform with a chance of running for office to oppose President Vladimir V. Putin in Russian presidential election in March. Russians opposed to the war rushed to sign his official petition inside and outside the country, hoping to provide enough signatures before the January 31 deadline for him to succeed in joining the race.

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

They know that election officials could exclude Mr. Nadejdin 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 collecting signatures for Mr. Nadezhdin in Yakutsk, south of the Arctic Circle. “This is just our protest, our form of protest, so that we can somehow show that we are against all of this.”

Popular mobilization in an authoritarian country, where National elections have long been a Potemkin affairinjected energy into a Russian opposition movement that was virtually wiped out: its most promising leaders were exile, imprisoned Or kill in a radical repression on the dissent that intensified with the war.

While protests are essentially banned in Russia and criticism of the military is banned, the long lines to support Mr. Nadezhdin’s candidacy offered anti-war Russians a rare public communion with kindred spirits whose voices were drowned out in a wave of protests. chauvinism and state brutality for almost two years.

Many of them are not particularly familiar with Mr. Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old physicist who was a member of the Russian Parliament from 1999 to 2003, and who openly admits to lacking the charisma of anti-Kremlin crusaders like Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader imprisoned.

But with a draconian censorship law stifling any criticism of the war, Mr. Nadezhdin’s supporters see supporting him as the only legal way left in Russia to demonstrate opposition to Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And they like what the candidate says: about the conflict that is sending Russia off the precipice; on the need to release political prisoners, repatriate troops and make peace with Ukraine; that Russian anti-gay laws are “idiotic”.

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

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

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

The Kremlin tightly controls the electoral process to ensure Mr Putin’s inevitable victory, but allows non-threatening opponents to run – to provide a veneer of legitimacy, boost turnout at the polls and give Russians opposed to his rule an outlet to express 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 new supporters admit that he might initially have been seen as simply a tool for the Kremlin — a 1990s liberal with a popular grandfather vibe and willing to play the state’s game.

Particularly suspect is his work in the 1990s as an aide to Sergei V. Kiriyenko, President Boris N. Yeltsin’s prime minister, who is now the top Kremlin official overseeing domestic policy.

Skeptics also point to Mr. Nadezhdin’s presence on state television, where he contributed to the illusion of open debate by serving as a token liberal voice, intended to be criticized by pro-Putin propagandists. Opposition figures whom the Kremlin considers a real threat, such as Mr. Navalny, have been unable to appear in court for a long time, not to mention running for president.

Mr. Nadejdin countered that if he were a puppet of the Kremlin, he would not be rushing to obtain signatures and money, nor would the main state television channel have excluded his name from its list of candidates for the presidential.

His supporters continue despite everything.

“It may well turn out that he will turn out to be a decorative candidate, but if so, one has the feeling that everything did not go as planned,” said Tatiana Semionova, a 32-year-old programmer who presented herself to a crowded Berlin courtyard. to sign his name.

She said she had no particular affinity with Mr. Nadezhdin but was signing in protest.

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

The unexpected surge of support for Mr. Nadezhdin has posed a thorny question for the Kremlin’s political maestros in the first presidential vote since Mr. Putin launched his invasion: Will they allow any anti-war candidate to be elected? to run for office?

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

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

But even if Mr. Nadezhdin gathers enough signatures, Russian authorities could find a way to disqualify him. Long visible support lines, he said, will make this more difficult to achieve.

Many anti-war 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 Election Commission rejected his candidacy due to what it called insignificant errors in his documents.

She has since supported Mr. Nadezhdin.

Members of Mr. Navalny’s team, including his wife, have also publicly supported the former lawmaker. So have one of Russia’s most famous rock starsYuri 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 campaign leader there, began collecting signatures. Eventually the weather got warmer and the crowds grew.

Few places downtown would allow Mr. Popov to set up a booth supporting an anti-Putin candidate. But he persuaded a shopping center to set up the operation in a hallway, where people can sign their names on a school desk and folding table.

“If people don’t know Boris Nadezhdine, I can tell them who he is,” Mr. Popov said. But he emphasizes that he is not there because of Mr. Nadejdin. “I’m here to collect signatures against Putin,” he told people. “We are collecting signatures against Putin, yes, against military action.”

Signatories must give their full name and passport details – in effect a ready-made list of Russians opposed to the war – sparking fears of reprisals.

But that hasn’t 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 is much stronger and heavier than the fear that they will do something to me because I work as a signature collector,” he said.

Mr. Nadejdin presents himself as an unremarkable politician who decided to run as an “act of desperation” and accidentally found himself at the forefront of a movement.

“But, comrades, I have one quality: I love my family and my country infinitely,” he said last week in a YouTube appearance alongside Ms. Schulmann, the political analyst. “I constantly believe that Russia is no worse than any other country and that with the help of democracy, elections and the will of the people it can achieve enormous results.”

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

“I will not betray anyone,” he said. “I will fight.”


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