For the past week cities and towns across Russia have witnessed an unusual display of defiance.
No protests or picket lines, just patient, orderly queues. Dozens, if not hundreds of people lining up in freezing conditions to try to ensure an anti-war presidential candidate has enough signatures to get on the ballot for the vote in March.
It’s even happening outside of Russia, with volunteers collecting expats’ signatures in cities from London and Paris to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.
Key endorsements from other Russian opposition figures, including associates of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny have helped. But the deadline to submit 100,000 signatures, with strict rules on quality and regional quotas, is January 31 – and time is running short.
The candidate is Boris Nadezhdin, on the surface an unlikely opponent for Vladimir Putin.
He’s a physicist by training, served one term in the state Duma 20 years ago, and by his own account joined the ranks of Russia’s opposition after the arrest of exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003.
“He was a normal Russian bureaucrat, and I was a normal Russian bureaucrat.”
He believes this may be why he can get away with publishing a manifesto calling Russia’s so-called “special military operation” a “fatal mistake,” in a country where spreading “false” information about the army carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence, and the most prominent opposition figure, Navalny, is serving a multi-decade prison term beyond the Arctic Circle.
Ultimately he admits, “I don’t know why I’m not arrested.”
The Kremlin says it doesn’t see him as a rival, but the speculation is that they are allowing Nadezhdin to continue, either so that Putin can win against an anti-war candidate, thereby affording himself a mandate to keep the war going, or to provide a release valve for an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment, to prevent it descending into mass protests.
Nadezhdin maintains his movement is real. “Millions of people understand,” he says, “we have to change the way Russia is going now, because Putin forced Russia into this track of militarization, this track of isolation.”
His plan, if elected, is to free all political prisoners on day one (including Navalny), call an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and start peace talks.
For those waiting in line in the Moscow snow, this is not about Nadezhdin himself. Elizaveta from Bryansk, who declined to give her second name and from a border region now under regular drone attack, says the war has hit home.
“My town is in a special situation,” she tells us, “my main wish is that it should stop as soon as possible.”
Another supporter, who also wanted to be identified only as Ivan, tells us he doesn’t care if Nadezhdin is a Kremlin plant or not.
“I am prepared even for the candidate to be, as we say here, a representative of one of the Kremlin towers. For me the most important thing is that military action should stop and any vote in support of that will be valid.”
For several people we spoke to, whether Nadezhdin ends up on the ballot or not, this is a rare opportunity to play a part in Russian political life.
Gripping her hot tea handed out by volunteers, Elena puts it simply. “I think people should see that we want to show our position, that we exist.”