BERLIN – His last name comes from the Russian word for hope, and for hundreds of thousands of anti-war Russians, that's what he has become, unlikely as it may seem.
Boris Nadezhdin He is the only candidate running on an anti-war platform with a chance of getting on the ballot to oppose the President. Vladimir Putin in the Russian presidential elections in March.
Anti-war Russians have rushed to sign his official petition at home and abroad, hoping to gather enough signatures before the Jan. 31 deadline to get him into the race.
They have braved sub-zero temperatures in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.
They have snaked around the block in Yekaterinburg.
They have jumped to stay warm in St. Petersburg and flocked to outposts in Berlin, Istanbul and Tbilisi, Georgia.
They know that election officials could ban Nadezhdin from voting, and if he is allowed to run, they know he will never win.
'Boris Nadezhdin is ours'no' collective“says Lyosha Popov, a 25-year-old who has been collecting signatures for Nadezhdin in Yakutsk, about 500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle.
“This is simply our protest, our way of protesting, to be able to demonstrate in some way that we are against from all of this”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union of Russia and Belarus, in Saint Petersburg, on January 29, 2024. Photo by Vyacheslav PROKOFYEV / POOL / AFP)
Popular mobilization in an authoritarian country, where national elections have long been an issue Potemkin, has injected energy into a Russian opposition movement that has been virtually annihilated; Its most promising leaders have been exiled, imprisoned or killed in a crackdown on dissent that has intensified with the war.
With protests virtually banned in Russia and criticism of the military outlawed, the long lines to support Nadezhdin's candidacy have offered anti-war Russians a rare public communion with kindred spirits whose voices have been drowned out in a wave of jingoism and state brutality for almost two years.
Many of them do not particularly know or care about Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old physicist who was a member of the Russian Parliament from 1999 to 2003 and who openly acknowledges lacking the charisma of anti-Kremlin crusaders like Alexei Navalny, the leader of the imprisoned opposition.
But with a draconian censorship law stifling criticism of the war, Nadezhdin's supporters see his support as the only legal avenue left in Russia to demonstrate their opposition to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
And they like what the candidate says: that the conflict is leading Russia to a precipice; that it is necessary to free political prisoners, bring troops home and sign peace with Ukraine; that Russia's anti-gay laws are “idiocy.”
“The purpose of my participation is to oppose Putin's approach, which is leading the country into a dead end, into a quagmire of authoritarianism, militarization and isolation,” Nadezhdin said in a written response to questions from The New York Times.
“The more votes a candidate receives who opposes Putin's approach and the 'special military operation,' the greater the chances for peace and change in Russia,” he added, using the Kremlin's term for war to avoid entering into conflict with Russian legislation.
He has dismissed questions about his safety, noting in a YouTube appearance last week that, in any case, the “tastiest, sweetest years of my life are now behind me.”
The Kremlin strictly controls the electoral process to guarantee Putin's inevitable victory, but allows non-threat opponents to run, in order to provide a veneer of legitimacy, boost participation at the polls and give Russians opposed to their government an escape valve to express their discontent.
Until now, 11 personasincluding Nadezhdin and Putin, have been authorized to register as possible candidates and are collecting signatures.
Many of Nadezhdin's new supporters accept that he was originally considered a useful tool for the Kremlin, a liberal from the nineties with the air of a folksy grandfather willing to play along with the State.
Especially suspicious is his work in the nineties as an assistant to Sergei KiriyenkoPrime Minister of the President Boris Yeltsin and current senior Kremlin official charged with overseeing domestic policy.
Skeptics also point to Nadezhdin's presence on state television, where he has helped create the illusion of open debate by serving as a token liberal voice where pro-Putin propagandists yelled at him.
To opposition figures considered a real threat, such as Navalny, They have long been prohibited from appearing, much less standing in the presidential elections.
Nadezhdin has replied that if he were a Kremlin puppet, he would not be fighting for signatures and money, nor would the main state television network have excluded his name from its list of presidential candidates.
Despite everything, his supporters continue forward.
“He may turn out to be a decorative candidate, but if so, there is a feeling that not everything has gone according to plan,” said Tatyana Semyonova, a 32-year-old programmer who showed up in a crowded Berlin courtyard to sign her name.
He said he had no particular affinity for Nadezhdin, but was signing as an act of protest.
Pavel Laptev, a 37-year-old designer who was standing next to Semyonova in line, said not even the slightest opportunity to change something should be wasted.
“Even if he is a decorative candidate, when he has all this power, he may decide that he is not so decorative,” he said.
The unexpected surge of support for Nadezhdin has presented the Kremlin's political masters with a thorny question in the first presidential vote since Putin launched his invasion:
Will they allow any anti-war candidate to run in the elections?
“I will be surprised, surprised but delighted, if I see him on the ballot,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Berlin-based Russian political scientist, told Nadezhdin last week during a YouTube show.
“I am not convinced that our political leadership, at this stage of its development, of its evolution, can allow itself to take such risks.”
Nadezhdin's campaign claims to have far exceeded the 100,000 total signatures required, but a candidate can only submit a maximum of 2,500 from a single Russian region.
On Friday, Nadezhdin's campaign declared that it was on track to gather enough signatures from Russian regions and would not need any from abroad.
But even if Nadezhdin gathers enough signatures, Russian authorities could find a way to disqualify him.
The long, visible lines of support, he has said, will make it more difficult.
Many anti-war Russians initially rallied around Ekaterina Duntsova, a little-known former television journalist and local politician who launched a campaign in November and quickly gained notoriety.
But the Central Election Commission rejected her application for candidacy for what she described as trivial mistakes in your documentation.
He has since supported Nadezhdin.
Members of Navalny's team, including his wife, have also publicly supported the former lawmaker.
So have 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 45 degrees below zero when Popov, head of the campaign, began collecting signatures.
Over time, the weather improved and the crowd increased.
Few places in the city center allowed Popov to set up a stand in support of an anti-Putin candidate.
But he convinced a shopping center to give the operation a space in a hallway, where people could sign at a desk and a folding table.
“If people don't know Boris Nadezhdin, I can tell them who he is,” Popov says.
But he emphasizes that he is not there for Nadezhdin.
“I'm here collecting signatures against Putin,” he tells people.
“We are collecting signatures against Putin, yes, against military action.”
Signatories must give their full name and passport details, making the petition a list of Russians who oppose the war, raising fears of reprisals.
But that has not deterred Karen Danielyan, a 20-year-old from Tver, about 100 miles northwest of Moscow, whose adult life has so far been spent with Russia at war.
“The fear that this will continue like this is much stronger and heavier than the fear that they will do something to me for working collecting signatures,” he said.
Nadezhdin is presented as a nondescript politician who decided to run as an “act of desperation” and accidentally found himself at the head of a movement.
“But, comrades, I have one quality: I love my family and my country infinitely,” he said last week in an appearance on YouTube alongside political analyst Schulmann.
“I infinitely believe that Russia is no worse than any other country and that it can achieve, with the help of democracy, elections and the will of the people, tremendous results.”
Schulmann told him that he would be judged by what happened to the people who had signed his petition.
“I will not betray anyone,” he said. “I will fight.”
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