Russia: Boris Kagarlitsky on the Nadezhdin phenomenon

Boris Nadezhdin

First published at Russian Dissent.

It has long been the consensus of the political scientists that elections in Russia solve nothing. And in fact, no matter how free and competitive any one election might be, throughout Russian history there has never been a change of power as a result of the popular vote. But even on this basis it is somewhat premature to conclude that elections do not matter. After all, the changing balance of forces and opinions in society still finds its reflection in the behavior of voters. And as power resorts more and more to outright falsification, its internal unity weakens as a result.

In mid-January, two characters sharply pushed aside President Putin as the most-searched personages on the Russian-language internet. The first of these was the cat Twix, who tragically died on a railway voyage somewhere between St. Petersburg and Kirov. The conductor in the carriage, seeing the feline running out of his carrier, mistook the poor fellow for a hobo and threw him off the car, into the minus-thirty-degree frost outside. Several thousand people searched for the cat later, but were unable to save the poor creature. When he was found dead, hundreds of thousands angrily demanded punishment for the perpetrator of the crime. Government authorities urgently adopted new rules prohibiting railroad employees from throwing cats and dogs off trains (now known as the Twix the Cat Law). Some politicians are already calling for a monument to Twix.

But since January 19, presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin has drawn more public attention than not only Putin but even he cat. Nadezhdin's popularity began to grow around January 15, and by January 20 it became clear that he had a real chance of collecting the hundred thousand signatures required to be included on the ballot. Thousands of people waited for hours on the cold, snowy streets to add their signature. In Yakutia, people stood even in negative-forty-degree frost. This wave was also joined by numerous repatriated Russians, who had fled the country to avoid mobilization in the fall of 2022. Meetings of Nadezhdin’s supporters spread like mushrooms even in those regions that had not previously been characterized by high protest activity.

As the frenzy for signatures continued, the established opposition forces at last were forced to pay attention to the candidate. As expected, the emergence of a real opportunity to organize citizens on the ground led to an immediate split in the opposition, both liberal and left. The majority those dissidents operating safely abroad unanimously declared the futility and even harm of any public activity related to the elections, especially since nothing good can happen in Putin’s Russia. In contrast, opposition activists who have remained in Russia became increasingly involved in collecting signatures, and even felt a growing optimism. Certainly, there were exceptions in both of these camps. But what is fundamentally important in this case is not what certain politicians think about what is happening, but the extent to which and in what form Nadezhdin’s campaign manifests or reflects serious political trends.

Boris Nadezhdin did not simply criticize the authorities, thought he did so much more harshly than officially permitted opposition candidates had allowed themselves even in freer times. But he directly declared himself as an opponent of the war with Ukraine and a supporter of radical democratic changes at home. In turn, intellectuals and politicians who hastened to distance themselves from this candidate insisted that he was clearly acting with the consent of the Kremlin, or at least some of its factions, and therefore did not deserve anyone's cooperation.

That Nadezhdin is connected with some groups within the current government is undoubtedly true. But this is precisely why this campaign ought to be taken extremely seriously. Most observers of Kremlin policy over the past three to four months have noted obvious inconsistencies and contradictions in the decisions being issued. But in fact, what they see is not inconsistency, but the struggle between opposing factions with different and even conflicting aims. This is not even a matter of confederates with simple differences in approaches and methods, but of antagonists fighting among themselves. The Nadezhdin phenomenon is a reflection of this struggle.

Naturally, we are not talking about the fact that the anti-war candidate will receive a majority of votes. But if he is allowed to participate in the elections at all, he will receive quite a lot of support, the only response to will be massive election fraud from the authorities; this could, in turn, undermine the legitimacy of the next plebiscite. This will be difficult to hide, especially amidst a split in the elites. Too many in and around the Kremlin are now interested in disrupting the elections. This in turn will provoke a further round of intra-elite struggle, against the background of restless civic activity spurred by Nadezhdin’s speeches.

Few care much about how good or bad a given candidate is; no one reads his program, and in his speeches they hear only calls for peace and change. But these calls, vague though they may be, clearly resonate with the mood of a growing number - perhaps the overwhelming majority - of Russian citizens.

A telling symptom of the decomposition of our unified political system was the unexpected performance of the popular singer Shaman, whose latest video was released on January 18, precisely on the anniversary of the arrest of Alexei Navalny. The clip calls for support for those who have suffered for the truth and shows viewers the image of a shackled fighter walking through a gauntlet of persecutors. It was immediately met with a stream of comments calling for the release of political prisoners and a change of power in Russia; the number of views after two days exceeded two million. It is surely notable that, until recently, Shaman was something of an official voice of the Putin regime, a model not just of loyalty, but also an example for those other pop musicians who were in no hurry to perform songs praising power.

The video, which took about a month and a half to prepare (about the same time as it took to launch Nadezhdin’s campaign), appeared just when a turning point was emerging in the collection of signatures, when it had become clear that the opposition candidate's chances were not as slim as they seemed at first glance. One can, of course, regard this as merely a strange coincidence, but there have lately been an awful lot of such coincidences, especially after rumors about the death of President Putin circulated at the end of last October. Regardless of how alive, healthy, or (perhaps) dead the Russian president is, it is obvious that the function he has always performed - that of moderator, uniting various factions of power and overcoming their contradictions - is no longer being performed by anyone. Therefore, Nadezhdin’s campaign represents a really significant political challenge: if not for the system as a whole, then at least for its conservative faction. We will know in the very near future how serious this challenge will be.

Translated by Dan Erdman