To Putin’s Surprise, an Opponent is Rising
Boris Nadezhdin’s campaign has, almost overnight, become a rallying point for pro-democracy and anti-war activists.
THE RUSSIAN “PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION” scheduled for mid-March was supposed to be, like the last two votes in 2012 and 2018, a stage-managed event with no surprises: an empty national ritual in which the Russian people affirm their submission to the tsar, while a few well-vetted “rival candidates” (the Communist, the nationalist, the tame liberal) appear on the ballot in a quaint concession to the appearance of democracy. Certainly, no one expected this scenario to be disrupted in wartime, with the last remnants of freedom and civil society in Russia being snuffed out.
Yet the plan seems to have gone awry, with the tame liberal du jour, former Duma member and government official Boris Nadezhdin, apparently stepping out of his prescribed role to mount a real challenge—not so much to Putin, who is guaranteed a victory regardless of how many votes he gets, as to the Russian political system itself.
There are three types of liberals in Russia today: (1) the “systemic” or “tame” liberals who participate in the regime’s fake politics, never doing much if anything to challenge Putin’s power and often enabling it; (2) the “non-systemic” liberals who eschew Russia’s rigged, formal politics and instead focus on popular mobilization and international outreach (and who, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, increasingly find themselves serving lengthy jail terms); and (3) secret liberals, whose existence is testified to only by the occasional act of protest or dissent.
Nadezhdin—somehow—has a foot in all three of those camps.
WHEN NADEZHDIN FIRST ANNOUNCED his presidential run as a candidate of Civic Initiative, an eleven-year-old party with a history of backing systemic liberals such as TV personality and Putin family friend Ksenia Sobchak, most opposition members shrugged.
There were plenty of reasons to regard Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old mathematician and physicist with a second career in law who first got into politics in the freewheeling 1990s, as solidly embedded in the Putinoid political establishment. He had participated in officially sanctioned politics throughout the Putin era—including the Duma, Russia’s pretend parliament (albeit early in the Putin presidency, 1999 to 2003, when the Duma was not yet the puppet show of later years). Moreover, he had, in the Yeltsin administration, been an aide to Sergei Kiriyenko, currently Putin’s first deputy chief of staff.
But Nadezhdin also had ties to the non-systemic Putin opposition: He had a long association with Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader murdered in 2015, and supported the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after the latter’s arrest in 2003. And he is the only candidate—after the disqualification of television journalist Yekaterina Duntsova— openly opposing the war against Ukraine, which Nadezhdin’s campaign manifesto calls “a fatal mistake.” (That might seem like weak sauce, but properly calling the war a “crime” would mean instant exit from the race and entry into the slammer.) He is also the only candidate openly opposing Putin, whom he accuses of “dragging Russia into the past.”
After Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as the last independent voices were purged from Russian media, Nadezhdin played “house liberal” on official Russian television, appearing as a guest on the NTV talk show Mesto vstrechi (“Meeting Place”). Those gigs, however, came to an end after a May 2023 appearance in which Nadezhdin called not only for an end to the war in Ukraine but for Putin’s ejection from the Kremlin:
Under the current political regime, we don’t have any chance of returning to Europe. We simply need to elect different national leadership which will put an end to this Ukraine business and build a normal relationship with European countries. And then everything will fall back into place. We’ve got presidential elections next year. We need to elect someone else, not Putin, and everything will be fine.
(Notably, that segment was later excised from the video on the NTV site.)
Despite the early skepticism, by mid-January the Russian opposition and dissident media in exile showed a dramatic shift in their attitude toward Nadezhdin. On January 20, journalist Michael Nacke recorded a video titled “Hold your nose and sign,” referring to the signatures Nadezhdin needed for his nominating petition to get on the ballot. Nacke opened his monologue by noting that he had not intended to cover the Russian elections, “an unimportant carnival that has no relation to real life,” but now, he said, things had changed, and he was urging people to sign the petition, donate money to Nadezhdin’s campaign, and even volunteer for it. Nacke stressed that even though
Nadezhdin is indeed a candidate officially greenlit by the Kremlin, nonetheless, you should in fact put down your signature for Boris Nadezhdin, and you should in fact help Boris Nadezhdin. Not in order to help him win—that’s not going to happen, and most likely he won’t even be allowed into the actual presidential race—but in order to put even more pressure on the Russian regime, which is currently experiencing pressure from all sides in the run-up to the elections.
What changed? Nacke cited several factors which convinced him that Nadezhdin wanted to be a real challenger, including his meeting with the protesting wives of mobilized soldiers on January 11 (“a very classy move which shows that he is really campaigning”) and, even more, his decision to start collecting signatures from Russian expatriates in Georgia.
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There were other startling signs that the tame liberal was off the leash. Starting in late December, Nadezhdin started giving interviews to non grata journalists and media outlets—among them the Khodorkovsky-financed YouTube channel Khodorkovsky Live; Yekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko, both hosts on the exiled network TV Rain; expatriate journalist Yulia Latynina, currently classed as a “foreign agent”; and Nino Rosebashvili, who hosts a show on the YouTube channel run by the team of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
The opposition activists and journalists who were suddenly speaking of Nadezhdin in respectful and even hopeful tones were also impressed by the footage of Russians lining up outside Nadezhdin’s campaign offices in the bitter cold to sign his ballot-access petitions. Many noted that these lines were becoming de facto antiwar and anti-Putin protests—that is, a way for Russians to lawfully express their opposition to Putin and the war in Ukraine, at a time when a 72-year-old retiree can get five and a half years in a penal colony for social media posts critical of the war. It’s “the only remaining way to say that you’re against the war without getting whacked on the head,” as one Russian YouTube commenter succinctly put it. It’s a way to find fellow dissenters, too: “These days, it’s a rarity to meet and talk to like-minded people so openly,” wrote another YouTube user who that said that she had spent an hour in line outside Nadezhdin’s campaign office in Ufa.
Under Russian law, a candidate needs 100,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot. By January 31—the deadline for submitting signatures to the Central Electoral Commission—Nadezhdin had collected 200,000 signatures, not counting the ones from expatriates. He ended up submitting 105,000 signatures, the maximum allowed by law. “I can tell you, hand to heart, I swear,” Nadezhdin told the media after filing the paperwork, “our signatures—this is the first time in the history of presidential elections in Russia, I swear, where people actually stood in line to sign.”
WHAT HAPPENS NOW IS ANYBODY’S GUESS. The Central Electoral Commission has to make its decision on whether to allow Nadezhdin on the ballot by February 10. Disqualifying him on technicalities could be a major embarrassment. As Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center expert Andrei Kolesnikov said in an interview, “Disqualification could turn into a scandal the scope of which is difficult to gauge,” particularly in such a volatile and unpredictable climate. (That signing petitions to get Nadezhdin on the ballot could turn into a vehicle for protest was itself, Kolesnikov noted, a sign of such unpredictability.) While the suppression of unauthorized protests has been especially brutal in Russia since the start of the war, a rally in support of a candidate seen as unfairly disqualified would not run afoul of wartime laws against “discrediting the armed forces.” Nadezhdin has already said that if he is refused registration, he will not only appeal but use all legal means, with his supporters, to get official approval for rallies across the country.
Then again, letting Nadezhdin run could be an even bigger headache for the authorities—not because he could win, but because his campaign could continue to galvanize the opposition, and if he did get a significant share of the vote, it would shatter the official narrative of popular unity cemented around Putin. A poll in late January found that nearly 8 percent of voters, and more than 10 percent of those definitely planning to vote, wanted to cast a vote for Nadezhdin. Such a result would embarrass the regime: He would come in second to Putin, handily beating other pro-Kremlin candidates. Nadezhdin’s share of the vote could be even larger if he could spend more than a month campaigning as a candidate on the ballot. As he put it in one recent interview: “A month ago I was at 1 percent, now I’m at 10 percent, and in a month—I’m scared even to give the number.”
Given all these complications, it’s difficult to argue that Nadezhdin, like other officially sanctioned liberal candidates in the past, is a “Kremlin project.” As TV Rain’s Mikhail Fishman has pointed out, there also doesn’t seem to be a need for such a “project” at the moment: While Sobchak’s candidacy in 2018 was intended to drain support from Navalny, who had been barred from running but was still galvanizing his fans, there is currently no visible opposition candidate on or off the ballot.
WHAT, THEN, EXPLAINS THE NADEZHDIN PHENOMENON? Most independent Russian pundits agree that the Kremlin simply miscalculated, never expecting the “house liberal” to take his assigned role as the Potemkin candidate seriously. Writer Dmitry Bykov has cited as a parallel Roberto Rossellini’s 1959 film General Della Rovere, in which a smalltime crook recruited by the Gestapo to pose as a resistance leader steps into the role for real.1
The independent Russian-language site Verstka reported, supposedly based on insider information, that Nadezhdin’s candidacy was initially greenlit by a Kremlin faction that included his former boss Kiriyenko, but this “clan” withdrew all support for Nadezhdin when he became too outspoken in his criticism not only of the “special military operation” in Ukraine but of Putin himself.
Be that as it may, for now Nadezhdin is in the race and seems to be emboldened. At a time when this election’s faux candidates are either bowing out of the race or all but openly admitting that their candidacy is a joke, Nadezhdin—who had earlier told reporters that he hoped mainly to “stay alive and free” at the end of the campaign—has recently taken to discussing what he will do when he wins. There is, no doubt, a strong element of trolling in such statements: In one recent interview, asked whether he fears reprisals against people who signed petitions to get him on the ballot, Nadezhdin replied that he could definitely promise no reprisals against Putin supporters if he won and was “hoping for a symmetrical resolution of this issue.”
THERE IS ALSO WIDESPREAD AGREEMENT among the independent Russian commentariat that Nadezhdin is a threat to the Putin regime—again, not because he could win, but because whether or not he’s allowed to get on the ballot, his candidacy could erode the symbolism on which so much of Putin’s rule is based. This view is confirmed by the fact that Nadezhdin has already become a target for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. The day before he submitted the signatures backing his nomination, TV-1’s infamous host Vladimir Solovyov launched a particularly virulent and vile attack, describing Nadezhdin as a “pathetic little man” who had “decided to somehow scrounge up some money in his old age” and bumbled into a political misadventure that could end in treason charges because he’s too dim to realize he’s being manipulated. The collection of signatures for Nadezhdin, the sneering Solovyov explained, was being used as cover for activating subversive networks run by Khodorkovsky, “the Navalny cubs,” and “Ukrainian special services”—all of it “curated, as I understand, by an Israeli citizen, Katz.” (That’s a reference to Maxim Katz, an exiled Russian politician, activist, and video blogger who spent ten years living in Israel as a child and teenager but has previously denied having dual Russian-Israeli citizenship; the thinly veiled antisemitic swipe is par for the course for Solovyov, who frequently touts his own Jewish background when convenient.)
As if that weren’t enough, Nadezhdin has also been under attack from the opposite end of the political spectrum: Kremlin foes who believe he’s either a Kremlin puppet or a pseudo-liberal giving cover to Russian imperialism. In late January, Russian-born German political scientist Sergej Sumlenny posted a long Twitter thread that purports to use Nadezhdin’s own words to convict him as a faux liberal. Some of Sumlenny’s examples are blatantly unfair and rely on skewed summaries or out-of-context quotes. He accuses Nadezhdin of putting “respect for Russian soldiers over Ukraine’s suffering,” but the actual quote is more nuanced: “I will serve my country and protect, among other things, the guys whom our political leadership forced to go to the frontlines. Russia is my first priority, with full respect and understanding for the suffering of the Ukrainian people.” Sumlenny also accuses Nadezhdin of recycling the claim that Ukrainians are really Russians (and therefore Ukraine isn’t real); yet in context, Nadezhdin’s actual words—“Ukrainians are the same as Russians”—are clearly meant to say that Ukrainians have the same fighting spirit and passion to defend their homeland. In another instance, Sumlenny misrepresents a riff in which Nadezhdin sarcastically mocks Russian propaganda tropes uncovering “oppressed Russians” everywhere as a serious, and loony, claim that Native Americans are really transplanted Russians oppressed by “Anglo-Saxons.”
But while these are tendentious attacks that reflect Sumlenny’s dismissive attitude toward the possibility of liberal democracy (or even liberal democrats) in Russia, he’s not the only one to raise questions about Nadezhdin’s commitment to liberal values—and his trustworthiness. TV Rain’s Yekaterina Kotrikadze points out that Nadezhdin once backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea; today, he adopts an evasive “Crimea for Crimeans” stance. He also backs referenda in the four Ukrainian regions currently claimed and partly occupied by Russia to decide whether they should be Ukrainian or Russians; this is generally seen as a Russia-friendly position (though Nadezhdin adds the wrinkle of allowing refugees who have fled those regions since the start of the war to participate, which would greatly increase the likelihood of Ukrainian victory). And he has pledged not to extradite Putin or convicted war criminal Igor “Strelkov” Girkin to the Hague.
To all this, Nadezhdin’s defenders say that the answer is simple: He is in Russia and has to be careful not to cross certain lines lest he land in prison—or, at the very least, be unpersoned as a “foreign agent.” Indeed, a pro-Putin “activist” and snitch, Vitaly Borodin, has already sent a complaint to the Prosecutor’s General Office demanding that Nadezhdin be branded with the “foreign agent” label.
THE REALITY REMAINS that Nadezhdin is a Russian presidential candidate who not only opposes the war and promises to free political prisoners but speaks harsh truths about Russia’s authoritarian turn in the Putin era. According to his manifesto:
For almost 25 years, Putin has been consistently destroying the key institutions of the modern state: an independent parliament, an independent judiciary, federalism, local self-government, freedom of speech, fair elections, and real competition in the economy and politics. . . . State propaganda is turning Russians from creatures of reason to creatures of hate.
Regardless of his actual electoral chances (zero, barring a far-fetched scenario in which a powerful Kremlin faction plans to use Nadezhdin to oust Putin as a way to end the war and patch things up with the West), Nadezhdin may have already accomplished the goal of reawakening independent political and civic life in Russia. Many commentators discussing his candidacy have used the term dvizhukha, which can mean anything from “turmoil” to “heavy action” to “momentum,” to refer to the agitation around Nadezhdin. If nothing else, it contributes to a tangible sense of instability and volatility in Russia—amid Ukrainian strikes on Russian soil, increasingly open discontent among soldiers’ families, and signs of unrest in the country’s ethnically diverse regions.
Whether or not the Nadezhdin momentum has “changed everything,” as Nadezhdin himself told an interviewer after submitting his signatures, remains to be seen. But there may be a symbolism—certainly one frequently noted by his fans—in the fact that the name Nadezhdin derives from nadezhda, Russian for “hope.” Even in Putin’s Russia, apparently, it springs eternal.