MOSCOW -- Thirty-five-year-old Sergei Udaltsov may well have the longest rap sheet in Russia. The veteran political activist has been detained by police more than 100 times. Since November 2010, he has spent more than 80 days in jail.
But he keeps coming back for more.
The coordinator of the Left Front movement is one of the most colorful and ardent figures in the Russian political opposition. And, as a lead organizer of the latest March of Millions protest against Vladimir Putin, he is going toe-to-toe with the authorities yet again on September 15.
The demands of the Russian opposition have been honed in the months since the last round of disputed national elections, Udaltsov told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an exclusive interview.
"The basic platform [of the united opposition], if you put it in a nutshell, is genuine political reform and early elections," he said. "Because we do not consider either the Duma deputies elected in December 2011 or the president elected in March to be legitimate for the simple reason that those elections violated the constitution and had massive falsification. In our view, this is a completely persuasive argument in favor of early elections."
Udaltsov rejected suggestions that the opposition has lost its momentum since tens of thousands gathered in Moscow and smaller demonstrations were held in dozens of cities across Russia in the spring and early summer.
"I think the potential for protests grew during the summer," he said. "Even opinion polls by VTsIOM [the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion] and the Levada Center show that the protest mood grew during the summer and the ratings of Putin and Medvedev fell quite a bit. So, September 15, in my opinion, is an ideal time for all of us -- normal society -- to show our strength, and we will all see that the protests haven't gone anywhere, but, on the contrary, have grown stronger."
Udaltsov's political career was launched in 1998 when he founded the radical-leftist Red Youth Avant-Garde (AKM). It was a chaotic time in Russia, as the government of President Boris Yeltsin defaulted on the country's debt and the ruble collapsed.
Udaltsov's movement was angry, defiant, and openly Stalinist. Its red banners were emblazoned with upraised Kalashnikov rifles.
Until quite recently, the website of Udaltsov's Left Front still featured praise for dictators like Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.
But, according to Udaltsov, that's all in the past now.
"I went through all that," he said. "I was a pretty young guy back then and I didn't really understand everything. We all grow up -- even now, I'm sure, I don't ideally understand everything. You have to be learning all the time, educating yourself. I understand this very well. Now, personally, I am very far from any sort of praise for Stalin or other tyrants, any praise for the Soviet period -- although, indubitably, you have to evaluate them objectively."
Udaltsov's goal now is to keep the political opposition united in its call for new legislative and presidential elections.
Political competition and accountability to the public are his strategic objectives. Once a competitive political system is established, Udaltsov said, he will be eager to put his leftist, state-interventionist economic views before the voters.
For now, though, Udaltsov's gaze is focused on the September 15 March of Millions. He maintained that the scuffles between police and protesters that occurred during the march on May 6 were a "provocation" by the authorities, who he claimed were looking for excuses to crack down on protesters and arrest them.
Udaltsov noted that the authorities continue to use the May 6 violence as a pretext to detain and question opposition figures.
"It is our responsibility to minimize the risk of being drawn into provocations [by the authorities]," he said. "We cannot stop demonstrating in the streets -- at the present time we have no other mechanism for pressuring the authorities in order to achieve our demands. We have to do everything to minimize the risk of provocations."
For Udaltsov, the best possible scenario in the current situation is the least likely. The "smartest move" for the government, he suggested, would be for Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to go to the demonstration on September 15 and announce from the podium the opening of a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. Doing that -- and following it up with the establishment of a working group -- would be the best and fastest way to reduce the current tensions in Russian society.
Udaltsov said he believes Russians turned decisively away from Putin and Medvedev after the September 2011 United Russia party congress, at which the two men revealed that they had decided years ago that Medvedev would not seek a second term and that Putin would return to the Kremlin.
In Udaltsov's view, tensions have been building since then and the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous.
"If a real economic crisis comes on top of all this, it will definitely produce a revolutionary situation and the current authorities won't be able to hold on no matter what," he said. "They have to understand this. If they want to leave power in a civilized way -- so that they don't end up hanging from a lamp post, to use a colorful image -- they need to begin a dialogue with society now. Otherwise, it will be too late."
Written by Robert Coalson in Prague based on reporting by Danila Galperovich in Moscow