On the face of it, the task ahead of 31-year-old lawyer Lyubov Sobol seems simple enough. To qualify as a candidate for the September 8 Moscow City Duma elections, Sobol just needs to submit 4,500 verifiable signatures of support by July 6.
But Sobol is not just any candidate. She's a prominent investigator with opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, who has made a name for herself presenting scathing probes into the allegedly illegal privatization of city-owned housing by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and his allies.
She has also probed allegations that a company controlled by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin -- a close friend of President Vladimir Putin who has been dubbed "Putin's chef" because his firms have catered high-profile Kremlin events -- provided substandard food to Moscow schools under an illegal insider contract.
As a result, Sobol has told RFE/RL, her campaign for the city Duma seat from Moscow's 43rd district has faced an onslaught of dirty tactics clearly aimed at intimidating her and her supporters and derailing her candidacy from the beginning.
"I have no doubt that this is being done by the Moscow mayor's office," she says. "No one else stands to benefit, because other than ones supported by the mayor's office, there are no candidates running against me who would want to keep me off the ballot. I believe this is tied either to the presidential administration or to the Moscow mayor's office. In fact, I think they are acting together."
Sobol says she spends much of her time running from one signature-gathering point to another, fending off threats from the police.
"The police show up and start threatening to take the signature collectors to the precinct," she says. "When I show up, the conflict dies down because I am a candidate and they don't have the right to detain me. But they make a lot of problems for the signature collectors."
In addition, Sobol says, groups of "intimidatingly large" men frequently approach her supporters.
"They threaten the collectors, tear up the signed forms, pour soda all over our papers, and then run off," she says. "There is no point in calling the police because they run off quickly. But they destroy our signatures, which is a criminal offense."
"They hide their faces and break our telephones when we try to film them," she continues. "It is the same people showing up at various collection points. Clearly they are not local residents but hired thugs who come just to frighten us and destroy the signatures we gather."
On June 22, three collection points were attacked, with the vandals throwing a large bucket of fecal matter at a campaign poster and the volunteers in two of the incidents.
The private phone number of one of Sobol's head coordinators was posted on a gay-sex website.
In May, Sobol was scheduled to appear on an Internet television program that has been produced by media students of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow for the last three years. Two days before her scheduled May 30 appearance, school officials shut down the project, saying it interfered with classes and exams.
In addition, a variety of Kremlin-friendly candidates have been put forward to contest the district. Initially, Anna Federmesser, who runs a nongovernmental organization that provides palliative care and who enjoyed an amiable exchange with Putin during his June 20 Direct Line call-in show, planned to run.
On May 7, however, Navalny wrote her an open letter in which he warned that Sobyanin's office "wanted to use her in its own interests" and that her candidacy would only enable Unified Russia "to continue stealing and lying." Shortly thereafter, she withdrew her candidacy, saying that Navalny's supporters had launched an unbearable online campaign against her.
After Federmesser's withdrawal, actor Andrei Sokolov and former soccer star Dmitry Bulykin both announced an unexpected interest in representing the 43rd district as "independent candidates."
Sobol's campaign is far from the only opposition political effort experiencing such intimidation. The Moscow campaigns of Ilya Yashin, Dmitry Gudkov, Kirill Goncharov, and others have reported similar attacks against their signature collectors. On June 26, the Navalny headquarters in St. Petersburg reported that its coordinator, Aleksandr Shurshev, was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants outside a local election commission office.
"They are fighting us using the dirtiest tactics of the 1990s," Sobol concludes.
The Chef Strikes Back
Sobol also says that she and her husband have been constantly followed by people filming them. She connects these incidents with her investigations into Prigozhin's firms.
"They are tracking all my movement because I continue to work on the topic of the mass poisonings in kindergartens," she says. "As a lawyer, I am helping parents defend their rights in court.... They are keeping tabs on my movements in order to see whom I am meeting and what kinds of investigations might be published next.... We looked up the license plate numbers of the cars following us and found that they are fake -- they don't match the cars that we saw them on."
In addition to his catering businesses, Prigozhin has been connected to the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. intelligence believes carried out a concerted campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as other online influence campaigns. Prigozhin has also been tied to the Vagner security firm, which provides mercenaries for conflict zones such as eastern Ukraine, Sudan, and Syria.
Despite the dirty tricks employed against her and the bureaucratic hurdles still facing her campaign, Sobol voices optimism about her chances and the prospects for the anti-Putin opposition generally.
"I am convinced that the system is shaking," she tells RFE/RL. "It is really already shaking. The popularity ratings of United Russia, of Vladimir Putin, and of the government are falling. People don't want to support the party of power and they don't trust it."
"So now there are real opportunities for people who represent the democratic opposition to fight back, to win elections, and to stand up for their rights," she adds.
"The authorities haven't been this weak for many years because they really have lost the support of a majority of Russians. Most of the deputies in the Moscow Duma are from United Russia, but when we go door-to-door every day, we see that almost no one supports United Russia. They have no support."