The September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma produced many surprises. But perhaps the most unexpected result came in District No. 3, where an engineer who is virtually unknown and did not campaign defeated the candidate supported by the ruling United Russia party and took the seat.
Commenting on the result the day after the election, former State Duma deputy and opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov -- who was himself disqualified from running in the elections because Moscow election officials rejected his qualifying signatures -- noted of the District No. 3 victor that "no one has even seen him yet."
The new deputy, 32-year-old Aleksandr Solovyov, registered as a candidate from the A Just Russia party in the district where an opposition politician who was also named Aleksandr Solovyov was gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Registering candidates with the same name as competitive opponents is an old dirty trick in the playbook of post-Soviet managed elections -- and that seems to be what was going on in District No. 3. The spoiler candidate is introduced to confuse voters and split the opponent's support, if he is allowed to run.
According to a report in the daily Kommersant on August 29, the Moscow office of the A Just Russia party was not able to answer any questions about its supposed candidate, engineer Solovyov. On September 10, A Just Russia official Larisa Podosinova told RFE/RL the Kommersant report was "wrong."
"Of course he is our candidate – a young man, a member of the party, responsible, good-looking, presentable," she added.
The genuine oppositionist Solovyov, a close associate of Gudkov's, ended up having his signatures rejected by the Moscow Election Commission. His home was searched by police. Four days before the elections, he was sentenced to 20 days of house arrest for repeatedly participating in unsanctioned demonstrations.
In addition, another strong would-be candidate in District No. 3, Communist Timur Abushayev, was disqualified because on his asset declaration, he merely crossed out the place for declaring "foreign assets" instead of writing the word, "None."
None of that was surprising, perhaps, given the tense atmosphere surrounding the election campaign and the Moscow administration's heavy-handed tactics against the opposition. The surprising part came next.
After large-scale protests, court cases, hunger strikes, and appeals to the Central Election Commission failed to reinstate any of the disqualified independent candidates, opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny announced the tactic of "smart voting," urging voters to come to the polls and vote for the candidate on the ballot who was most likely to defeat the United Russia-backed candidate, no matter what party he or she might represent. The idea was to demonstrate the ruling party's unpopularity and, ideally, to deprive it of its majority in the new city legislature.
As part of the smart-voting campaign, Navalny, Gudkov, and the disqualified Aleksandr Solovyov urged voters in District No. 3 to vote for -- the spoiler, Aleksandr Solovyov. And when the ballots were tallied, Solovyov had edged out United Russia candidate Sabina Tsvetkova (the wife of the head of the Officers of Russia movement who, like all the United Russia candidates, was technically running as an independent) by about 800 votes.
On the ballot, Solovyov was described as a "project engineer" for a firm called Stroiproyekt. That was virtually all that anyone knew about him. He did not run any campaign advertisements or make any appearances. He appeared in four short videos on a website called Vote Moscow, which appears to be a pro-United Russia project, in which he gives short position statements on topics like the construction of playgrounds or the renovation of public green spaces.
In the videos, he appears to be reading from simple texts and in some cases speaks haltingly, pronouncing the words syllable by syllable. "It is an ecological breakthrough for the preservation…. And it is the preservation of the ecology," he said in his comments about environmental issues in District No. 3, which covers the Mitino district.
Using the photograph that appears on the Vote Moscow site, RFE/RL identified Solovyov's page on the social-media site VK, which he runs with the user name "Inquisitor."
The page says Solovyov was born in March 1988 and is married. He is interested in rock music and cars. He travelled with a female companion to Vladimir and St. Petersburg in an older-model Hyundai Getz. The page says that he works for a construction firm called Intus, but a spokesman for the company told RFE/RL that he left the firm about two years ago.
'Never Interested In Politics'
The VK profile does not provide any indication that Solovyov has ever taken an interest in politics or public life.
Solovyov has not posted anything on the page since 2016, although he logged on as recently as the day before the vote. He did not respond to requests for comment from RFE/RL sent through VK.
A social-media "friend" of Solovyov's, who asked not to be identified, did respond to RFE/RL's inquiries, expressing astonishment at the news that Solovyov was now a Moscow lawmaker.
"What? A deputy! Seriously?" the friend responded, adding that Solovyov "was never very interested in politics."
Since his election, a number of well-wishers have posted on Solovyov's page to congratulate him. Among them was disqualified would-be Communist candidate Abushayev, who said he voted for Solovyov. Several of the well-wishers noted Solovyov's "brilliant campaign," and one urged him to "share his experience with other regions."
Podosinova, of the Moscow branch of A Just Russia, refused RFE/RL's request for Solovyov's telephone number, saying that he would be available to journalists after he formally accepts his mandate.
On September 10, A Just Russia posted photographs of party head Sergei Mironov meeting with Solovyov and another successful party candidate in his office at the State Duma.
According to the press release, the victorious candidates "shared their impressions from the election campaign and emphasized that they constantly felt the support and cooperation of the A Just Russia party."