TOMSK, Russia -- When Aleksei Navalny arrived in this Siberian city in August, the opposition leader gathered supporters at his local headquarters to applaud their efforts in an ongoing regional election campaign and give a motivating speech tinged with his usual mix of sarcasm and dark humor.
But Andrei Fateyev, who was among those in attendance, says Navalny became serious when a supporter posed a question he's been asked repeatedly during his decade of activism against President Vladimir Putin's rule and corruption among Russia's elite: Why haven't they killed you yet?
"He said he understood the authorities were weighing the risks of various methods," Fateyev recalled this week in the Navalny team's modest office near the Tomsk city center, "but they probably figure it'd be worse to kill him than let him continue his work."
The assumption seemed to shatter when, en route back to Moscow on August 20, Navalny fell violently ill. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where he was placed in a coma and kept in a local hospital until he was flown for treatment to Berlin following desperate pleas from his relatives and aides.
German officials would subsequently confirm he had been poisoned with Novichok, a class of Soviet-developed nerve agents, prompting a diplomatic scandal and repeated denials of involvement from the Kremlin.
Navalny's poisoning sent shock waves through Russia's opposition, intensifying the soul-searching that had already begun against the backdrop of increased state repression and a Kremlin-controlled political climate that can appear impenetrable. But for Fateyev and other Navalny supporters in Tomsk, it served to galvanize their resolve to break the Kremlin's hold on power in Russia.
"It was like a red flag to a bull. It motivated us," said Fateyev, 32. "When you confront lawlessness and injustice, it really riles you up."
Fighting The Power, Paying The Price
Along with 28-year-old Ksenia Fadeyeva, who leads Navalny's operations in Tomsk, Fateyev ran for election to the city council and won. Their candidacies triumphed less through any sympathy for Navalny, they say, but thanks to the huge popularity -- 4 million views and counting -- of a video they recorded with help from Navalny's team, exposing corrupt schemes they say are run in the city by members of the ruling United Russia party.
Published 10 days before the September 13 election, it was the kind of slick, immersive documentary that has attracted millions of subscribers to Navalny's YouTube channel in recent years, featuring drone photography of lavish mansions allegedly owned by United Russia officials and screenshots of documents implicating them in illicit activities.
"People started recognizing us on the streets," Fadeyeva said. "And some would curse United Russia as they walked past." Fateyev said that the number of people signed up to Navalny's political campaign in Tomsk soon doubled.
Even before his poisoning, Navalny's employees across Russia had been subject to police raids, arrests, and fines for their political activism. Fadeyeva has spent a combined 25 days in jail, had her car vandalized and the door to her apartment sealed shut with spray foam by assailants who were never identified. In a recent raid of the apartment Fateyev shares with his brother, police seized the computer equipment his brother relies on for income as a programmer. It has yet to be returned, Fateyev said.
Despite the harassment, Fadeyeva and Fateyev say they advocate an open, transparent political style that in many ways is an extension of their activities as Navalny's regional acolytes. The door to the unassuming office block that houses their fifth-floor headquarters is open: anyone can ascend the stairs and ask them for help. They do nothing to hide their ties to Navalny, whom state media malign as a Western agent -- his name is displayed on plaques outside the Tomsk office. And voters can easily access team members' mobile numbers and call them to arrange a meeting. "We don't refuse anyone," Fadeyeva said.
'Smart Voting,' But Smarter
It's the kind of fresh approach they hope will fill a deficit in trust toward politicians that pervades Russian society. Ahead of important elections to the Russian parliament and other regional legislative bodies next year, Navalny's teams across Russia plan to mount a campaign to tap a protest vote that has led to unlikely victories not only for their own candidates in Tomsk and Novosibirsk, another Siberian city, but for other candidates across the country who represent an alternative to United Russia, which is close to Putin.
"There's a demand for a different type of political communication," said Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist. "It's a demand for a more compassionate, more humane public behavior, and for honesty and justice. And whoever gets this will be the beneficiary of the next political cycle."
Last year, Navalny launched a strategy aimed at breaking United Russia's political monopoly by elevating rival candidates considered most likely to defeat it. He called it "Smart Voting." But with some of those candidates representing radical parties or susceptible to the ruling party's influence upon election, Schulmann says, the challenge for Navalny when he returns to Russia will be to not only turn the protest sentiment against Kremlin-backed politicians but ensure that the politicians he nurtures capture those votes themselves.
"This state of general distrust is, I think, uncomfortable for any society. People want to trust somebody -- anybody," Schulmann said. But, she added, Navalny "has not been a beneficiary of this missing trust -- as of yet."
'You Are The Minority Now'
For Fadeyeva, the election result in Tomsk serves as a warning to United Russia that endemic corruption and a disengagement from people's issues can no longer cut it. The party's popularity has fallen nationwide in recent years, and its control of the Tomsk council was gutted with help from Navalny's Smart Voting strategy: United Russia garnered just 24 percent in the September 13 election, losing 21 of the 32 seats it held in the 37-seat chamber.
"It's unclear what the government can do," Fadeyeva said. "If they don't register [opposition] candidates, they'll have protests like in Moscow," where thousands rallied last summer against the exclusion of independent politicians from elections to the city council. "If they register them and falsify the vote, then they'll have even more serious protests."
Allowing opposition candidates to run in next year's elections could be a "catastrophe" for the Kremlin too, she said -- because fellow deputies and residents will see that these "are not crazy street marginals running with a megaphone from one police van to another at protests, but people who actually talk sense."
Last week, deputies in the Tomsk city council divided into committees focused on different local issues. Fadeyeva and Fateyev joined the committee tasked with overseeing the budget, property, and local economy -- a way to have greater access and oversight to the money flows they've long investigated, as outsiders, as Navalny's representatives in Tomsk.
Fadeyeva is not waiting to make her mark, or mincing her words. In her first speech as a city councilwoman on October 5, she issued a scathing indictment of Russia's political system under Putin's rule and the conditions in which opposition activists operate -- the kind of blistering tirade that few deputies of the legislative body had probably ever witnessed.
"The city of Tomsk cannot exist outside the context of Russia, where the political field over the past two decades has been deliberately purged: independent media have been destroyed, human rights persecuted, and criminal cases launched against opposition activists who've had their homes searched and sometimes been killed," she said.
Real wages had fallen for six years straight, she went on, and the retirement age raised as part of highly unpopular reforms passed in 2018.
She then turned to members of the Kremlin-backed party who had managed to secure seats on the council, their combined number representing a shadow of the influence they once wielded.
"Respected deputies from United Russia," she told them. "Now you are the opposition. You are the minority."