SARATOV, Russia – Early on the morning of February 8, Nikolai Bondarenko, a legislator in Russia's Saratov Oblast, got a phone call asking him to move his car. When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he noticed that the light that had been burning the previous evening was now dark.
"When I entered the dark entranceway that morning, I heard some rustling and saw three large men standing there," the Communist Party lawmaker told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I thought that they had come to deal with me in some other way. After I heard that they were from the police, I even sighed with relief. Better to end up in prison than in a cemetery."
Bondarenko's anxiety continued, however, in the first hours of his detention at a local police precinct as he waited to find out the charges against him. Just days earlier, on February 4, Saratov Oblast Deputy Governor Igor Pivovarov called on prosecutors to investigate Bondarenko, accusing him at a session of the regional legislature of participating in the takeover of a police station at which weapons were held. The accusation stemmed from events at a local demonstration on January 31 in support of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
Bondarenko, however, is convinced that the police attention and other pressure on him in recent days is the result of his February 5 announcement that he intends to run for the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in the single-mandate district in which powerful Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is considering running. The elections are expected to be held in September.
"As the State Duma elections approach, my recent announcement that I plan to run and, if possible, to run against speaker Volodin has raised the stakes," Bondarenko said. "But I am ready for anything, as any person who has made the decision to participate in politics and to fight against this inhumane regime. I am convinced that the hostility of the authorities is only going to grow, and I am not going to get away with just an administrative violation."
Volodin, 57, is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin who served as Putin's first deputy chief of staff from 2011 to 2016 and before that was deputy prime minister in 2010-11 when Putin was prime minister. Volodin, a native of Saratov Oblast who currently holds a party-list Duma seat from the ruling United Russia party, also served as the party's secretary-general from 2005 to 2011.
Growing Public Discontent
The Duma elections, which must be held before September 19, are seen as a major test for United Russia and for Putin amid growing public discontent with the long-running political status quo. Opponents of the ruling party, on the other hand, see an opportunity to weaken or break the Kremlin's iron grip on political power and return at least some opposition representation to the national legislature.
The accusation that Bondarenko was involved in the takeover of a police station is risible, says fellow Communist regional lawmaker Aleksandr Anidalov, who was with Bondarenko on January 31.
"Since there were two demonstrations in two different regions of the city and those being detained were being taken to two different police stations, Nikolai and I decided to split up," Anidalov said. "Since Bondarenko is a rather well-known figure, quite a few demonstrators went with him to the police station. The police got frightened when they saw the crowd and took up a defensive posture. They started making claims about an attempt to take over the station."
"Nikolai managed to talk his way inside, and he was shown all the detainees," Anidalov added. "He made sure that none of them was being accused of organizing the demonstration – only of participating in it."
In the end, Bondarenko was only charged with and convicted of the administrative offense of organizing an illegal demonstration. He was fined 20,000 rubles ($270).
On February 9, a regional legislative commission asked prosecutors to investigate Bondarenko for supposedly "illegal income" generated by his popular YouTube channel, A Deputy's Diary, which has 1.26 million subscribers. His videos frequently garner as many as 500,000 views. His Instagram account is followed by 940,000 people. The entire population of Saratov Oblast is about 2.5 million.
Up And Coming
For the last few years, Bondarenko has been seen as an up-and-coming force within Russian regional politics.
Bondarenko made national headlines in 2018 following a regional legislative discussion of the local survival minimum for pensioners, which at the time stood at 7,176 rubles ($107) a month. Communist deputies proposed adding 500 rubles ($7.50), while the regional administration argued that a bump of 288 rubles ($4.32) was sufficient.
Bondarenko challenged the regional labor and migration minister at the time, Natalya Sokolova, to live for one month spending only half of that amount on food. Sokolova retorted that her status as a minister barred her from accepting such a challenge.
Instead, Bondarenko himself went an entire month, spending just 3,500 rubles ($52) on food – calling it "the minister's diet." The deputy lost 6 kilograms during his ordeal, but Sokolova was dismissed for her "contemptuous attitude toward vital public issues."
Bondarenko made the most of his new prominence, delivering fiery, populist speeches in the legislature and recording them for his YouTube audience. He has become used to having his microphone turned off in mid-sentence.
He supported various protests locally and nationally and was unsparing in his criticism of United Russia and the pro-Kremlin regional administration.
He played a leading role in the region's 2018 protests against a highly unpopular plan to raise retirement ages, which was backed by the Kremlin and United Russia and was adopted that October. The following year, he led local protests against the construction of a plant for dismantling chemical weapons in the Saratov Oblast town of Gorny, calling the project "a second Chernobyl."
'Justice Died…A Long Time Ago'
In a June 2020 incident that was caught on video, Bondarenko was physically attacked on the floor of the legislature by United Russia Deputy Dmitry Chernyshevsky, who held Bondarenko in a headlock and struck him twice on the back with his fist before being restrained by another Communist lawmaker.
At a the stormy legislative session on February 4, during which United Russia lawmakers called Bondarenko and other Communist deputies "criminals" and "traitors," the Communist faction displayed a banner in the chamber reading: "Say no to political repression."
Bondarenko plans to appeal his 20,000-ruble fine for organizing the January 31 protest, although he believes that "justice died in Saratov a long time ago."
The conviction, he said, "was done to stifle all those who are dissenting, who are struggling against the system."
"Using my example and the example of other political activists who are in jail or under investigation, the authorities are trying to make people afraid and create an atmosphere of tension and repression so that everyone will remain silently in their kitchens and let them continue robbing us."
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov argues that the source of the pressure against Bondarenko is more likely local than national, saying that the attention being paid to the case is not in United Russia's interests in the run-up to the elections.
"The previously small number of Communist supporters is now being radicalized and are pressuring their party to join the protests in support of Navalny," Gallyamov said. "Repressions targeting Communists, particularly popular and well-known ones, will only further radicalize the party, which is the second-largest in the country. That would definitely not be in the interests of the regime."
The security services in the regions, Gallyamov said, take their signals from Moscow and are not used to thinking through the political implications of what they are doing.
The pressure on Bondarenko is "absolutely within the framework of the current repressive trend," he said.
"It is apparent that the civilian authorities are losing control over this process," he added. "There is little political management of what is going on and that is why everything has turned out so clumsily…and, as a result, is not weakening the protest mood, but is adding to it."