MOSCOW -- The numbers tell the story of 27-year-old Anastasia Bryukhanova's uphill effort to be registered as an independent candidate for the State Duma in Moscow's 198th single-mandate district.
Ahead of the August 3 deadline, she submitted 15,941 signatures from voters endorsing her candidacy to city election officials. According to an accounting she posted on Facebook that day, the effort cost her campaign 21 million rubles ($284,000). It took 600 volunteers and produced over 30 kilograms of paper. In all, Bryukhanova personally signed 4,968 pieces of paper.
When she handed over the four large boxes of paper, she placed the fate of her campaign in the hands of her Moscow district election commission. Under one of at least 19 significant changes to the country's election law that the United Russia party -- which supports longtime President Vladimir Putin -- introduced since the country's last election, the limit for "disqualified" signatures was reduced from 10 percent to 5 percent. Many observers say the changes are part of an effort by the unpopular ruling party to secure a majority in the next Duma during the September 17-19 vote at all costs.
There was a sense of deja vu for Bryukhanova, who has held a local council seat in the Moscow region of Shchukino since 2016. In 2019, she -- like many other independent would-be candidates -- was disqualified from seeking a seat on the Moscow City Duma after officials disqualified a large portion of the signatures she submitted.
But she was determined to make sure that does not happen again. When election officials contacted her on August 11, they reported that only 165 signatures -- just 1.04 percent -- had been disqualified. Bryukhanova posted on Facebook that she expects to be handed her official campaign registration documents on August 13. The victory was not a chance occurrence, but the result of intense planning borne of her bitter 2019 experience.
Last time, she told RFE/RL, many signatures were disqualified because the information on the citizen's passport did not match the entry in the database of the Federal Migration Service. In some cases, her campaign was able to get such determinations overturned by submitting photographs of the passports in question within a deadline of roughly one week.
"The Central Election Commission could see that one thing was written in the passport and another in the database," Bryukhanova said. "They had to admit that the passport was more accurate and that the database had an error."
This time around, Bryukhanova's campaign was proactive -- photographing in advance the passport of everyone who agreed to sign her petition.
A second group of signatures was disqualified in 2019 on the basis of "handwriting analysis."
"They had graphologists who would say things like that the dates were written in different handwriting as if a voter from, say, Fili came over to Ramenki and wrote down the date for some other voter," Bryukhanova explained.
To combat objections of this sort, Bryukhanova's team recorded each voter filling out the form on video so that they could prove that all the blanks were filled out by the appropriate voter. "If they suddenly want to disqualify some signature, we can immediately produce the video and tell them that they have made a mistake," she said.
She adds that, to her surprise, very few voters were reluctant to expose their personal data in this way or to be recorded signing a petition in support of an independent candidate. On the contrary, many expressed indignation that authorities would try to disqualify their contribution as if they weren't "proper citizens."
"In all my campaigns, on my banners and on the tables, I place a large photograph of my own passport," Bryukhanova said. "Any voter who wants is free to photograph it.... It turns out that there isn't really a particular crisis of trust in our society -- that is more likely an artificial construct. We all think that we don't trust one another, but it turns out this isn't true."
'Where Everyone Opposes Putin'
The extraordinary measures taken in an attempt to force the authorities to accept her signatures didn't come cheap. Bryukhanova says she raised all the money from small individual donations by appearing nearly daily on livestreams on YouTube and other social media. The channel of journalist Ilya Varlamov, with some 2.7 million subscribers, was particularly helpful, she says, bringing both donations and volunteers to her campaign.
"We were able to raise 21 million rubles -- which is an amazing sum," she said. "I also have well-developed social media. After all, this is not my first year in politics. For me, TikTok has been a discovery."
"I recorded a video that showed our office and I used the slogan: 'This is what a place looks like where everyone is against Putin,'" she added. "It was a success on TikTok and hundreds of thousands of people saw it. More than 100 people came to volunteer because they wanted to be in a place where everyone opposes Putin and everyone is working to change Russia."
Winning approval of her signatures, however, is only the beginning of the battle. After officials register her candidacy, the real fight begins. Virtually all of the money she has raised to date has already been spent during the signature-gathering phase. She'll need to retain virtually all of her 600 volunteers if she is to assign the legally allowed two observers to each polling station in her district.
This year, the authorities have authorized three days of voting, which, Bryukhanova concedes, will be an exhausting marathon for observers. "They will need monstrous vigilance," she said. "Probably even two people per polling station will not be enough."
She admits, however, that her campaign has hardly begun to think about the problem of monitoring the voting. "First we need to campaign," Bryukhanova said. "We need to be sure that in the ballot boxes that we intend to monitor there are enough votes for me. Otherwise, what is the point of observing? We even have a rule at our headquarters -- we don't even talk about monitoring until September."
'Where Do I Sign?'
In the meantime, her team is putting their heads down to fight for every vote and the atmosphere on the street seems very different this time around, with United Russia polling record-low support among voters.
"We approach everyone and don't try to guess by the color of their clothes what their political leaning is," Bryukhanova said. "We speak with everyone. And we tell everyone we are against United Russia. As often as not, the response is: 'Great! Where do I sign?' We didn't see that in 2019.... Now, people understand everything and, it seems to me, they all want change."