MOSCOW -- Aleksandra Rastorguyeva, a university student with messy, cropped hair and a mischievous smile, looks more street protester than city councilor.
But on a recent evening after class, the 22-year-old was out door-stepping voters in a 25-floor tower block in southeast Moscow, trying to drum up support ahead of municipal elections on September 10 that are shaping up to be unusually competitive.
The preserve of local budget allocations, trash removal, and communal-stairwell renovations, municipal politics seldom stirs interest. But this year's surge of candidates, including opposition cohorts of young people like Rastorguyeva, has seen it dubbed the "fashionable trend of the Moscow summer" by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
Rastorguyeva is one of more than 1,000 candidates backed by the opposition Yabloko party, which is hoping to quietly seize a beachhead in local district councils ahead of mayoral elections next year. Mainstream political parties are also participating in droves, with more than 8,300 Muscovites -- more than twice the number in 2012 -- vying for 1,500 council seats.
"Maybe we can win Moscow," Rastorguyeva muses. "Russia is a centralized country. Winning Moscow might have serious consequences. We're living on a volcano and we don't know what will happen tomorrow. We never know when the system will collapse and everything will change."
Municipal deputies in Moscow have limited real power, but the elections have taken on strategic significance as political parties battle to overcome what is known as the "municipal filter."
The Kremlin reinstated direct gubernatorial elections in 2012, but it also introduced a requirement that candidates submit signatures of support from between 5 and 10 percent of city councilors -- ranks generally controlled by Kremlin allies.
The "filter" has prevented bids for the governor's office by powerful local politicians Yevgeny Roizman of Sverdlovsk Oblast and Vyacheslav Makhayev of Buryatia Oblast, according to an August report from a think tank run by former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.
On September 10, 16 provinces will elect new governors, and analysts widely expect Kremlin-backed candidates to win across the board.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov and his Yabloko party have backed over 1,000 candidates like Rastorguyeva with an eye to mayoral elections in the capital a year from now. Gudkov, a former State Duma lawmaker before his expulsion from the A Just Russia party in 2013, said he hopes he can propel enough support into municipal councils to get the green light to wage a bid for the mayor's seat.
Gudkov's campaign -- like anticorruption crusader and Kremlin gadfly Aleksei Navalny's improbable bid to take part in the presidential election slated for March 2018 -- illustrates how opposition forces are trying to consolidate after years of frustration.
They have been largely sidelined in the five years since President Vladimir Putin and his allies weathered mass protests in Russia's biggest cities. After his reelection in March 2012, Putin cemented his grip on power, appealing to blue-collar voters in the regions with a cocktail of religious conservativism, Soviet nostalgia, and anti-Westernism.
Russia's invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 unleashed patriotic fervor, and Putin's approval ratings have remained strong despite two years of recession from which the country is slowly emerging.
Putin is widely expected to run and win the March election, securing himself a fourth term. But with this next term expected to be his last, politicians on all sides are trying to gain a better footing for a possible post-Putin landscape.
Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said that, while Gudkov's campaign at the municipal polls has reasonable prospects, it should not be judged simply by the number of mandates his allies win.
"As with Navalny, the prospects of this project lie in creating a network, infrastructure, and training a team that can be used in completely different elections in the future, regardless of the result on September 10," he said.
Gudkov and his team have undertaken registration and training on behalf of many candidates, providing all-encompassing infrastructure that has been nicknamed "political Uber" after the U.S. technology company that has revolutionized transport-on-demand in many countries.
"I just wouldn't have had the strength to dig into this, work all out the nuances, and get everything correct," Rastorguyeva said. "All we have to do is go around the apartments -- although that is really awful. I can't wait for it to end!"
Writing on his blog this week, Gudkov's fellow organizer, Maksim Kats, boasted that their work has paid off with increased participation by two segments of disenchanted citizens in particular.
"I often hear stories about how the young and [people in the] opposition don't go into politics because we don't care and that we are strange people only prepared to like things on Facebook and other such nonsense. In actual fact, people don't go into politics because it is really hard," Kats wrote. "We removed these barriers."
Rastorguyeva said that, if elected, she would like to set up divided garbage-collection points in her district. Other candidates told RFE/RL that their political bids were fueled by anger over far-reaching urban-planning decisions taken by Moscow City Hall under Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, complaining there was little or no consultation with residents.
Twenty-year-old Nikita Zdravchev, a third-year geography student and opposition activist, said he decided to seek a seat on his local council because he was "fed up" with the authorities. His candidacy and registration were backed by the Parnas opposition party, and he has allied with Yabloko's candidates in his district.
"I've always been against [the current authorities]," Zdravchev said. "Now I've found a place where I can actually do something apart from going to rallies. I can try and get elected to the local council where I will have some powers to have a direct influence on them -- not as a resident, but as a municipal deputy."
Zdravchev is most concerned that there could be a low turnout in these elections, which he says would play into the authorities' hands.
In fact, just days ahead of the vote in the capital, passersby might be forgiven for not noticing elections are looming. Campaign stands are scarce, media coverage is thin, and many incumbents are not campaigning.
Opposition candidates complain that incumbents are banking on what is known as the "administrative resource" -- the use of official power and influence to inflate the vote for candidates backed by the authorities.
Zdravchev said that while door-stepping voters in this district, he had been turned away by pensioners who told him their social-welfare workers had already told them whom to vote for.
"I hope we can overcome the administrative resource," Zdravchev said. " United Russia are not campaigning at all. They're just hushing up the elections so no voters turn up and they have enough administrative resource to win the elections."
But even if they lose, it is better to have tried and failed than not to try at all, said Rastorguyeva, invoking the words of the opposition's most prominent leader.
"The wonderful Russia of tomorrow, as Aleksei Navalny likes to say, will certainly happen -- the question is when and what we will do in it," Rastorguyeva said. "It would be nice to use civilized methods. And what if they actually work. Miracles can happen sometimes."