MOSCOW -- Few people understand how the Russian political landscape has changed since 2012 better than Sergei Udaltsov.
The 40-year-old leader of the opposition Left Front movement was released from prison on August 8 after completing a 4 1/2-year term for his role in organizing mass protests against election fraud in May 2012.
And he has lost no time trying to get back into the political fray from which he was largely sidelined.
Back in 2011-12, Udaltsov recalled in a long postprison interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, a broad opposition coalition coalesced around themes like election integrity, independent courts, and democratic political reforms.
"This [common agenda] united all of us, even though we had different points of view," Udaltsov said. "Those differences remain."
"It really was a coalition in which liberals, leftists, social patriots, various human rights groups, and creative intellectuals participated equally," Udaltsov said. "It was effective because we could all see that we could influence decision-making. Today, no such coalition exists."
The disarray comes in the run-up to Russia's next presidential election, scheduled for March.
The most popular opposition figure, anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, will most likely be barred from participating, disqualified because he was convicted of felony embezzlement in a case that he and his supporters assert was politically motivated.
President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek and be awarded a fourth term in that election.
Now, Udaltsov says, with the election looming, it will be more difficult for the opposition to act in unison. Although he says he is open to cooperation where possible and even potentially to boycotting the election altogether, he noted, "There cannot be a single candidate from the leftists, liberals, and nationalists."
"Naturally, we aren't going to work for the benefit of someone who is not ideologically close to us and promote him as a candidate -- including Navalny," he said. "We have no intention of forgetting our own agenda."
At the same time, Udaltsov said his time in prison convinced him that simmering discontent is growing among a Russian population that has benefited little from the government's policies.
"In Tambov Oblast, where I served my time, there are a lot of local people in prison -- ordinary people, workers, whose lives took a wrong turn," he told RFE/RL.
"Speaking with them, you can see how low the living standards are in the regions, despite the government's promises that incomes would go up. Social safety nets are not working. Young people go without jobs. The level of education is falling sharply. It is sometimes frightening to realize that some people can't even read or write to speak of.
"Of course, these are all indicators that the government's policies are ineffective," he added. "Those policies promote the interests of an elite group of about 100 families of our oligarchs, high-ranking officials, and their wives and children. The authorities apparently want to maintain this situation as long as possible and hand power down to their children and essentially rule forever. Of course, these dreams can't come true. Internal discontent among the people is growing."
The will of the people is sacred to me. I welcome the unification of Crimea not because Putin did it, but because it was the decision of the people themselves."-- Sergei Udaltsov
Udaltsov was only one of three Left Front leaders who were imprisoned for their roles in the 2012 protest, leaving the left wing of the political spectrum particularly fractured. Uniting Russia's leftists is now at the top of Udaltsov's to-do list.
"The main thing I see for myself now is to consolidate the left flank of the opposition," he said. "Now I am meeting with activists and leaders of various leftist organizations, beginning with the Communist Party of Russia and Just Russia and ending with various anarchists and far-left groups, of which there are many. But they are acting in a very scattered fashion. Our task is to activate the Left Front and consolidate the entire left flank."
Backing The Kremlin On Ukraine
One issue that arose while Udaltsov was cooling his heels in prison could complicate his political mission now: Ukraine.
Udaltsov's views on Moscow's illegal 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its involvement in the war in parts of eastern Ukraine are hard to distinguish from Putin's.
"As a person of leftist democratic views, I always think that the will of the people is paramount," he told RFE/RL. "Regardless of whether there were Russian troops in Crimea or under what circumstances the referendum was held, it is absolutely clear to me that the overwhelming mood there was pro-Russian.... Crimeans expressed this view primarily as a reaction to the events in Kyiv at the time, to the ultranationalist statements, the attacks, the threats that were aimed at Crimeans. I understand their reaction well. The will of the people is sacred to me. I welcome the unification of Crimea not because Putin did it, but because it was the decision of the people themselves."
He views the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine similarly, saying the energy of the popular Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14 was co-opted by "antipopular forces, oligarchs...and ultranationalists."
He says that claims that Russia provoked separatist sentiment in the region are "simple demagoguery."
Udaltsov said he has no intention of fighting in Ukraine because he is "not a military man," but he will likely visit the region "in order to better understand the situation and see the mood of the people."
‘What Will Happen, Will Happen’
Within days of regaining his liberty, Udaltsov took time from politics to acknowledge another important change in Russia's political landscape over the last few years. He visited the Moscow bridge near the Kremlin where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in February 2015. Nemtsov -- together with Navalny, Udaltsov, and others -- had been a key figure in the 2012 mass demonstrations.
"I knew Boris Nemtsov personally," Udaltsov said. "We had differing political views, but he was always close to me as a person. He was very personable and had the ability to compromise. He played a very large role in fostering cooperation among the various opposition groups at that time. And that is why he was a problem for the government, a danger.
"I went to the scene of the murder and paid my respects to him because he really was a comrade of mine in the best sense," he continued. "Not an ideological comrade, but a comrade in action. I was very friendly with him and, of course, I felt it was the right thing to do to go there and express my solidarity and remembrance."
Is he worried about possibly facing a similar fate?
"Life, of course, is finite," he mused. "We all leave this world at some point. So I think we must do as much that is good and useful and kind for those near to us, for our country, and for our fellow citizens. I don't intend to run or hide. As the saying goes, do what you must do and what will happen will happen."