Andrei Pivovarov is perhaps the most atypical candidate in Russia’s already atypical election.
Since his arrest on a Warsaw-bound plane preparing for takeoff on the tarmac of the St. Petersburg airport in May, the opposition activist has been campaigning for September’s parliamentary elections from his cell in a Moscow remand prison as he awaits trial on charges of involvement with an “undesirable organization.”
Many government critics across Russia have been excluded from participating in the upcoming vote -- scheduled for September 17-19 -- because of their affiliation with groups the government has declared enemies of the state. Only Pivovarov is still seeking a seat in the State Duma -- the lower chamber of Russia's parliament -- despite being behind bars.
“The time has come for people and ideas, and not flags,” he told Current Time in an interview just days before his arrest on May 31, referring to the many political groups with recognizable symbols -- including the Open Russia organization that he ran -- forced to close in recent weeks. “But the flags will return when the situation improves.”
Few Russian activists downplay the severity of the current political crackdown, which most experts connect to the elections and the low rating of ruling party United Russia. Many are under house arrest or have fled the country fearing politically motivated prosecution. Putin’s most prominent opponent, Aleksei Navalny, is in prison, and charismatic politicians like former State Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov are in exile.
But for Pivovarov and the few genuine opposition activists who have made it onto the ballot despite the state’s repression, the challenges involved in garnering exposure and public support often appear insurmountable.
On August 25, Pivovarov’s team opened a campaign office in central Moscow and now plans another in the southern city of Krasnodar, where Pivovarov is on the list of the liberal Yabloko party. But his campaign managers say it took a long time to find a landlord willing to host an opposition campaign office and that every Moscow printer they have approached for help producing promotional materials has declined.
“This is all self-censorship,” the team said in a post on the messaging app Telegram. “The authorities have spooked entrepreneurs to such an extent that they’re afraid they’ll lose their businesses just for printing the election materials of an independent candidate.”
Some candidates have faced an ingenious, but familiar, tactic used to siphon votes away from their campaigns: rival candidates boasting exactly the same first and last names, who sometimes changed their official documents specifically to run in the election as spoiler candidates.
"This is the only way these crooks can fight against me," Boris Vishnevsky, a popular opposition candidate, said in reaction to the news that he was facing two namesakes in his St Petersburg district.
Limited funds are another problem.
In the capital, feminist activist Alyona Popova is hoping to continue the campaign began by outgoing lawmaker Oksana Pushkina to introduce Russia’s first law on domestic violence, relying on a large social-media following and her record of aiding female victims to boost her chances.
But she says her inability to raise sufficient funds to counter her pro-Kremlin opponent -- bearded, potbellied television pundit Anatoly Vasserman -- is the biggest thing standing in the way of expanding her reach. Still, she remains optimistic.
“I think that our general agenda of fighting obscurantism is working well,” she told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
Lev Shlosberg, an opposition candidate in Pskov who was barred from the elections and from seeking reelection to his seat in the Pskov regional legislature, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in an interview that a vote for United Russia -- the pro-Putin ruling party that has slumped in polls -- is a "vote for wars."
“The elections on September 19, 2021, are a referendum on war and peace. If you want war, vote for the party of war,” he said, citing United Russia’s support for Moscow’s interventions in international conflicts like the one in parts of eastern Ukraine or in Syria.
The tools wielded against individual candidates have coincided with a broader legislative push aimed at restricting the ability of activists and journalists to shed light on corruption and election fraud. The authorities have revised the country's election laws at least 19 times since the previous parliamentary vote in 2016, according to election monitor Golos, which was declared a “foreign agent” last week.
Political analyst Maria Snegovaya called the figure “mind-blowing.”
"We have never seen anything like it before, even taking into account that our previous elections could hardly be called free and honest,” she told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
Besides the sticks wielded by the state, they’re also battling to win over public opinion with populist incentives. On August 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for one-off cash payments to Russian pensioners and military personnel, in a move that was quickly slammed by critics as a preelection ploy to secure more votes for the deeply unpopular United Russia party.
And yet, despite the cards stacked against them in a way more debilitating than in perhaps any other election in modern Russia, the candidates challenging the state’s monopoly on power are forging ahead with their political fight.
In a recent open letter to Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova, published on a website dedicated to his case, Pivovarov called himself an "unusual" candidate and asked that Pamfilova back his request to be released on bail.
“As a person who has long defended human rights,” he wrote to Pamfilova, a former liberal activist in her own right, "you know that persecuting someone for their views is unacceptable. But they want to convict me precisely for that -- and for the desire to participate in the elections.”
Pivovarov, whose now defunct Open Russia group was financed by tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, noted that numerous public figures had spoken out in his defense, and that many have demanded his release.
“But perhaps it’s your voice that the court will deem decisive,” he wrote to Pamfilova. “Let’s at least in part give people back their trust in justice.”
Tatiana Usmanova, his campaign manager, says he has received no official response.