MOSCOW -- Irina Rakhmanina is no fan of Aleksei Navalny -- in fact, until recently she believed the Russian opposition leader and his anti-corruption campaign were political projects steered and funded by the Kremlin.
Now, she says, "I just don't think he's the solution for Russia."
And yet, as Muscovites went to the polls on September 8 to elect the city's legislative assembly, the Moscow City Duma, it was to Navalny that Rakhmanina turned for instructions on which candidate to back in her district.
With a slew of opposition politicians excluded from the ballot, Navalny and his supporters have mounted a campaign to break the monopoly of ruling party United Russia by elevating rival candidates considered most likely to defeat it. In each Moscow district -- and in regional and local elections across the country -- they told prospective voters exactly who, by their estimate, those candidates were.
Over 3,000 election campaigns culminated across Russia on September 8, with 16 regions electing governors, a dozen electing legislatures, and hundreds of municipal races held.
"Tomorrow will be our first effort to organize a genuine joint action," Navalny said in a video posted on his YouTube channel on the eve of the elections. "We'll each hold in our hand a tiny piece of power: a ballot."
Navalny was barred from challenging Putin for the presidency in 2018 due to criminal convictions he argues were fabricated to keep him out of electoral politics. Along with other opposition activists, he believes the power of the ballot has been badly blunted since Putin came to power 20 years ago -- and perhaps never more than in this particular election in Moscow.
Acting on what government critics contend were baseless pretexts, election authorities refused to register some 30 independent and opposition candidates for the Moscow City Duma -- a move that prompted a large wave of protests in July and August that were met with a violent police crackdown.
Nevertheless, Navalny has urged Russians to wield their ballot as a political weapon in the September 8 elections, which were seen as a test of the Kremlin ahead of national parliamentary elections slated for 2021 and a presidential vote -- in which Putin is barred from running by term limits -- in 2024.
Unpopular United Russia
But "smart voting," as the tactic is called, has required some detective work.
The country's most dominant party since its creation by the Kremlin in 2003, United Russia now suffers from rock-bottom approval ratings as the economy stagnates and the ruling apparatus faces flak over an unpopular pension reform as well as accusations of corruption and an uncaring attitude toward ordinary citizens.
In that chilly climate, the political machine Navalny years ago dubbed "the party of crooks and thieves" did not formally field a single candidate in Moscow -- no one, it seems, has dared to run under its name.
In Moscow's Tverskoi district, not far from the Kremlin, voters had a choice between United Russia-backed candidate Ilya Sviridov and three little-known women listed either as unemployed or as housewives. The smart vote was on one of the former, Yelena Shuvalova, who ran on the Communist Party ticket.
For Yekaterina, an art critic in her late 40s who withheld her surname because "censorship has increased dramatically in Russia" and she feared repercussions, Shuvalova was not an obvious choice.
"Since Soviet times, the communists elicit no sympathy from me at all," she said. "But what can you do? What will I get from sitting at home?"
Like Rakhmanina, Yekaterina does not back Navalny, calling him "just as odious" as other politicians in Russia.
"No honest person will ever go into politics," she said. But she has been angered by what she called recent efforts by the state to restrict democracy at the local level in Russia -- so she plugged the name of her district into the smart voting website and was told that Shuvalova was the safe bet.
At polling station 149, Yekaterina maneuvered past a group of children dancing in the late-summer heat around a man in a bunny costume, passed another man in a chef's hat grilling meat on skewers, and cast her ballot for a Communist candidate she had never before heard of.
Meanwhile, Daria Ivashenkova, a 23-year-old linguistics student, was heading home after also giving Shuvalova her vote. She had not bothered to look into the Communist candidate's record either -- but she wanted anyone but United Russia to win.
"I'm against the current government," she said, lowering her voice as she spoke outside the polling station, as music played and elderly women sold flowers, honey, soap, and corn on the cob. "I think it's important to either boycott the election, derail it, or deface the ballot."
In past elections, including the March 2018 presidential vote he was barred from, Navalny has called on Russians to stage boycotts aimed at undermining Putin's legitimacy. Across Russia, supporters of the anti-corruption crusader urged people to stay in their homes.
This time, the opposition has reversed its political tactic. Instead of shunning an election he asserts has been rigged from the outset, Navalny has apparently wagered that under the circumstances, the best way to undermine Putin is to try and ensure that United Russia candidates lose at the polls.
For Navalny, 43, a potential upside to smart voting is that even without fielding any candidates, he can claim victory when one that his system recommends beats out a United Russia rival.
A possible downside, though, is the risk that a vote for a Communist candidate, or one from one of the two other parties with seats in the national parliament, could end up being little different than a vote for one fielded by United Russia. These parties, dubbed the "systemic opposition," often go along with Kremlin initiatives.
So when it comes to smart voting, the jury is still out.
Ilya Azar, a prominent journalist and political activist, declared on September 3 that he could not bring himself to vote in an unfree election and would instead cast his ballot after scrawling something on it that "fits the moment."
Others see smart voting as a major new political strategy that throws down the gauntlet for the Kremlin.
"This has been a huge task -- analyzing the chances of individual candidates, studying sociological data, and mobilizing people online," Tatyana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL. "The scale of this campaign will play a big role for the opposition, and is a major challenge to the authorities."
As results started coming in from across Russia on September 8, accompanied by widespread allegations of voter fraud and ballot-stuffing, the opposition claimed a first victory for smart voting. Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh tweeted figures indicating that United Russia had lost its near-total control over the city council in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, and suggested that Smart Voting had played a key role.
But Stanovaya cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"The problem is that smart voting is very hard to measure. It's very difficult to say how much influence it has had," she said.
"But the authorities are now living and operating in a new reality, and they can't turn the clock back," Stanovaya added. "A crack has appeared inside the regime, and the authorities don't know, for the moment at least, how to patch it up."
In the end, the authorities' biggest danger may be low turnout from the constituency -- pensioners and workers, including state employees -- on which they rely heavily for a good showing and a loyal vote.
By 3 p.m., only 304 people had voted at polling station 149 in Moscow: Its central location and the festive atmosphere manufactured to lure notwithstanding, footfall was very low. Two hours before the polls closed, turnout in Moscow was just over 17 percent.
Rakhmanina had not attended the spate of recent political rallies -- spooked, like others interviewed outside the polling station, by the prospect of being caught in the kind of crackdown that saw police unleash unexpected levels of violence in recent weeks and Russia's courts issue severe punishment.
"Those who protest have my respect," she said. "They go out and state their position, and show what they think. But I didn't think they'd end up with four or five years in jail for that."
Instead, smart voting was her way to register her protest without running the same risk.
"I want new people to appear on the scene, people who will do their jobs instead of lining their pockets," she said. "But if people don't come to vote but sit and complain, nothing in this country will change."