NIZHNEVARTOVSK, Russia -- "Sign up quickly," read an announcement that appeared on a closed social-media chat group for university students in this oil-rich Siberian city earlier this month. "11,000 rubles aren't just lying around on the road. This is a good opportunity to earn references."
Several students studying at Nizhnevartovsk State University, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, have told RFE/RL they have been offered money and academic benefits in exchange for helping to promote the ruling United Russia party through scripted social-media posts and other activities.
"It isn't right," one student said, "because they are influencing assessments. I study on my own, using my abilities, and suddenly someone makes some phone calls and not only do they get money but also good references. It is not fair."
The revelations come as the government of longtime authoritarian President Vladimir Putin prepares for national elections to the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, that must be held by September 19. United Russia, which maintains a stranglehold on all levels of political power, enters the campaign with its popularity rating depressed by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the party's support for an unpopular pension reform in 2018, and the widespread perception that it is, as opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has branded it, "the party of crooks and thieves."
During a virtual chat on the social-media site VK among representatives of some 60 university groups on February 8, Kristina Chernopiskaya, the university's deputy dean of educational work, made the announcement that United Russia was seeking student volunteers.
Interested students were instructed to download an app called Agitator that distributes news about United Russia's activities around the country. They were told that the app would also distribute texts that students could copy and post on their social-media accounts. After publication, students were told to send a report to Chernopiskaya in order to be remunerated.
The instructions came in the form of a voice message posted under Chernopiskaya's name to the university chat group. The students who spoke to RFE/RL said they recognized Chernopiskaya's voice. "There is no doubt that this is a voice message from Kristina Aleksandrovna," one student said, using Chernopiskaya's first name and patronymic. "She has sent voice posts in the past and the voice is the same."
Yekaterina Dolgina, dean of the humanities faculty at the university, denied that any university employee was engaged in promoting United Russia. "It's all a lie," Dolgina told RFE/RL. "I do not know where you got this information from."
Chernopiskaya could not be reached for comment.
In the message attributed by students to Chernopiskaya, students are given further details about how they might participate in the initiative.
"I can give you this loophole," the message states. "If you don't want to publish these on your own accounts, you can open a separate account, add a few friends to it, and publish the messages there. But there is nothing to be worried about in them. Just notices of some amendments or new laws. It is all purely informational."
The post was accompanied by two "examples." One directed readers to a December 14 report on state Channel One television that was headlined: "During A United Russia Virtual Social Forum, Vladimir Putin Spoke With Volunteers." The second text described how a United Russia deputy in the regional legislature, Sergei Veliky, was distributing food parcels to doctors at a Nizhnevartovsk COVID-19 hospital. That text appeared widely in local social media in the first half of December.
Students were promised an "analytical reference" for each time they posted one of United Russia's texts.
"An analytical reference is a sort of thank-you letter for participating in a university project," one student explained. "Like welcoming first-year students or Science Day or attending various conferences. It gives students an advantage in getting stipend bonuses or when completing a term."
'Aggressive Party Promotion'
"For example," the student added, "if I have problems with my grades, but I have several analytical references, then I take them to the instructor and...they might give me a break. And for these promotional posts, they are promising a heap of references."
A second post to the same VK chat under Chernopiskaya's name promises students 11,000 rubles ($150) and three "analytical references" for one day of work at a United Russia call center.
The students who spoke to RFE/RL said they feared that the pressure could increase if not enough students volunteer to assist United Russia. Some said those who refuse could even face expulsion.
"Of course, not everyone is willing, and people are complaining," one student said. "I'm afraid that people like that could have academic problems. In the group, one girl made a negative comment along the lines of, 'What has United Russia done for us?' And, really, students are not really very eager to do this stuff."
The students also said instructors had been warning students orally not to participate in unsanctioned opposition demonstrations or they might face problems with the university.
"Inside the university, the election campaign is already going full steam," one student said. "I have never seen a political party before that was promoting itself so aggressively."
According to Russian law, "the creation or activity of organized structures of political parties" is illegal at any state educational institution.
Chernopiskaya is also a co-founder of the Project Center for Youth Initiatives, which applies for grants from the regional government of the Khanty-Mansi region. Last year, the organization submitted an unsuccessful application for a grant to hold a shooting competition for schoolchildren. According to the application, the project was "aimed at working out a complex approach to working with children and teenagers that is oriented toward patriotic upbringing by means of developing physical fitness and the practice of safe use of weaponry."
Nizhevartovsk, a city of about 250,000 over 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow, made headlines earlier this month when it was reported that a group of riot police demonstrated to schoolchildren how to detain protesters during a riot. In a video posted to social media, students pelted officers with balls as they huddled behind riot shields. The February 16 event came in the wake of a series of mass demonstrations across the country during which the authorities detained -- often brutally -- more than 11,000 people.
In 2018, a journalist in Nizhnevartovsk was fired after she complained on social media about a kindergarten program in which 4- and 5-year-old children sang a song expressing fealty to Putin. Called Uncle Vova, We Are With You -- Vova is a diminutive of Vladimir -- the song contains lyrics such as: "While there should be peace on Earth, if the commander in chief calls us to the final battle, Uncle Vova, we are with you!"