For years, investors in a housing estate just outside Moscow have done everything in their power to expose a developer they say absconded with their money and left them paying mortgages on apartments they may never see.
But for all their protests, letters, and public appeals, the 800 would-be residents of Balashikha, a suburb east of the capital, have yet to receive justice. Some have been forced to live on the streets as the estate they planned to move into lies unfinished. Others have died waiting for its completion.
In desperation, they're now vesting their hopes in an unlikely figure to champion their cause -- a fading American fighter turned Russian politician who struggles to string a sentence together in their native tongue, and who represents another Moscow region municipality 50 kilometers to the west.
When newly minted Russian citizen Jeff Monson, an inveterate critic of his native United States, was elected to the city council of Krasnogorsk on the ruling party's ticket in September, it was widely seen as part of the Kremlin's effort to hold up prominent Western advocates of Russia as proof of the country's moral superiority over the West.
But if it was a publicity stunt, it may be backfiring. Three months into the job, and six months after he was granted Russian citizenship by President Vladimir Putin, Monson is taking on one of his adopted country's thorniest political issues. According to some estimates, there are upward of 100,000 defrauded home investors in Russia, and dozens of ghost-town estates. Protests have been held across the country, and officials have made and broken promises for years.
Monson has pledged to fix the problem. But doing so involves confronting powerful players in a country he knows only superficially, and with little support.
On a recent Sunday, a taxi pulled up outside the abandoned estate in Balashikha, and the muscled and heavily tattooed Monson stepped out to face the crowd. Journalists jostled around the car to capture the scene on camera. Through a translator, Monson promised he'd meet with the governor of the Moscow region and the heads of banks collecting the investors' mortgage payments.
"What a naive guy!" one man shouted. "He lives in a different world," said another. Despite the skepticism, those gathered seemed to appreciate the rare official who had come to personally hear their grievances.
But before he had even departed, Monson later told RFE/RL, his Russian wife Zhenya had received an angry phone call from the Krasnogorsk mayor's office. Monson should stick to his patch, he says she was told. He adds that he was summoned for a meeting with the mayor, but shrugged off the controversy.
"If they were doing their job as government officials," he wrote in a text message. "Then this wouldn't be an issue."
'A Russian Soul'
Back in 2011, when Monson entered a packed Moscow sports arena for a potentially legacy-making fight with Russian mixed martial arts (MMA) legend Fyodor Emelyanenko, the cameras zeroed in on the Soviet hammer and sickle tattooed onto the American heavyweight's left calf, and beside it an upturned U.S. flag with the words "land of hypocrisy."
Coming to Russia, Monson recalls, had been his "little boy dream," and his arrival felt like a homecoming.
It didn't go well. Monson emerged from a three-round battering with blood spluttering from a busted lower lip and a broken right leg. But he had earned respect from the crowd - - notably from Putin, who sat in the first row and called Monson afterward to praise his "Russian soul" and tell him he would always be welcome in Russia.
Monson took the invitation to heart. He began visiting Russia regularly, forging an alliance with the country's emasculated Communists that ended when it dawned on Monson, as he puts it, that "there are no communists in the Russian Communist Party."
In 2015, he began petitioning for citizenship. It was finally granted by presidential decree in May, adding him to the line of well-known Westerners turned Russian who serve as fodder for Kremlin propaganda. He's regularly mentioned alongside French actor Gerard Depardieu, who moved to Russia amid tax problems in his home country, and the U.S. action-movie star Steven Seagal, who this year was named Putin's special representative for the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations.
Monson hates being compared with them.
For him, receiving Russian citizenship was validation for a man long disillusioned with life in his home country. Monson had been active in protests against the Iraq War in the 2000s, and picked up a criminal mischief charge for spray-painting an anarchy symbol and the words "no war" onto the Washington state capitol in 2009.
His travels across the world as a fighter, from Rio to Manila, exposed him to inequality that he ultimately ties to the United States' involvement abroad. The writings of Marx, Bakunin, and Tolstoy, he says, helped shape the worldview he's come to espouse.
In Russia he sees a place that once was, and remains, fertile soil for communism. "If it happened before, it can happen again," he says, before adding quickly: "I'm not trying to start a revolution."
Contradictions In Ink
Back home, Monson felt shunned; in Russia he's a celebrity. He has his own show on the government mouthpiece RT that largely consists of short clips of the American anarchist mocking U.S. policies, and comedy skits that poke fun at his hopeless Russian. He has a packed schedule of guest appearances and motivational talks, including promotional events for his newly released autobiography in Russian, A Fighter's Path.
But there are apparent contradictions to his positions. Monson is an elected official who boycotts elections; a libertarian who supports gay rights but has adopted a country that critics accuse of encouraging homophobia by law; and an avowed enemy of consumerism living in a society that has become one of the world's most unequal.
"If you're a capitalist in any manner, you're stealing from people," he says during an interview in Krasnogorsk, where he shares a modest apartment in a high-rise apartment block with Zhenya, his wife, and their infant daughter.
Yet while his back displays a tattoo denouncing capitalism, it also bears product logos. He says they represent companies that sponsored his career in the past and whose owners are close friends, and the tats were simply a favor.
Monson admits that many of his views don't align with those of the Russian elite, and says he's committed to living "among the people." He receives a decent monthly salary from a fight school he runs, and extra income from various talks and master classes he attends across Russia. Each month, he flies to the United States to visit his three children from two previous marriages. He recently began Russian classes -- two hours twice a week -- but progress, he admits, is slow.
Monson's soft-spoken nature is belied by an intimidating appearance. At 47, he maintains a bodybuilder's physique -- with his bald head, cauliflower ears, and tattoos he sticks out on the streets of Krasnogorsk like a sore thumb.
Much of his day is spent posing mutely for selfies with bemused locals. When they shout things in Russian that he can't understand -- "I can't believe you really live here!" "I'm sending this photo to my friends!" -- Monson smiles politely and walks on. But his eyes well up when he recalls times he's been stopped and thanked -- what for, he can't say.
At a time when many Russians feel belittled by the West, he suspects they cherish the American who's chosen to live in their midst. "Maybe it's because I've made them feel good about being Russian again," he says.
In his bid to help Russia's cheated home investors, Monson has partnered with Maria Kozlovskaya, a Communist and fellow member of the Krasnogorsk city council. She recalls that locals were shocked when Monson first arrived -- his first city council session was packed with TV cameras recording his every move. She says many voice skepticism about the role an American can play in improving their lives, but they're willing to give Monson the benefit of the doubt.
"As a person I like him, he's good-natured and sympathetic. I don't doubt that he can do something good for people," Kozlovskaya says. "But as an American he's in a difficult position. On the one hand it's all fun and interesting, but on the other hand there's a prejudiced attitude toward Americans in Russia who engage in social activism at a high level."
Despite his issues with the Communist Party, Monson approached Kozlovskaya several weeks ago for help in approaching the construction company behind the Balashikha project, and the banks receiving mortgage payments from investors. His hope was that the banks might temporarily suspend collections as a goodwill gesture. Kozlovskaya told Monson the issue was above his pay grade, that local deputies in Russia stay clear of federal problems. But Monson, she says, insisted that his public profile would help draw attention to the issue.
"He can definitely attract attention to a whole range of problems," Kozlovskaya says. "But I wouldn't want him to entertain illusions that he can fundamentally change things."
Monson is a vocal supporter of Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and of the Russia-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine's east. But while his views often mirror those of the Kremlin, he insists no one dictates what he can or can't say. He is coming to realize some lines should not be crossed, however.
After being quoted implicating Putin in corruption during a recent interview with British daily The Times, he was pressured by the Russian side to revoke his statements. He promptly appeared on state television to profess his admiration for the Russian president and insist his words had been distorted.
Monson doesn't deny criticizing official corruption in Russia, however. "The bottom line is, the guys in the government, I don't see eye to eye politically with pretty much any of them, unless they're extreme far-left. But that doesn't mean we can't work together," he says.
Still, he admits the fallout from his interview was a wake-up call, "a real learning experience as far as what you can and can't say."
Monson's campaign to help Russia's defrauded investors is another baptism by fire. For now, the uproar over his visit to Balashikha has subsided. Monson says he's been told he should notify authorities in Moscow of any initiatives he plans outside Krasnogorsk, and is forging ahead with his plans to confront the groups involved in the housing scandal. In the future, he hopes to run in elections for the Russian parliament.
Artem Nagorny, a representative of the Krasnogorsk mayor's office, told RFE/RL that he has no knowledge of the call Monson claims his wife received in the aftermath of that visit, but stressed that the American is free to go where he chooses. "As a deputy, he has his own area of coverage," Nagorny said in a telephone interview. "But he also has a right to his personal position and his personal projects."
As for the would-be apartment owners of Balashikha, Monson has brought renewed attention to their plight. Several TV stations reported on his visit, airing images of the rotting facades and flooded basements of the abandoned housing estate.
And for Viktoriya Snegiryova, who has spent three million rubles ($45,000) so far on an apartment she bought there in 2014, it was a small but encouraging step in a campaign for justice that has brought few results.
"Our primary aim was not to get his help in fixing this problem," she said of the meeting with Monson, which she helped organize. "That should be done by other people -- those who authorized construction, notarized the developer's documents. Those people should fix the problem."
But it's thanks to Monson that the journalists came, she said, "and that's a huge help for our cause."