Despite these misgivings, tens of thousands of antiwar Russians have flocked to help Nadezhdin get on the ballot. They don’t believe he will win, and some even dislike him, citing his appearances on propagandist state television programs and his previous job as an aide to Sergei Kiriyenko, who is now Putin’s domestic policy czar. Nonetheless, they view Nadezhdin, 60, as their own tool — a way to signal to the world that many Russians are outraged by the war and want Putin dislodged from office.
Shrugging off the question of whether he is an independent candidate or a spoiler, Russians at home and abroad waited in lines for hours, helping him amass 180,000 signatures as of Friday, well over the required minimum of 100,000 Nadezhdin needs to qualify as a candidate.
Nadezhdin, in turn, has embraced the outpouring as a show of genuine support. “If I am honest, we didn’t expect this turnout,” Nadezhdin said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But it appears that people are sick of what is happening.”
“Secondly,” he continued, “I think people crave action — their protests got quashed, but many have accumulated experience in activism in the past years and now they have an absolutely legal opportunity to do something, leave a signature.”
Voters and established Russian opposition leaders now in exile said Nadezhdin was the embodiment of “none of the above” or “no to war” options on the ballot. In the scorched field that is modern Russian politics, they said, Nadezhdin offers their best bet to show that Putin, who is seeking his fifth term, does not enjoy unanimous support.
“I honestly didn’t have time to read his program, but to me the idea of an antiwar candidate in itself is important,” Andrei, a Russian living in Riga, said after leaving a signature at a makeshift campaign point set up near the city’s train station. “And if everyone stops thinking that everything we do is meaningless and does what’s within their means, there will be a result.”
In 2018, when Putin was last up for reelection and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot because of criminal convictions in cases largely viewed as trumped up for political purposes, Ksenia Sobchak, a television presenter and socialite, ran and was rumored to be a Kremlin-approved candidate, similar to Nadezhdin.
Nadezhdin denies he ever asked the Kremlin for a permission to run, and Russia’s Central Election Committee could still dismiss Nadezhdin’s candidacy over technical errors in collected signatures.
“He is in no way a dream candidate,” Ivan Zhdanov, the head of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said. “But our position from the get-go was that any candidate who is not Vladimir Putin is a good thing.”
Navalny and his team have urged Russians to conduct their own personal campaigns ahead of the election and seek to persuade 10 people they know to vote against Putin.
For the Russian opposition, which is united against the war but has long squabbled over how best to oppose the longtime ruler, how to interact with Western governments or how respond to sanctions affecting Russian elites and civilians, Nadezhdin’s unlikely campaign became a moment of consolidation.
His campaign began collecting signatures in late December, showing modest numbers at first, but then spiked in popularity after he received endorsements from popular opposition figures, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon, and Maksim Katz, whose YouTube blog has more than 2 million subscribers. They promoted Nadezhdin’s campaign as a way for Russians opposing the war to legally and relatively safely express their views en masse without the risk of arrest.
Last weekend, images of long lines assembling at collection points flooded Russian social media.
“Signature for Nadezhdin is a statement against senseless murders, against the unhinged old people in power and for changes,” Khodorkovsky said, adding that Russians should help Nadezhdin even if he “isn’t their candidate.”
Nadezhdin has a controversial political past. His regular appearances on Russian state television programs, mixed in with an overwhelming majority of pro-Putin commentators, led some to label him “a conformist” and a “token liberal.”
And some of his views are decidedly ambiguous. In a recent interview with Georgian news outlet Sova he ducked the question of whether he considers occupied territories to be part of Russia, saying that “this is a matter of negotiations and a peace treaty.”
He added that “the position of those who live in Crimea, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions matters much more” than his own personal view.
Nadezhdin has sought to portray his opposition to Putin as genuine.
“I am running as a principled opponent of the policies of the current president,” his election manifesto states. “Putin views the world through the prism of the past and drags Russia into the past. … The country is increasingly sliding into medieval feudalism and obscurantism.”
In the manifesto, Nadezhdin added that starting the war was “Putin’s fatal mistake” and that he would offer Ukraine to cease hostilities on the first day of becoming president.
Michael Nacke, a Russian journalist and popular YouTube host in exile, said he was convinced that Nadezhdin is a stooge.
“In my view, Boris Nadezhdin is a Kremlin-approved candidate, and the initial idea was to inject a weak antiwar candidate not capable of running a campaign so when he garners a low percentage,” Nacke said, “they could say look, no one is supporting the antiwar rhetoric.”
Nacke said that the rising support for Nadezhdin’s candidacy showed the Kremlin had miscalculated. “The more pressure on the regime, the more often it makes mistakes and the more opportunities there are to demolish it and end the war,” Nacke said.
“People view Nadezhdin as an idea, so his personal qualities don’t matter here,” he said. “The lines at his headquarters are essentially demonstrations under a banner ‘I’m against the war’… and this is the only way to oppose the war publicly.”
Putin is facing several uncomfortable issues in his campaign, including disgruntled wives of mobilized soldiers demanding their husbands be sent home, fervent war hawks who think Russia is not doing enough on the frontline, and a series of infrastructure mishaps that left thousands of Russians without heat or water in winter.
On Saturday, a group of women, part of the growing The Way Home movement, staged a demonstration at one of Putin’s campaign offices in Moscow. The wives of mobilized soldiers are particularly angry that convicts recruited to the military from prison, including those who had been serving decade-long sentences for rape and murder before the war, have been allowed to return home after serving six months in exchange for pardons.
The Kremlin, so far, has played down the grievances. Still, it remains a sensitive issue for Putin’s campaign that he has yet to address. The president recently met with military widows but not the relatives of living soldiers, drawing ire from some wives who complained that in order for them to reach the president their husbands must die.
Nadezhdin, by contrast, has held several meetings with the wives and mothers of mobilized men, garnering their support and potentially irritating the Kremlin.
“This is an important symptom that shows the state of Russia two years into the war,” said Maxim Oreshkin, a political analyst. “Nadezhdin’s personal credit here is small, there could be someone else in his place … saying simple yet amazing things: He wants a peaceful, free Russia that exists to benefit its citizens.”
Oreshkin added: “The main news here is that these words suddenly resonated.”
Katz said the signatures for Nadezhdin could be just the start of more serious opposition to Putin after nearly a quarter-century as Russia’s supreme political leader.
“For Putin this may turn into a problem,” Katz said, “because these citizens who lined up to gather signatures may line up once again to vote against him.”