Many activists view the elections as a vote on the war in Ukraine, and a chance to prove that democratic voices have not been crushed out of existence. From openDemocracy.

Few surprises marked the local elections held in several Russian regions and cities from 9 to 11 September in the first electoral exercise since Russia invaded Ukraine six months ago. Pro-Kremlin candidates did very well overall. Candidates from the dominant United Russia party won 1,100 of 1,417 Moscow municipal council seats contested, The Moscow Times reports – Transitions editor’s note.

Last weekend, Russia went to the polls for its local elections. While unprecedented repression has put an end to the country’s anti-war protests, these votes are the most important space left for democratic politics. They are a chance to expose the conflict between Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship and Russia’s social movements.

“[Local politics] is not an island of democracy,” one activist involved in the Moscow local elections told me. “This is the front line, where vanguard battles are taking place.”

One political campaign, YouNominate (VyDvyzhenie, which in Russian also means “You are the movement”), has brought together independent, protest-minded candidates for municipal deputies in Moscow on a single platform.

“I’m for peace!” was the campaign motto of candidates for the liberal Yabloko party. Photo via Yabloko website.

The team, set up this summer by young left-wing politicians, has nominated more than 100 candidates for lists at hundreds of polling stations throughout the Russian capital. And in other regions of Russia, independent candidates from the liberal Zemsky Congress movement and Yabloko political party, in alliance with YouNominate, are fighting for local council seats.

Though local politicians face significant risk of repression, local politics is again colliding with national politics in Russia. As the YouNominate platform does not hide its opposition to the war in Ukraine, voting for its candidates is a legal way to speak out against the Kremlin’s actions. The protest vote at these municipal elections, in other words, could become an antiwar vote.

“It has politicized people who [vote in] these elections, and they think about the war and choose candidates according to their position on it,” one YouNominate activist told me.

“The Moscow mayor’s office – I know this for sure – sees these elections as, among other things, about supporting or not supporting the war,” the activist continued. “Therefore, the [Moscow city authorities] cannot lose. It would be unacceptable for the regime to have an antiwar coalition win.”

One of the campaigners behind the platform, Mikhail Lobanov, believes the future of the war could be influenced by people showing that they are against it at the ballot box. He argues that the Russian authorities’ determination to push ahead with mobilization – calling up reservists and veterans to the war – and strengthen its military propaganda is dependent on public opinion.

Municipal Politics and the Left Movement

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, researchers from the Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent initiative, argued that the pro-democracy movements in the country were facing a paradox.

“The greatest rise and even flowering of grassroots democratic politics is happening now, at the moment of its simultaneous decline due to political repression,” they said.

One of the most striking political campaigns of the pre-war period came during the September 2021 elections to the Russian parliament, the State Duma. Russia’s democratic left finally arrived on the political scene, led by Lobanov, who became a prominent figure while running for parliament. As Lobanov faced off against a top propaganda journalist, his team relied on a cocktail of “real issues” and opposition politics, which had proved popular in local activism.

Lobanov’s grassroots campaign failed to achieve victory, possibly due to a new online voting system, which was able to be hacked and manipulated by the authorities. But the ideas and people that powered his campaign, along with many other local campaigns and initiatives, formed the backbone of the campaign for local elections.

Today, the Kremlin’s war has exacerbated Moscow’s preexisting economic problems and weakened the authorities’ ability to deal with them. This, combined with public opposition to the Moscow administration’s style of management, creates fertile ground for political struggle – in which the YouNominate team can grow its left-democratic political agenda. What’s more, the Russian Communist Party, which is the traditional vote sink for left-wing or protest voters, has dropped in the polls since last year and is “obviously not going to win” this time, according to one of the platform’s leaders.

A mass movement against both Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Putin administration can grow only from the understanding firstly that the war affects the interests of the inhabitants of the Russian Federation, and secondly that it completely blocks the public’s ability to defend these interests.

Though it may appear paradoxical, local politics in Russia is often more connected to “class” than national politics. At the local level, activists can more easily see (and expose) the connection between economic oppression and political domination – they see how public officials protect property developers or how local deputies from the ruling party issue illegal permits to use greenfield sites for commercial facilities.

YouNominate and other pro-democracy movements are banking on there being an electorate for these messages. As one activist told me, they see their target voters as educated people who “do not accept the military-patriotic agenda,” but “feel the absence of social change in liberal rhetoric.”

“This is a very important social group,” another environmental activist told me. “They are politically active both on the internet, and in public life, and in elections. Traditionally, they have supported [liberal political party] Yabloko. However, times have changed and a new, young social democratic force has appeared in place of the outdated political cadres.”

In this sense, YouNominate is trying to “occupy the niche of [Russia’s] liberal opposition and give [people] what was so lacking in it – a socio-economic agenda,” the activist continued.

“They have turned the left idea into real politics, with programs, candidates, and incumbents joining them.”

Ethics and Politics

The war has raised the question of the ethics of political struggle. Some believe that it is unacceptable to participate in local politics – the problems of “shops and parks” – while Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. This group believes doing so legitimizes the existing political system in Russia, and thinks the focus should instead be on the war.

A man walks past a banner reading “Let’s get the job done” in central Moscow on 10 September. The Z and V are signs of support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. Photo by Maxim Shemetov via CTK/Reuters.

But others believe that with antiwar activists and local deputies facing police repression, independent local politicians should not mention the war, so as not to put what has been gained – some local representation by opposition politicians – at risk. In their argument, it is better to concentrate exclusively on the “shops.”

For others, myself included, the ethics of planned collective action like that seen in Russia’s municipal politics is an antidote to the destructive emotions of despair, self-censorship, and frustration that have come about as a result of the Kremlin’s invasion. These feelings can only lead to impotence and apathy. The war has made the political situation in Russia not only more unbearable, but also more simple: either you fight, doing what you can, or you no longer exist as a political subject.

It is no coincidence that one of the leaders of the YouNominate platform, Alexander Zamyatin, likes to repeat that his political strategy is aimed at overcoming depoliticization. He argues that one’s sense of a lack of political power begins, for example, when residents of an apartment block meet in their yard to discuss local issues and then make a group chat to follow up afterwards. This is the route to taking an interest in politics and readiness for joint action.

Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote that political crises and declines can lead to the formation of a new political subject and a new political order. For this, you cannot rely on luck, but on perseverance in valor and virtue – a kind of politics of the impossible that ultimately leads to the birth of something new. If you persist in doing what is impossible, you can win when luck and virtue coincide.

As leftist theorist Boris Kagarlitsky argues, it is less the official results that matter this weekend (electoral commissions will try at all costs to prevent the election of opposition candidates), but society’s fight against the Russian authorities. “It will be others who are remembered: those who fought, those who bang their heads against the wall and sometimes broke through it.”

Today, Russian military personnel are “banging their heads against the wall” in Ukraine, trying to find luck on the battlefield where they fight for the forces of evil. But Russian municipal activists and politicians are fighting to maintain the possibility of democracy in our country – as well as for the common good. Let luck smile on the latter group.

Veronika Ptitsyna is a pseudonym for a Moscow-based activist and researcher. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy on 9 September and is republished under a Creative Commons license. Transitions has made slight changes to reflect the outcome of the elections.