Meet Boris Nadezhdin
He's anti-war and he's running against Vladimir Putin
Galina Starovoitova had a particular fixation.
Starovoitova was a reformer. A Soviet scientist-turned-politician, she had championed Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies, and later joined Boris Yeltsin’s campaign for an independent, democratic Russia.
In a melee of self-interest, grandstanding, and theft that was Russian politics, Starovoitova genuinely believed in liberalism: That Russia could re-enter Europe as a pluralist, multi-ethnic, democratic, and fundamentally open nation. Even amid the endemic corruption, she watched ordinary Russians take to the street and risk their lives to oppose the 1991 coup attempt: These people do not want a return to the old ways, she thought.
But the body-politic, and the men in charge, were in an existential crisis, Starovoitova believed. As Communism fell apart, they were racing towards another form of totalitarian control.
“The seed of fascism in Russia has fallen on fertile soil,” Starovoitova wrote in 1995.1 “New growth is to be expected soon. It is well known that the size of a tree is not proportionate to the size of the seed from which it developed.”
Starovoitova was terrified that a newly-independent Russia was on the same trajectory as Weimar Germany, and figured the only solution was to push the nation towards real democracy, not just the illusion of it. She published a journal concerned with Russia’s democratic challenges, organized a forum to elicit views on how to rein in the security state, and tried to broker a deal to avert the first Chechen War.
That was all Starovoitova’s mission. But her obsession was with ridding Russia of the ghost of the KGB. It was an idea called ‘lustration.’ Taken from the original Greek and Roman practise of parading an animal before ritual sacrifice, it translates roughly to ‘cleansing.’ Starovoitova believed that if she could rid Russia of the spies, party bosses, and generals who had led the USSR to collapse, then Russia might have an actual chance at success.
In 1992, she introduced legislation to purge Soviet officials who had presided over human rights abuses, particularly those in the KGB, and to block these corrupted apparatchiks from reaching high office. In practise, it would clear the deck.
She introduced this law again and again: Her colleagues, aware she was toeing the line of what the security bosses, the siloviki, would tolerate, declined to join her fight.
Brave beyond reason, Starovoitova stood for election under a liberal reformist party banner in Saint Petersburg: And won. She quickly took aim at the kleptocrats plundering the city’s gold. The city had secured huge foreign loans to finance the reconstruction of the eroding downtown core. But the money, as was increasingly the norm in Russia, had vanished. And Starovoitova wanted to know where it went.
The organized corruption in Saint Petersburg flowed down from the governor, to the mayor, to the mayor’s deputy — a former KGB official named Vladimir Putin.
Her incessant desire to exorcise Russia’s Soviet ghosts and stop the wholesale theft of her country’s treasure meant “she was hated by almost half of the Duma,” KGB scholar Amy Knight notes. “But it was the men in the security services who had the power to destroy her and get away with it.”2
Starovoitova was small, pushing against something massive. And she knew her odds were long. “Democracy is a very controversial thing within its substance. Because we’re trying to use democratic ways of ruling, but as a result a new Hitler or new National Socialists could take power,” she told the BBC in 1998.3 “Democracy is a very dangerous way of ruling.” She planned on running for president in 2000.
Just a month after she spoke to the BBC, Starovoitova returned home to find the lights in her apartment complex all off. Given the years of widespread thievery, she may well have assumed that the coal from the power plant or the lightbulbs overhead had been pilfered.
Out of the darkness came gunfire. Starovoitova was shot three times in the head.
The reformer was killed on the spot. But her spokesperson, Ruslan Linkov, survived. At the hospital, he refused to be debriefed by low-level officers: He demanded to see the recently-appointed head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. He wanted to see his old friend Vladimir Putin.
Starovoitova’s assassins were arrested and convicted, on Linkov’s testimony. But who ordered the hit has never been identified.
“They kill those who the people listen to, who can’t be bought or have their mouths shut,” Olga Starovoitova, Galina’s sister, said years later.
Boris Nemtsov had worked closely with Starovoitova, but had remained close to the Kremlin. After her assassination, his tone changed. He blamed “bandit capitalism” for her death, and began speaking openly about the need to reform the FSB.
On the eighth anniversary of her death, in 2006, radio host Vladimir Kara-Murza devoted his entire show to her memory.
“What, in your opinion, in today’s political life in Russia would serve to fulfill Galina [Starovoitova]’s wishes?,” Kara-Murza asked his guest, Valery Borshchev, who had helped revive the pluralist Moscow Helsinki Group with Starovoitova.
“A return to democracy,” Borshchev answered.
It wasn’t to be. Over Putin’s quarter-century in power, Russian democracy has became a game of lawfare, coercion, and violence.
Nemtsov was shot dead on a Moscow street in 2015.
The Moscow Helsinki Group was banned by a Moscow court in 2022.
Kara-Murza was convicted of treason in 2023 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Today, we are less than two months from presidential elections in Russia. Tsar Vladimir Putin, intent on continuing both his reign of terror and his brutal war on Ukraine, is seeking a Potemkin mandate: An overwhelming vote of confidence, enabled by propaganda and ballot-stuffing, to continue his repression and war.
But there is a new problem for the Russian autocrat. It’s a problem that looks a lot like Galina Starovoitova. The problem’s name is Boris Nadezhdin.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we take a look at the man brave enough to follow a line of exiled, jailed, and dead democrats before him. A man pitching an end to the war in Ukraine and the restoration of democracy in Russia.
The question now is: Will he have his mouth shut? Will he be bought off? Will he be killed?
Or will he succeed?
Bug-eyed and Shameless is a real democracy. Cast your vote now, and subscribe to future dispatches.
In the frigid cold, biting winds, and heavy snow, lines have snaked down the sidewalks in city centers across Russia. They have queued to add their signature to the official nomination papers for Boris Nadezhdin’s presidential bid.
To get on the ballot under Russia’s restrictive election law, Nadezhdin needs to collect 100,000 signatures — but he may collect no more than 2,500 signatures per region. That means setting up election infrastructure in roughly half of Russia’s various republics, oblasts, and administrative regions.
In Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia, some 4,600 locals braved the -20°C weather to visit Nadezhdin’s local campaign office, underneath a barbershop, to sign their names. (And to meet some very cute dogs.)
In Rostov-on-Don, a strategically-important city near the Ukrainian border, fear of Ukrainian drone strikes didn’t stop 3,000 residents from showing up to secure Nadezhdin’s position on the ballot.
In Sakhalin, the island on the eastern coast of the federation, not even two meters of snow hampered Nadezhdin’s signature-collection campaign.
Worldwide, volunteers in Italy, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, the United States, and a raft of other countries raced to collect signatures from Russian expats.
Unlike the traditionally grim pageantry of a long-shot presidential bid, Nadezhdin has managed to create a movement and a campaign, rife with symbolism and importance.
In the windows of Nadezhdin’s makeshift campaign offices are small stuffed elephants. His volunteers wield these toys in the street, entertaining the hundreds of people waiting in the cold; they sit the elephants at their desk as they make calls; they take photos and selfies with the playthings. As an icon, it’s very cute.
But it represents something altogether darker.
Early in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, internet trolls took to mocking supporters of the war for being old, stubborn pack animals by posting “НАШ СЛОН 💪” — “our elephant.”4 The Russian equivalent of “ok, boomer,” I suppose.
The derision was soon co-opted, however. Boosters of the war started to self-identify as elephants: Unmoving and unwilling to be influenced by outside actors. They posted “НАШ СЛОН 💪” underneath photos and videos from the frontlines, as a way of saying: No one would dissuade Russia from fighting its war.
Early in his campaign, Nadezhdin’s daughter started a livestream to speak to her father’s supporters, in the company of a stuffed elephant. The symbol changed hands once more. Now, it was the logo of his long-shot campaign: It came to represent “one who does not give up, despite all the difficulties and adversities,” one of Nadezhdin’s Telegram channels explains.
When he first announced his candidacy, Nadezhdin was dismissed as a stooge — one of the many sacrificial lamb candidates tasked with running quixotic and off-putting campaigns, in order to make Putin look better by contrast. Under Putin’s pale facsimile of democracy, their job is to criticize Putin softly and infrequently. Their strategists are expected to show up at the Kremlin to coordinate strategy with Putin’s people.
And we know that the Kremlin uses regulations, criminal law, even hitmen to ensure that only the right candidates run.
In 2012, Putin faced three such paper candidates: Gennady Zyuganov, who had led the Communist Party since the fall of the Soviet Union; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a cartoonish oaf who campaigned to do away with the semblance of democracy and confront the West; and Mikhail Prokhorov, an oligarch who campaigned for closer integration with the West.
They all played a very specific role — the Communist relic, the unapologetic fascist, the rich European. Putin occupied the artificial middle ground and romped to victory with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
In 2018, Zhirinovsky ran again, but the Communists nominated strawberry oligarch Pavel Grudinin — a popular populist who was actually critical of Putin. Some celebrated his campaign. Others pointed to the similarities between his policies and those of actual reformer Alexei Navalny, who had tried to ride a wave of popular support into the campaign, but was barred from running. They feared that his job was to showcase how unpopular democracy had become in Russia.
In the final tally, Grudinin fared much worse than his predecessor. Putin scored more than three-quarters of the vote.
Ahead of this year’s presidential election, to be held in March, Moscow has already greenlit the candidacies of Leonoid Slutsky, the far-right controlled opposition candidate who wants more brutality inflicted on Ukraine; and the mushy liberal, Vladislav Davankov, whose sits in the state Duma and generally supports Putin’s regime. And there are, of course, the Communists.
But if the Kremlin wants a campaign with a patina of legitimacy, particularly one where voters actually show up to vote, it needs a real anti-war voice. Just not a very good one.
Given all that, there is good reason to think that Nadezhdin may be a creature of the Kremlin. He’s a little-known and largely-unsuccessful politician, who spent most of his political career bouncing between reformist and marginal parties. More telling: He has spent years as a pundit on Channel One, the Kremlin’s main propaganda outlet.
Last fall, Russian media began to report that the Kremlin had made an offer to Nadezhdin, allowing him to run as the “liberal anti-war candidate,” per the pro-Kremlin BRIEF channel.
The calculus makes perfect sense. Nadezhdin would mount a relatively-earnest anti-war campaign, albeit in the confines of acceptable speech, and would two or three percentage points.
But the Kremlin may have miscalculated.
“This has not happened in Russia for a long time.”
By his own admission, Nadezhdin is a unlikely public persona. But he is not without his charms.
In the fall of 2022, Nadezhdin became an unexpected voice of dissent around the war. He went on a popular news program to accuse Putin’s advisors of feeding the country lies about the prospects of war with Ukraine: “[They] set all of us up,” he said. Nadezhdin had committed an act of heresy by conducting opinion polls, asking Russians’ real opinions of the war. On live TV, he decided to reveal these inconvenient data: “Two-thirds are in favor of negotiations,” he said. Only a tiny minority actually supported the war, the data showed. These facts prompted sputtering outrage from the propagandist host: “Stop spewing nonsense!”
Nadezhdin’s honesty wasn’t entirely novel in that regard. Putin’s Russia tolerates a certain level of criticism, so long as it remains marginal and ineffective. Independent thought can be heard on TV, but it won’t be seen in the streets. And it will be quickly drowned out with the proper narrative. So Nadezhdin continued dissenting, albeit respectfully.
In 2023, Nadezhdin took it too far: He called for Putin’s removal. Soon, the invites to appear on television dried up. Later that year, he tried to mount an independent bid in a Moscow gubernatorial race. In an interview, Nadezhdin was asked about stepping over the line of acceptable campaigning. He answered: “If they put a gun to my head, of course I’ll shut up. I am not Alexei Navalny or Ilya Yashin. I am many years old, and, alas, I will not live long in prison.” He pressed on and was, ultimately, disqualified. (Perhaps legitimately, as he couldn’t get enough sitting politicians to sign his nomination papers.)
His, apparently, earnest conviction, lack of political organization, and apparent cowardice all mixed together to make an ideal Kremlin candidate. According to BRIEF, Nadezhdin’s friends and family were horrified by the idea of his possible candidacy: “Everyone is dissuading him.”
According to anti-Putin news outlet Meduza, Nadezhdin attempted an active courtship of the Kremlin, believing he could actually get an official endorsement to run. Sources in the Kremlin and Nadezhdin’s campaign, however, say Putin’s people rejected him and ultimately decided they didn’t need a fervent anti-war candidate at all. That “radicalized” Nadezhdin.
As he entered the race, the cocktail of traits that made him an ideal patsy turned into assets for many Russians who are tired of the economic pain, repressive atmosphere, and Putin’s bloody imperialist war.
“We have visual proof, confirmation that this underground fire is raging somewhere,” Vladimir Milov, a former advisor to Navalny who now lives in exile, said in a recent interview. Milov runs a considerably successful Russian-language Youtube channel, delivering real news and analysis into Russia. (Youtube is one of the few open platforms still accessible in Russia.) He remains in regular contact with ordinary Russians who want Putin gone, but who have been effectively cowed by his security state.
Lining up to participate in the legal process of an anti-war candidate is an expression of mass solidarity, Milov thinks. A legal channel for behavior that would, otherwise, merit teargas and arrest. “This has not happened in Russia for a long time.”
This wave of genuine support has turned Nadezhdin’s improbable campaign into something very real. “He’s really in it now; it’s become a real battle for him,” a source told Meduza.
Many, including underground Russian opposition groups, expect that Nadezhdin’s candidacy will be rejected on some invented technicality. But the mass mobilization has increased the costs to the Kremlin for doing so: His campaign claims to have collected over 200,000 signatures, and are racing to garner even more before the Wednesday deadline.
Even if Nadezhdin is disqualified, the toothpaste he squeezed out — particularly the mass mobilization of Russian youth — may resist going back in the tube.
“It seems to me that this is just the beginning, we will see a lot more of this,” Milov said.
Getting to 80%
According to Meduza, the Kremlin is keen to improve on its 2018 results, in order to show everyone — NATO, Ukraine, its own people — that Putin’s popularity is not just enduring, but growing.
The target, now, is 80%.
Certainly, the Kremlin has various tools to juice the results. In their ideal scenario, the candidate list will be neatly curated, electronic voting will be attractive to many and will make fraud simple, and the propaganda channels will energize the masses. Some old-school ballot box stuffing may be required to perfect the charade.
But Russia is a state with some 100 million registered voters, and more than two-thirds of them turned out to vote in 2018. Chicanery and fraud can go far, but Putin still needs people to actually vote for him.
Simply inventing the results, as Bashar al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko do, would jeopardize Putin’s neatly-constructed illusion of democracy. Even if everyone knows that the elections are foregone conclusions, the actual results do represent something about Russian society.
If voter turnout explodes, and Putin’s heavily-massaged vote total falls to just a bare majority, it will expose the absurdity of the system.
And whether Nadezhdin is controlled opposition, a patsy, or a genuine crusader for democracy: The effect of his campaign, as a vehicle for legal opposition to the war, is very real.
To that end, it’s worth considering what Nadezhdin is actually proposing.
In his platform, he calls for an immediate end to the war against Ukraine, and peace negotiations with Kyiv. He wants to normalize relations with the West and forbid Russia from launching first-strike wars.
The largest part of his platform, however, is his plan to restore democracy in Russia. To dismantle the system Putin built to maintain his power, and replace it with one that provides real accountability.
In a post late last year, Nadezhdin uploaded a photo of himself lecturing to a packed auditorium: “I think it will be very good if a scientist and teacher becomes president,” he wrote.
Nadezhdin has degrees in mathematics, engineering, and law, and spent years instructing and researching. He is, like Galina Starovoitova, a scientist. And like the slain legislator, he also worked closely with Boris Nemtsov in the 1990s — the pair had tried to set up a television news station free of both oligarch and Kremlin control.
Nadezhdin, too, sees a particular enemy standing in the way of reform in Russia. Elect a scientist, he wrote: “Then priority will be given to increasing budget spending on science and education, and not, as now, on security forces and intelligence services.”
That’s it for this (late) dispatch.
A firm recommendation, this week, for Adam Curtis’ TraumaZone: A fascinating look back at Russia’s transition from communism to fascism.
As always, paying subscribers can comment. Thoughts? Criticisms? Typos? Pitches for future dispatches? Weigh in below.
next week later this week. (Hopefully.)
Remaking Russia: Voices From Within, edited by Heyward Isham
Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight
It seems the joke is a few years older than the war, and has somewhat murky origins. But, for our purposes, its most important relevance is with regards to the war.