Russian Communists in Moscow laid flowers on Friday on the granite tombstones of dozens of top NKVD officers, the Soviet secret police that killed, tortured and jailed millions during Josef Stalin’s purges.
“We have to celebrate these people, honour and remember them,” four-time Communist politician Nina Ostanina said referring to the officers, not the victims, including those who organised the purges and personally executed “people’s enemies”.
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Ostanina, who faced scrutiny after her son Daniil pleaded guilty in 2010 to stabbing his business partner 42 times, is running in the September 19 parliamentary vote.
She is among some of the candidates in the coming election to be endorsed by a political force that seems light years away from the Communist Party’s current agenda and past idols.
Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny has a plan to use any means necessary to vote against the candidates fielded by United Russia, the ruling pro-Kremlin behemoth that holds 334 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Navalny is serving a two and a half year prison sentence after recovering from a nerve agent poisoning last year, which he blamed on the Kremlin. The Russian state outlawed his Fund to Fight Corruption as an “extremist” group in June. The group’s leaders have fled Russia, and most of its activists are barred from running.
But the fund developed Smart Voting, a vote-them-out ploy using a mobile phone app and online tools, that Navalny says would help his sympathisers elect some 1,300 individual candidates opposed to United Russia.
Each candidate is vetted after a scrupulous check, his supporters say.
“Putin virtually criminalised any opposition activity, declaring it ‘extremist’. Tens of thousands of people are barred from running in elections of any kind. All the strong candidates are cut from the current Duma vote,” Navalny said in late August, from jail, explaining why Russians should use Smart Voting.
On Wednesday, Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkiv said in an online video that “millions of people in Russia hate United Russia”. That video appeared alongside a list of candidates he said had the best chance of beating United Russia hopefuls – and most of them were from the Communist Party.
The Smart Voting system was designed in 2019 and has had some success. In last year’s regional elections, Navalny claims, United Russia lost its majority in three Russian cities because of Smart Voting.
But the app was supposed to promote pro-Navalny candidates – and feels very ambivalent when it comes to endorsing aspiring politicians with the “systemic opposition”, a handful of parties whose presence in the Duma creates an illusion of political plurality.
“It is a very two-pronged [political] tool,” said campaign manager Vitali Shkliarov who worked on Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns in the United States, promoted pro-Navalny candidates in Russia, and was jailed and tortured in neighbouring Belarus last year after working with an opposition presidential hopeful.
“Smart Voting was conceived as a good tool, but in the political reality we live in its implementation is not the best way out,” Shkliarov told Al Jazeera.
Many of the candidates endorsed by Smart Voting are Communists, the largest political force opposed to the Kremlin – albeit mostly nominally.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has largely backed most of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiatives, such as raising the retirement age, abolishing low utility payments for the elderly and Crimea’s 2014 annexation.
“They completely sold out, I don’t vote for them anymore. In fact, I am disgusted by what they’ve been doing in recent years with all these paeans to Stalin and subservience to Putin,” Alevtina Yevtushenkova, 43, a nurse in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy who was an avid Communist supporter in the 2000s, told Al Jazeera.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has lauded Stalin, reversing the 1956 decision by his Soviet predecessors to condemn the leader’s purges and personality cult.
The Communists have the second largest bloc in the 450-seat State Duma with 43 seats. Zyuganov has come in at a distant second in each presidential vote since 1996.
The only liberal democratic party allowed to take part in the parliamentary vote is Yabloko (Apple), a veteran group that kicked Navalny out in 2008 for his nationalist views and participation in far-right rallies.
Navalny’s decision to pick the Communists and other “systemic” opposition candidates as the lesser of the two evils has polarised Kremlin critics.
“Even following the most rational reasons, I can’t cast my ballot for the CPRF that stands for sovok [a derogatory term for all things Soviet] and Stalin,” arrested political activist Andrey Pivovarov said in a statement.
And even some who root for Smart Voting consider it flawed.
“In Smart Voting there is one logical imperfection – it urges one to vote for any party but United Russia. But I think that many candidates from the [nationalist] LDPR and Communist parties are United Russia too,” Maxim Shevchenko, a popular television personality and leader of the Party of Freedom and Justice, told the Daily Storm newspaper.
Russian courts blocked the Smart Voting website as “extremist” and ordered Google and Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, not to display search results for “Smart Voting”.
On Monday, police officers reportedly visited the office of Google’s Russian subsidiary to “enforce” the order.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova had said days earlier that the app’s developers “are somehow connected to the Pentagon”.
Western observers lambasted the witch hunt and the Kremlin’s “manic” paranoia about opposition.
“In Russia, the Kremlin is using full force to eliminate all possible opposition. I agree that Russia doesn’t need to imitate the West, but this manic crackdown on legitimate opposition is shameful,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
The Kremlin also appears to have found a more cunning way to outlaw Smart Voting.
In July, Woolintertrade, a wool dealer in the southwestern region of Stavropol, registered a “Smart Voting” brand name and a logo that resembles the app’s icon.
The fund’s “illegal” use, therefore, could be punishable by up to six years in jail, and all printed materials with them can be confiscated and destroyed.
Meanwhile, Navalny is being demonised on pro-Kremlin television networks, and only 14 percent of Russians approve of what he and his Fund to Fight Corruption do, while 62 “disapprove,” according to the July poll by the Levada Center pollster.