ST. PETERSBURG—As Russia heads to the polls in what are expected to be the most corrupt parliamentary elections since Vladimir Putin came to power, one of the opposition candidates was out on the streets of St. Petersburg proving to people that he exists.
“Look, here he is, the real Vishnevsky, not a fake one!” shrieked a local woman. She was part of a small group of people at Vladimirskaya metro station in St. Petersburg where a smiling, bearded man was holding court.
Boris Vishnevsky is a professor and liberal candidate hoping to become a lawmaker. Running against him are the rival candidates Boris Vishnevsky and Boris Vishnevsky.
This is the bitterly comic reality of democracy in modern Russia.
Two of the Vishnevskys had changed their names, and grown beards, in order to confuse the electorate and make it even harder for this well-known opponent of President Putin to win his seat for Russia’s only registered liberal party, Yabloko. Election commission #30 in the Central Region of St. Petersburg allowed the imposters to be registered on the official ballot.
Pictures of the real Vishnevsky standing alongside banners of his doubles—who also share his balding head and similar facial features—have become the symbol of Russia’s dirty election campaign in 2021.
Even avowed supporters of Putin’s regime think this is going too far. “The voting begins today, but nobody has punished the election commission for the Vishnevsky copies,” said the local leader of the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party Marina Shishkina. “That is just one example of falsification."
Shishkina told The Daily Beast that she has seen Putin’s political system inside and out in the past decade, with all sorts of electoral trickery like video cameras mysteriously going off at the polling stations. “You will hear of the electricity suddenly going off,” she said. “That is classic.”
Here in Russia’s northern capital, The Daily Beast interviewed local voters, as well as pro-Kremlin politicians, who felt equally sick at the falsifications in the parliamentary and local elections held in Russia this week.
The ruling United Russia party has been losing public support in the last few years: Its popularity has declined to 26 percent since 2015 when it had 55 percent of public support. State corruption and lies have been the strongest signs of the Putin system, rotting from within; but many of the masterminds behind the destructive process remain unpunished.
Vishnevsky himself has seen many dirty tricks since he became a politician right after the fall of the USSR in 1990. This year’s election campaign was full of absurd situations, he said. “First they almost banned me from running when they did not like the way I stapled one piece of paper in the file for the registration. Then I discovered that two more candidates were running against me under my own name,” he told The Daily Beast. “But when my team and I saw their portraits, we just laughed—they looked like me!”
Vishnevsky, who was born in St. Petersburg, saw the city at its most dangerous, through the '90s, when Putin was a local politician and so-called “bratki” thugs were killing each other on the streets. Many politicians were assassinated during the first decade of post-Perestroika Russia, but Vishnevsky is convinced that the election process has never been dirtier than now.
“Now it is much filthier!” he said. “Moscow is leading Russia back to a bad version of the USSR with one ruling party, one state ideology, and no pluralism allowed. The ideal situation for the Kremlin would be to control everything and lock its critics in the Gulag.”
Vishnevsky supporter Anna Reva, a tour guide and interpreter, said she was shocked by the scale of the current political scandals. “If Vishnevsky wins in spite of these falsifications, he would be one of very few honest deputies at the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly,” she said. “This is not an election, this is a circus, meant to fool some idiots; but St. Petersburg is not a city of idiots.”
The country’s northern capital, which was founded by Peter the Great more than 300 years ago, has been allowed to fade. “Look, almost every building’s façade is crumbling, while the city puts ugly malls in the heart of the old town,” she said, pointing at the Vladimirsky Passage mall, a mass of glass and concrete sticking up between the graceful historical architecture. “But the worst issue is poverty, the lack of dignity and respect we the local people see from our government.”
United Russia’s own candidates also distanced themselves from the dirty tricks. “All our candidates are against such falsifications,” Nikita Shirokov, the spokesman for United Russia in St. Petersburg, told The Daily Beast.
The chairwoman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, also said Vishnevsky’s body doubles should quit the election campaign. That is the apotheosis of dirty technologies that St. Petersburg is flooded with.
One of the doubles, Victor Bykov, formerly worked with the speaker of St. Petersburg Legislative Council, Sergey Solovyov. The Daily Beast asked him why nobody has been punished for the blatant electoral interference, but the candidate did not respond.
While they waved through these false candidates, the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register dozens of opposition candidates who support the imprisoned politician Alexei Navalny. Several prominent politicians, including ex-Duma deputies Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, had to leave the country in fear of arrests.
For the first time in Putin’s era, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe has decided not to observe Russia’s elections, after Moscow had limited the number of OSCE delegations to a small fraction of the observers required. “This simply does not enable us to carry out our work in an effective and thorough manner,” OSCE President Margarita Cederfelt said.
One of the youngest candidates running for a seat in the State Duma, Valery Kostenok, 22, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, admitted they were facing an uphill battle. “Russia is a military country but even in the army only 80 percent of soldiers treat voting like the fulfillment of some order—we rely on the 20 percent of soldiers, who like my father, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, think of alternative liberal reforms,” he said.
He continues to fight but he knows change is not about to come. “There is a war on the opposition,” he said. “The Kremlin is turning the millstone and we are being crushed.”