MOSCOW—The message in the video is supposed to be funny, sort of: Vote on March 18 or your life will become a nightmare. Or, more precisely and unmistakably (though not explicitly), vote for Vladimir Putin to serve yet another term as president of the Russian Federation, or all sorts of horrible things will happen.
Here’s the rough scenario of the ad seen by millions across Russia on the state-run television channels, which are still the country’s main source of news:
A man and woman are about to go to sleep in their apartment, she in her nightgown and silk blindfold, he, bald and fat in the kind of undershirt Americans call a wife-beater. She is going to set the alarm to get up early and vote. He says, grumpily, that she should turn it off and forget about waking up on election day.
They sleep, but in that sleep the dream that comes must give Russians pause.
A knock at the door. There stands a military officer backed by a black soldier. They’re there to take the man in the wife-beater into their multiracial army.
The man turns away, terrified, only to be confronted by his son, who’s demanding millions of rubles to pay for security at his school.
Fleeing into the kitchen, the sweaty protagonist discovers a young, flamboyantly gay man sitting at the table helping himself to a banana and taking a bite out of it. There’s a new law, it seems, that says every Russian family must adopt a homosexual until he or she finds someone to marry.
The grumpy man wakes up—but doesn’t. He reaches for his wife, and there’s the young gay guy, the banana biter, in bed with him.
The fat man wakes up again, this time for real, and shakes his wife awake, telling her to go out and vote this election day “before it is too late.”
Politicians in Washington and in many European countries do their best to fill citizens with fear. Most often, the paranoia is stoked with tales of criminal immigrant. But what’s striking about this ad is that the “threat” is to wind up like today’s United States, with a multiracial army, homosexuals a part of mainstream society, and schools endangered by rampant violence.
It’s an ugly message, but far from the ugliest one that Russians have seen in these last weeks before the polls open, with Putin pushing for a big turnout, and his most well known opponent, Alexei Navalny, who is barred from running, calling for a boycott.
Independent observers consider the threats in the get-out-the-vote ad a shame for the country. “The authors of this video wanted to say that the average Russian citizen is a homophobe, a sexist and a racist, which is not true,” Tania Felgenhauer, deputy-editor of Echo of Moscow radio told The Daily Beast. “It is, finally, just mean to treat people this way.”
On Sunday, many in Moscow demonstrated against fear. Less than a month before the presidential elections, more than 7,000 people joined The Nemtsov March, an anti-Putin protest in the center of the city in memory of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, assassinated three years ago just outside the Kremlin wall.
Protestors were chanting angry slogans about state corruption, political repression, and about the same man ruling Russia for 18 years. Although their leader was dead, old, young and very young protesters joined The Nemtsov March, feeling inspired by his spirit, hopeful that they could make a change in Russia’s future. Each of them remembered how much Nemtsov despised fear-mongering.
It was certainly a freezing day, about six degrees Fahrenheit. But neither the weather nor hundreds of police and soldiers on the streets stopped the devoted opposition from marching for hours in memory of the charismatic Nemtsov.
His close friend Ilya Yashin led the march, his head uncovered, his coat unbuttoned. Yashin shouted political slogans into the loudspeaker and thousands of voices repeated every word after him. Some demonstrators rubbed their numb noses and cheekbones in the wind to get warm, but they continued to march. Voices of the rally sounded hoarse in the freezing wind. “Nemtsov is the hero of Russia!” they chanted. “Russia will be free!” or “Putin, resign!” There were moments when Yashin’s powerful voice sounded a lot like Nemtsov’s.
Nemtsov, a former prime minister of Russia, had been the heart of Russia’s anti-Putin movement. In the last year of his life he received constant death threats but refused to run away.
His assassins shot him in the back when he was walking back from an interview on Echo of Moscow together with his girlfriend, a Ukrainian model. Last July a Chechen police officer was convicted for the killing of Nemtsov, but Yashin is convinced, along with most of Nemtsov’s friends, that authorities in Moscow were behind the murder.
“This generation of people who are not whipped, who did not live under KGB repression, are fearless. I was so inspired to see more young people joining the march than last year,” Yashin told The Daily Beast after the march. “They will not bend, though today the Kremlin uses arrests and torture in prisons, as a tool to sustain the regime.”
The death of Nemtsov created a hero for the Russian opposition that, for a time at least, seems able to unite the disparate groups. Presidential candidates Grigory Yavlinsky, Ksenia Sobchak, and the country’s most passionate corruption fighter Aleksei Navalny joined the march on Sunday.
But on the critical question of what to do on election day, the Russian opposition is split. Some call to vote, others to boycott the process because the outcome is predictable and dishonest.
“I am going to boycott this election, because none of the registered candidates even say out loud that they are going to beat Putin; none of them believe that the fair competition is possible,” Yashin, who was elected as a deputy in last year’s Moscow municipal elections, told The Daily Beast. “Russians die in the streets, like Nemtsov. Russians die in some horrible wars in Donbas [Ukraine] and Syria. The President does not explain why our country takes part in these wars—in this ongoing nightmare.”
The real nightmare.
“Only personal courage and strength of spirit will help us change Russia’s future,” said Yashin.