‘Where do independent candidates get this kind of money?’ Pro-government contenders to the State Duma are unofficially campaigning in Moscow. And distancing themselves from Russia’s ‘party of power.’
Campaign season for the State Duma elections hasn’t officially begun yet, but Muscovites are already seeing billboards promoting the people the city government would like to see join the Russian parliament’s lower house come September. This time, however, potential candidates are avoiding any association with parties, instead campaigning as representatives of recently-established public organizations. Meduza special correspondents Andrey Pertsev and Svetlana Reiter dove deeper into these informal campaign efforts — which are increasingly run by Moscow newcomers with little campaign experience.
According to Meduza’s sources, every single State Duma candidate supported by the Moscow government has already begun unofficially campaigning — billboards have gone up throughout the city, and promoters have started handing out flyers and pamphlets on the street. Most of the materials don’t mention the election coming up this fall — their main purpose is to increase name recognition.
Many of the candidates founded public organizations in the spring of 2021, and are using these organizations’ names to promote themselves. And while most of the pro-government candidates supported by the city are technically registered as United Russia members, practically none of them are using the party’s symbol or colors in their campaign materials, opting instead to emphasize their membership to their own public organizations.
TV host Evgeny Popov, the winner of a March 2021 United Russia primary race, organized a volunteer organization whose goal is to help elderly and sick people — volunteers can bring people groceries or walk people’s dogs. Meanwhile, Svetlana Razvorotneva, a member of the All-Russia People’s Front political coalition, founded the Center for the Protection of Rights, also in March, to help resolve constituents’ housing and utilities complaints.
Yet another United Russia primary winner, TV host Timofey Bazhenov, announced in January that he was creating an environmental movement that shares his name.
The candidates themselves have vehemently denied that their newly-founded organizations have any connection to politics. “When I run, I’ll be representing United Russia. The Center for the Protection of Muscovites’ Rights is a means of providing legal assistance on a wide range of issues. It’s a nonprofit organization, and it’s not connected to a party,” Svetlana Razvorotneva told Meduza.
Polymath Anatoly Vasserman, whose flyers are currently being distributed in Moscow, told Meduza he would “most likely be running” for the State Duma. He specified, however, that he still wasn’t sure whether he’d run as an independent candidate or represent a party. “Several parties have positions I agree with, but also some I don’t agree with. I haven’t joined a party so far, and I’m probably not going to,” he said. According to the party A Just Russia — For Truth, however, Vasserman has already joined and will run in the upcoming election, though “he still hasn’t received his membership card.”
Campaigning has begun both at voters’ homes and on the streets. Campaigners for both Vasserman and Popov have hung placards with the candidates’ headshots and names on people’s door handles, while campaigners for State Duma deputy and United Russia member Roman Romanenko have handed out refrigerator magnets on the street, and a group of Stolichka pharmacy director Yevgeny Nifantieva supporters have given out masks and vitamins. Both Romanenko and Nifantiev won the United Russia primaries in their districts.
Vasserman has gone even further, arranging a giveaway of three smartphones (and pointing out that each phone is worth at least 10,000 rubles, or $136.) Entering the giveaway requires filling out the contact form in Vasserman’s pamphlet and bringing it to his public office.
Vasserman told Meduza that he doesn’t consider the lottery vote buying as his official campaign hasn’t started and he hasn’t yet decided to run. “It’s an outreach idea — an idea my quiz show friends came up with it. One of my colleagues came up with the smartphone idea. Thank God we’re wealthy people,” he said.
In previous Moscow elections, pro-government candidates have refrained from directly handing things out to voters and arranging giveaways. “[Domestic policy bloc curator Alexey] Nemeryuk put it this way: the simpler, the better. Well, what could be simpler for voters than giving out prizes?” a political consultant working on one of the campaigns in question told Meduza. At the time of this article’s publication, Alexey Nemeryuk had not responded to Meduza’s questions.
According to another major political strategist, who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity, “in this campaign in Moscow, they’re allowing all the things that used to be considered unacceptable.”
According to one of Meduza’s sources, the person responsible for this approach is political strategist Denis Ogay. Both sources close to the Moscow authorities and sources close to United Russia leadership said that Ogay is the head of the city government’s unofficial campaigning efforts.
Ogay is originally from Tula. According to two of Meduza’s sources, he began his work after being approached by Department of Territorial Authorities deputy head Yulia Maryasova, who previously worked in Tula’s regional government. According to another source, however, it’s Maryasova who’s the real head of the operation, while Denis Ogay is more of an “operational manager.” Meduza was unable to reach Yulia Maryasova for comment.
This isn’t Ogay’s first rodeo — in 2019, he led pro-government candidate Olga Sharapova’s successful Moscow City Duma campaign. According to a source close to the city government, Alexey Nemeryuk liked Denis Ogay for his vitality and his unorthodox approach. In Sharapova’s campaign, for example, Ogay used a blimp with Sharapova’s name on it.
According to a political strategist who worked in Tula and knows Ogay, he also had a previous job organizing celebrity tours, and the skills he gained there have served him well in his political work. Meduza was able to confirm that Ogay was the organizer of both an Alisa concert in Oryol and a Melnitsa concert in Ryazan.
“He’s close to Nemeryuk — he was in charge of organizing celebrations in Moscow and got comfortable talking to people from that world,” said Meduza’s source, not without some irony. Denis Ogay, on the other hand, told Meduza that the information about his role in the unofficial campaign office “doesn’t correspond to reality.”
‘Why pay more for famous people when you can just invite nobodies?’
According to several people Meduza spoke to, including people close to the United Russia leadership and the Moscow city government, several other political strategy groups are leading the campaigns of candidates from the city government. These include IMA Consulting, which has worked with both the Moscow city government and the Kremlin to lead pro-government candidates’ campaigns for years, as well as KROS, Sergey Zverev’s famous political consulting company.
Other strategists are playing a role, too. TV host, State Duma deputy, and United Russia member Pyotr Tolstoy’s campaigns are managed by political strategist Oleg Zakhariyash, who previously worked with catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin. Zakhariyash confirmed to Meduza that he does consulting for Tolstoy.
Oleg Leonov, the founder of the search-and-rescue volunteer organization Liza Alert, is having Alexander Molvinskikh, the former deputy head of territorial policy management in Moscow region, over see his campaign. Molvinshkikh confirmed this to Meduza.
According to Meduza’s sources, Oleg Smolkin, a former Moscow city government employee and the former head of the executive branch of United Russia’s Moscow chapter, is in charge of the chairman election process for Tatyana Butskaya’s public organization Mothers’ Council. (Smolkin didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions.)
Meduza’s sources also claimed TV host Timofey Bazhenov’s campaign office is run by political strategist Andrey Maximov, who led the Moscow city government’s campaign office in the 2019 Moscow City Duma election. However, Maximov himself denied it, saying, “Absolutely not.”
A political consultant who’s worked with the city government in the past told Meduza that the pro-government candidates’ campaigns are run by relatively well-known strategists, but that many of the lower-level campaign workers have no experience in Moscow elections, and often haven’t worked on large campaigns at all.
“And that’s how they ended up with this mess. At some point, these consultants who are literally from the middle of nowhere started coming to work in Moscow, and they don’t know how things work in any major city, let alone Moscow. Why pay more for famous people when you can just invite nobodies? The budget is the same either way. But it might ultimately end up like it did in the 2019 City Duma elections: a loss for pro-government candidates,” a source told Meduza.
Another source, a major player in the political consulting market, had another idea about why there are so many inexperienced specialists in Moscow. “They [city government employees] constantly interfere, demand reports, insist on certain approaches. As a result, nobody wants to work with Moscow’s city government anymore.”
“The  Moscow City Duma elections didn’t teach the city government’s political bloc anything at all, not a single thing,” said a source from the presidential administration.
Of course, most of Meduza’s sources were still certain that the city government won’t face any major obstacles in the upcoming election. “In Moscow, they’ll be doing electronic voting on their own platform [on the website mos.ru], which they also used in the Moscow City Duma election. That’s the main thing they’re counting on, so let the strategists have at it,” said a source close to United Russia leadership.
He pointed out that the United Russia primaries in Moscow had a high turnout rate (more than 6% of all voters) — despite the fact that the city is usually considered an opposition hub, and there was little campaigning before the vote. At the same time, there were almost no reports of forced voting in Moscow.
The United Russia primary was conducted mainly electronically, with participants registering online through the government’s portal, Gosuslugi. Some users wrote on social media, however, about suspicious activity they observed on their Gosuslugi profiles. Journalist Arina Borodina, for example, discovered her account had been accessed by someone from United Russia’s Personal Data Processing Center.
“We made a deal with Gosuslugi, and voters in Moscow will still have a chance to change their votes, and in general, voting with take place on their platform [on mos.ru],” said a source close to United Russia (who didn’t specify how they made the deal, or what exactly it was about).
Meanwhile, political strategist Alexander Kynev pointed out that “the campaigning from Moscow’s pro-government candidates hasn’t been this pushy for a long time.”
“[Official] campaigning hasn’t even started, and it’s already over the top. The candidates are running personality-based campaigns without any hint of the parties that nominated them, and people are starting to ask questions. ‘Where do independent candidates get this kind of money?’ And because there’s so much campaigning going on, all of the effort spent distancing candidates from the authorities and from United Russia have turned out to be for naught, because Muscovites are perfectly aware which candidates come from the administration,” he told Meduza.
According to Kynev, the defining factor in the Moscow elections won’t be “campaign spending” — it’ll be opposition voters.
“In 2019, people turned out for the Moscow City Duma elections, which was the result of opposition candidates being removed, protests being dispersed, and [Alexey] Navalny taking an active position,” said Kynev. “If certain factors align and opposition voters end up voting, then the authorities’ efforts will be useless. If those people don’t end up voting, the pro-government candidates will win, thanks to the voters who depend on the administration, who can also vote electronically.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale