Just before Ilya Yashin launched into his second stump speech of the day, two sullen youths began to hand out fliers accusing him of being paid by the United States to destroy Russia from within. It was ten days before elections to the Kostroma region’s parliament, and the arrival of the young members of an organisation called “Patriots of Russia” – and a subsequent accusation of theft against one of Mr Yashin’s activists – was by now a routine part of the campaign trail. “That is small beer. They try something like it every day,” Mr Yashin said. “It’s a form of psychological pressure. But we got used to that a long time ago.” Fresh faced, short, and slight of build, Mr Yashin, 32, is already a veteran of Russian opposition politics – and he knows a thing or two about psychological pressure. During the 2000s, he campaigned for the once-popular democratic parties that have seen their share of the vote shrink with each election under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian but popular rule. In late 2011, he was one of several leaders of a surge of anti-Kremlin protests – and endured the subsequent crackdown, which saw arrests, apartment searches, and several allies sent to prison.
Since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014 and the subsequent eruption of war in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s opposition leaders have endured ever-growing public vilification as ‘fifth columnists” and traitors.
In February this year came a blow that sent the entire anti-Kremlin movement – and much of Russia – into shock: the murder of the veteran opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Mr Nemtsov’s murder was a watershed moment for both the opposition and the Kremlin. It signalled that the era of tolerance was over – in the post-Crimea era, dissenters in the most brutal way. It also deprived the movement of one of its few elected officials. Mr Netmsov held a council seat in Yaroslavl, a provincial medieval town north-east of Moscow.
Six months on, his old allies are regrouping and trying to regain office in the neighbouring region. But it is an uphill struggle.