On Aug. 19, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was meeting with local activists in the Siberian city of Tomsk. “Someone asked him the traditional question why he had not been arrested or murdered,” recalls one of those present, referring to the fates often suffered by Kremlin opponents. “He made a joke in response, as usual. The next day, there was no room for jokes.”

The next day, as the whole world now knows, Navalny collapsed from poisoning on a plane back to Moscow. The cause, according to German medical experts, was a nerve agent closely related to the Novichok substance used in the attack against former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018.

Yet the attempt on Navalny’s life has not stopped his movement. Last Sunday, as the politician was recovering in Berlin’s Charité hospital after emerging from a weeks-long coma, two of his leading supporters in Tomsk were handily elected to the city council, defeating pro-regime incumbents as local elections were held across Russia. Overall, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party lost 21 of its 32 seats in the Tomsk legislature, along with its long-held majority. “What worked best for us in the campaign was when we approached people on the street and told them that we are against United Russia,” said Ksenia Fadeyeva in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio staton. Fadeyeva, a 28-year-old coordinator of Navalny’s movement in Tomsk, was elected to the city council last Sunday. “Public perceptions are clearly shifting.”

In neighboring Novosibirsk — Russia’s third-largest city — Navalny supporters took enough seats in the council to form their own caucus, also knocking United Russia’s seat count below the 50 percent mark. Candidates of Navalny’s coalition outpolled both United Russia and the Communists, Russia’s main (and docile) official opposition party. Elsewhere in the country, dozens of Kremlin opponents scored other local victories. The winners included members of the liberal Yabloko party and the United Democrats movement backed by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Opposition victories on the municipal level — at which independent candidates can still run in individual districts, even if not affiliated with a registered party — contrasted with the tightly controlled elections for regional leaders. Russia’s state media carried buoyant reports of victories by Kremlin-backed incumbents, many of them with Central Asian-style results of 80 percent or more. In all cases, they had faced carefully selected “competition” from toothless spoilers put up by smaller Kremlin-controlled parties. It’s not difficult to win when the ballot includes no real opposition. One can guess what the Russian parliament would look like had Navalny’s supporters been allowed to register their party and gain ballot access, which they’ve now been denied nine times. It’s not hard to see why.

Still, the authorities took no chances. According to the vote-monitoring group Golos, the 2020 local elections were an exercise in “lawlessness.” Officials and police prevented observers from entering polling places and accessing voter rolls, in some cases resorting to physical assault. More important, in a new rule first tested in this summer’s sham plebiscite on waiving term limits for Putin, elections are now spread over three days and held not only in regular polling places but also in makeshift locations such as park benches or car trunks — with no independent oversight of ballots stored overnight in the electoral commission offices. In some cases, these “early” ballots accounted for two-thirds of the total. It almost doesn’t matter how people vote on the final day when observers are present for the count.

All these tricks — and, no doubt, countless others — will be used next September when Russians go to the polls to elect the national parliament. The Kremlin is already flooding the ballot with fake parties designed to imitate competition and dilute the opposition vote. Among these is For Truth, a recently formed party led by, among others, ultranationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin and former Hollywood actor (and naturalized Russian citizen) Steven Seagal that simultaneously calls for restoring the Russian Empire and reinstating the name of Stalingrad. There is speculation that parliamentary elections could be moved forward to the spring, lest even the ballot-stuffing and the multitude of spoilers fail to prevent a humiliation for Putin’s party of the kind it suffered last year in Moscow.

In the end, no amount of fraud will be able to stem the tide. Despite the growing repression — indeed, often in reaction to it — Russia’s youth is becoming increasingly involved in public life and politics. “We have an entire generation now that’s never seen any leader except Putin,” Fadeyeva said. “People are simply growing tired of this stagnation.” The fall of public confidence in Putin to 23 percent is only the first of many warning signs.

In Putin’s Russia, authoritarian controls are increasingly counterbalanced by a growing political mobilization of the grass roots — especially in the regions and especially among the young generation, as last weekend’s elections have shown. If Russians are unable to effect change through the ballot box, they will find another way. The ongoing protests in Belarus have prompted predictions of a similar public surge in Russia in 2024. If the Kremlin continues on its current path, this may well come much sooner.

Read more: