Democratically minded Russians like me, who yearn for a free country where leaders are legitimately elected and leave office when they are supposed to, just suffered two blows in rapid succession. It now seems like it was another lifetime, but only two weeks ago, all eyes were on Boris Nadezhdin, a surprise antiwar candidate who managed to emerge even in the political desert that has become Putin’s Russia. But Nadezhdin’s candidacy, as was expected, was disqualified by the highly compromised Central Election Commission. Only a week later, the world was shaken by the murder of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned leader of whatever remained of the Russian opposition.

When the news of Navalny’s death spread, millions of people inside Russia and abroad felt the same emotion: there is no hope left. In just a matter of weeks, we went from lining up within Russia and abroad to leave our signatures for the only antiwar presidential candidate, who was quickly barred from running, to lining up to place flowers at pop-up memorials for a murdered opposition leader. Both are acts of unbelievable bravery, especially for those inside Russia but also for those in exile who still have family who could be endangered by the actions of their relatives abroad; in the tyranny of today’s Russia, such acts carry severe consequences. It is that bravery and the Russian people’s desire for democracy that I believe will propel us forward, in spite of these unimaginably difficult setbacks.

The response to Nadezhdin’s upstart candidacy and the public outpouring of grief following Navalny’s death hold important lessons about the mood in Russia in this week marking the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Both have made visible the discontent that dares not express itself as outright dissent after the draconian crackdown on free expression in Russia that followed the invasion. Nadezhdin’s campaign represented a crack in the façade – a reminder, in a country where state-controlled media peddle bellicose propaganda and the myth of unanimous approval for the Ukraine adventure, that vast numbers of Russians oppose the war and long for change.

The lines of people to lay flowers to commemorate Navalny (most often at various memorials to victims of historical political repression that somehow have survived Putin’s Russia), was yet another crack. And in a sign that the regime fears the cracks growing larger and more numerous, Navalny’s body still has not been released to his family, with some speculating that his funeral may lead to large protests, or that the body is being held until signs of poisoning or some other abuse recede.

Putin Looking for Yet Another Victory

More persistent public displays of discontent would be uncomfortable for the Kremlin, which is hard at work to ensure that Putin’s next electoral victory in March, which is all but guaranteed, goes off without a hitch. In Putin’s Russian Federation, electoral politics is a form of theater, with well-established roles and preordained outcomes. There is a place in this pantomime for opposition candidates, who lend the appearance of legitimacy to elections but pose no real threat of victory. But Nadezhdin had articulated his opposition with vigor, criticizing the government’s repression of LGBTQ+ rights and scorning as “madness” the harsh prison sentences handed down to antiwar activists. Above all, Nadezhdin was insistent in his condemnation of the Ukraine war, deeming it a “fatal error” that is dragging Russia down and miring the nation in a “medieval” mindset. He called for the troops to be brought home and for peace to be made with Ukraine.

It is surely that antiwar stance that brought out the throngs to qualify his candidacy with their signatures. (The Nadezhdin campaign said it collected some 180,000 signatures in all, 105,000 of which were submitted to the Central Election Commission.) Extraordinary scenes unfolded across Russia: large crowds, assembled in snaking lines outside signature collection points, in many places standing for hours in frigid sub-zero temperatures. Their risk was magnified as they were required to submit their identification papers and full identity details for the signatures to be considered valid.

When I interviewed Nadezhdin on Jan. 23 for the exiled independent Russian television channel where I work, TV Rain, he said the reaction to his campaign had come as a surprise, since he is not a magnetic personality. He characterized himself as “a simple Russian academic” who does not cut a heroic figure. He volunteered that he believes he lacks the charisma of leaders who have stood against Putin’s authoritarianism, such as Navalny and the late Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015 on a bridge in view of the Kremlin. It is not often that you hear a politician describe himself as unlikeable. But it is true that the wave of support for Nadezhdin has far less to do with the man himself than with the message powering his campaign. That campaign, of course, was doomed to failure: as anticipated, he was officially disqualified from the race on Feb. 8, just a week before Navalny’s murder, and the Supreme Court rejected his appeal two weeks later.

Dashing Hopes Again and Again

The haste with which the Kremlin moved to disqualify Nadezhdin shows that they know they miscalculated in allowing him to run at all. As he noted repeatedly, the popularity of his campaign has never been about him personally. “You are not denying me, but tens of millions of people who hope for change,” he said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, when his candidacy was rejected.

After Navalny’s murder, the ground shifted beneath our feet. It felt that the final shred of hope Nadezhdin referred to was gone. For political emigrants, the loss of Navalny became a signal for a final farewell to home. “If Navalny is not there, then we will never return,” I hear every day. Thinking of Navalny, it is incredible that a person who was sent to a penal colony in the farthest reaches of Russia managed to be braver and more optimistic than the rest of us. He supported us even while he was being tortured and repeatedly sent to solitary confinement. He helped us believe in change and in the “beautiful Russia of the future,” as he described his aspirations – a country with elections, freedom, and human rights.

Power in Russia has long been under the control of what is essentially an organized crime group, operating under Putin’s direction. So it is extremely difficult to understand what to do next. Recognizing this void, Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei’s widow, has pledged to take on her husband’s mission. There is no doubt that she has the moral authority to lead, given the personal strength she is exhibiting in these days after her husband’s death and her close work with him, even if in the background. It seems that Navalny’s widow has begun a political career. This has already allowed many of my acquaintances, friends, and subscribers to breathe a little easier. Again we find ourselves, against all odds, reaching for a new sliver of hope.

IMAGE: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, opposition politician Lyubov Sobol and other demonstrators take part in a march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)