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NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — On the eve of regional elections, an opposition candidate named Olga V. Safronova arrived at a school for a campaign finale. She planned a rousing speech with a refrain that Russia had been seized by a dictatorial ruling party.
But operatives from that very party showed up to stop her.

What displeased them was this: Ms. Safronova’s political party was supposed to be a fake opposition, created by the Kremlin to give the illusion that Russia was a thriving democracy. Now, though, this puppet party was rebelling here in Siberia — battling for votes, defying the governing party and even assailing Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin himself.

The governing party — in coordination with the authorities themselves — soon responded. And their efforts to suppress Ms. Safronova’s party, A Just Russia, seemed to underscore how laws intended to guarantee free and fair elections carry little weight in Russia.

The governing party operatives tried to bar Ms. Safronova from the school. They called the police to interrogate her. They warned teachers and others that they would be fired if they attended, and most left. Ms. Safronova ignored the threats and began speaking in an auditorium that was nearly deserted. Even so, the operatives sought to shout her down.

“You do not have permission to speak here!” said Gennadi V. Bykovsky, a former prosecutor and aide to the governing party candidate. “We don’t want to hear your blabbering.”

Ms. Safronova lashed back. “You are corrupt!” she said. “Do you see this? They can violate the law as much as they want. And me? How dare I! I should be lined up against the wall and shot for just trying to express my point of view.”
All around Novosibirsk, A Just Russia came under pressure, and had little chance of defending itself. The police raided the party’s offices, and the state television channel accused it of conducting a dirty campaign. Local officials even emblazoned logos of the governing party, United Russia, on city bulldozers to give the party, not the government, credit for fixing roads.

On Election Day, hundreds of soldiers from a military garrison were marched to a polling place and ordered to vote for United Russia, according to nonpartisan voting monitors.

It was as if the governing party and the government had merged, just as in the Communist era. And in many ways, they have. United Russia effectively controls regional governments, prosecutor’s offices, courts, police departments and election commissions.

Up against this colossus went Ms. Safronova, 53, a former Kremlin supporter who grew increasingly frustrated with the country’s political stagnation and decided to do something about it this year. She mounted her campaign for regional assembly, and worked to transform A Just Russia in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city.

From the start, Ms. Safronova realized that the odds were against her.

She dressed like a corporate lawyer on the campaign trail, slogging through the mud of a dairy farm in the city suburbs in high heels. But the truth was that she was a widow with little money who lived with her mother, son and granddaughter in a threadbare housing project that looked as if it had not been renovated since Brezhnev’s time. She had long blond hair that she sometimes styled in a classic Slavic peasant braid, as if to hark back to her rural roots.

An economist by training, she had made many enemies as regional leader of a group called the Public Anticorruption Committee and, before that, as an advocate for small business in Novosibirsk. She expected that the governing party would be infuriated with the regional branch of A Just Russia. And so she was not surprised when she received menacing phone calls from people who would not identify themselves.

“They say, if I don’t end my campaign, they will kill me,” she said.

Still, she thought that even if she did not win, she could secure a high enough percentage of the vote to help prove that Russia had a viable new opposition at the regional level.

If United Russia went unchallenged, she insisted, then Russia would end up like the Soviet Union: foundering under the corrupt and incompetent reign of a single party.

“We are hoping that a massive number of people will come out on Election Day and declare that they will not take this anymore,” she said shortly before the voting. “We are striving to create a true multiparty system, a real democracy in Russia.”

To United Russia, those were fighting words.

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