I knew an Alexander Solovyov who was an associate of exiled former oligarch and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and was, until recently, chairman of his Open Russia movement. As far as I knew, he was also in jail.
This was confirmed when I sent him a text: “Alexander is imprisoned until the evening of 24 September. Thanks.”
The Solovyov I knew was one of the liberal opposition activists barred from running in Moscow City elections. He had been vocal in the protests which followed and, like scores of others, was then jailed for participating in mass rallies. He had hoped to run in Moscow’s District Number 3.
So who was the Alexander Solovyov who had won in District Number 3? Apart from a few hesitant campaign videos, he seemed to be a complete unknown. He also went to ground directly after his election win, prompting a media hunt to check whether he was even real.
Victor Yemelyaninkov, head of the electoral commission for his area, told us to stop calling: “Everyone here is calling me non-stop. I don’t know where he is or where to find him.”
Aleksey Obukhov, from the other Solovyov’s press team, is convinced he was a spoiler.
“He was invented just to take away the votes from the real Solovyov. We ran his campaign on the streets and the real Solovyov was widely recognised,” he said.
“They were looking for someone with the same name and surname from that area, and the only person they found was this engineer.”
Solovyov, the newly-elected deputy, re-surfaced on Thursday. He said he had needed a rest after the election and had been spending time with his family.
He dismissed notions he was a spoiler candidate, saying: “The other Solovyov started running later and he could have run in a different electoral district.”
This Solovyov said he had decided to run in July, and had approached the ‘A Just Russia’ party because he liked their agenda and would not then need to gather the signatures to run as an independent.
Ironically, he may have snatched victory from the ruling party candidate because of the smart-vote system introduced by Alexey Navalny and his anti-corruption team, FBK. This involved voters registering to see who was most likely to beat the ruling party candidate in any given district and tick that name on the ballot.
In District number 3, both the jailed Solovyov and Alexey Navalny had called on voters to back Solovyov over the incumbent. It seemed to work. Solovyov won. And across Moscow, United Russia took a hit in the polls.
On Thursday, the state hit back. Masked security men swinging sledgehammers conducted raids at Navalny’s campaign offices in more than 40 cities across Russia.
Navalny HQ put the unprecedented crackdown down to the success of the smart-vote scheme.
“Putin is very angry and is stamping his feet,” Navalny said in a videotaped response.
“Do you remember ever seeing in our country an operation on this scale against terrorism, corruption or drug dealers as you’re seeing now against us? That must mean we’re cooler than a drug cartel!”
As of last month, Navalny’s foundation is under investigation for alleged money laundering. Navalny is promising the investigation won’t stop him but it appears as though the state is looking for a way to deal with the problem he and his associates represent once and for all.
The raids also send a message to the regions, heard loud and clear already in Moscow after a summer of detentions and draconian jail terms for an unlucky few, that opposition will not be tolerated.
If the crackdown around these elections belongs more to Soviet times, spoiler candidates are a feature of the post-Soviet age.
The Solovyovs weren’t the only twins in the Moscow poll. There was also a pair of Alexandra Andreyevas. It is possible these are striking coincidences, but given the way the Russian state stage-manages the democratic process, it does not seem likely.
Whether or not he expected to win though, Solovyov the deputy says he’ll give it the best he’s got.