Sobol chose a traditionally liberal district in central Moscow, ran an effective and highly vocal campaign, and managed to collect the required 5,000 signatures to run for a seat. About a dozen other independent candidates did the same elsewhere. But election officials declined to register a single one of them, claiming that many of the signatures were fake. Among those deemed illegitimate was a signature by Sobol’s own sister. By contrast, pro-government candidates sailed through the process.
Sobol wasn’t going to give up easily. She dug up that the long-serving head of the Moscow election commission had an undeclared luxury villa in Croatia. “You are a falsifier, and now the whole country knows about it,” Sobol told him during an election-commission meeting. “This is a funeral of your reputation.”
“Her spirit is absolutely unbendable; she is a born fighter,” Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst in Moscow, told me. “The system does not tolerate this kind of activity, but she wants to try to break through, plow through it with her head.”
Sobol finally ended her hunger strike this month, after 32 days of refusing food, when a colleague’s mother implored her to stop. The colleague had also been refusing food in solidarity with Sobol, but unlike her, he was in jail and had no access to medical help. (While she has been detained at various points, Sobol has so far escaped a stint in jail because of a provision in Russian law under which women with young children cannot be subjected to administrative arrest.)
Post-Soviet Russia hasn’t seen many female politicians, let alone genuine opposition figures, so Sobol stands out. Yet when I asked whether she was advocating a women’s agenda, Sobol said that she didn’t believe in that concept. All Russians, she told me, have one universal problem they want solved, and that is fighting corruption.
“The agenda is the same for women and men,” Sobol said. “I think people just want to live in a normal country.”
In the afternoon after our interview, Sobol walked out of her office and climbed into a yellow taxi to head to the leafy boulevards of central Moscow, where demonstrators were amassing. But before she could even close the door of the car, about a dozen police officers, some of them in riot gear, dragged her out of the cab and forced her into a van. “What did I violate? What are you charging me with?” Sobol yelled. “I demand that the reason for my detention be explained to me!”
After being driven around town for several hours—apparently to prevent her from showing up at the rally—Sobol was taken to court, where she was fined about $4,500 for taking part in an unauthorized protest. When the judge pronounced the ruling, Sobol shouted, “Shame!”
Then came another busy week: a day in court representing the parents of the children who had suffered from dysentery; a shouting match at the national election commission; the arrest of fellow would-be candidates who were barely out of jail; a raid at the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (the group’s bank accounts were also frozen); more YouTube videos recorded; more pounds lost.
It all felt like one long Groundhog Day—and without much hope in sight. So why go on?
Eighteen days into her hunger strike, Sobol put on a bright-red blazer and makeup, and recorded a video address urging Muscovites to continue protesting to demand that independent candidates be allowed to run in elections. Come, she exhorted them, simply to show that their voices cannot be ignored.
“We are here,” she said. “We exist.”