If you were wondering what changed in Russia why millions have turned against the ruling government and who thousands have gone out to protest in the streets it helps to look back at how Mikhail Salkin, a scrawny young lawyer, ended up in jail three weeks ago, in the early hours of Dec. 5. The day before, Russia had voted to elect a new parliament, and Salkin had volunteered to work at the polls, as he'd done during two previous legislative ballots. The local elections commission even moved him up in the ranks this time. He was responsible not just for one polling station but an entire neighborhood of them in the north of Moscow.
At around midnight on election day, as results began arriving from the neighborhood polling stations, Salkin says he was busy logging them into a register when he felt something was off. Some of his colleagues, he noticed, were sneaking up to the second floor of the election commission office, which was roped off with a red ribbon. He decided to go investigate. Armed with the video camera on his cell phone, he climbed to the second floor and burst into the office where his fellow officials were gathered.
Four of them were seated around a table, he says, methodically destroying the documents with the actual results and forging new ones, complete with official seals, stamps and stickers. In each of them, the ruling United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was given many more votes than it had actually received. For a few brief moments, the officials gawked at Salkin as he says he managed to film the forged documents next to the originals. But soon everyone in the room started shouting. "We weren't doing anything!" one woman wailed before swiping a bundle of documents off the table and running out of the room.
Then a tussle broke out. One of the officials grabbed Salkin, pushed him onto the landing of the stairwell and held him there until police arrived. Before long, the ruckus drew a crowd, including several election observers from various political parties. "I ran up and saw the police were holding [Salkin] while some bureaucrat reached into his pocket and took his cell phone," says Evgeny Ozhovkov, a volunteer from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia who witnessed the scene. "It was a nasty picture. He was screaming like mad about what he'd seen in that room and all those goons were against him." Police then handcuffed and arrested Salkin on suspicion of assaulting his colleagues at the election commission. The next day he was released, with no charges filed. He then checked the website of the Central Election Commission for the final results in his neighborhood. On average, he says, every polling station showed United Russia with between 500 and 700 more votes than he had seen in the tallies after the polls closed.
"I can't even tell you how much this hurt," Salkin told TIME about a week after the vote. "I felt totally betrayed, and not just betrayed but furious. How stupid do they think we are?" This has been the most common refrain of the small army of whistle-blowers and activists that the elections are spawning. From polling officials to local observers and even one apparatchik from the United Russia party, they have emerged by the dozens this month with a body of evidence to show that the elections were rigged outright. More than any other complaint, this is what has driven tens of thousands of people to protest in recent weeks across the country, posing the biggest popular challenge ever to Putin's rule.
According to the official election results, Putin's party got just under 50% of the vote, barely allowing it to keep its majority in parliament. But it may actually have been as low as 30%, if the detailed accounts released by election officials, monitors, pollsters and journalists are to be believed. If so, that means the party would have needed to falsify an incredible 12 million votes.