Sergei Vasilievich, a gangly man with a clean shaved head and a smoker's raspy voice, gives his profession as a "brigadier." As martial as this sounds, it does not mean he joined the military. The term is Russian political slang, and it refers to a person who arranges crowds for hire, a very busy job during this year's election season.
More than any other time since the fall of the Soviet Union, this has been the year of street politics in Russia. The opposition kicked things off in December, in response to the rigged parliamentary elections that month, by packing squares in Moscow with tens of thousands of people to protest the government of Vladimir Putin. Putin's supporters were rattled at first there had never been a swell of public outrage at the government that large but by February they set their strategy. They apparently decided to respond in kind.
Early that month, when the opposition brought 100,000 people onto the streets of Moscow, pro-Kremlin activists tried to match that number, filling a square across town with legions of people chanting slogans in support of Putin. Dueling demonstrations have since become a mainstay of Russian political life.
The showdown culminated on March 4, the day Putin won a third term as Russia's President. His supporters organized a demonstration that evening bigger than anything the opposition has been able to muster. More than 100,000 people gathered at the walls of the Kremlin. "We won in an open and fair fight," Putin told the crowd with tears in his eyes. "Glory to Russia!"
Suspended high above the throng, the state-run television cameras captured an image that night of overwhelming, even fanatical support for Putin. Huge masses of people were standing for hours in subzero weather just to hear Putin speak, waving flags imprinted with his face and chanting his name. That was the image beamed into millions of Russian households on election night. But at ground level, the picture looked a lot more complicated.
About an hour after Putin addressed the crowd, TIME followed a group of demonstrators into a nearby subway tunnel, where about 100 of them lined up to receive about $10 apiece. Policemen stood by the entire time watching because it is not a crime to pay people for attending a political rally. And as far as moral qualms are concerned, one brigadier on duty that night not Sergei told TIME he had none. "It's a paid flash mob," he said, smiling as he declined to give his name. "It's normal."
It took about an hour for him to cross each demonstrator's name off his list, handing each of them a few bank notes from his wad of cash. Most of the people in the crowd were students and pensioners, for whom $10 is no trifling sum. "That's a quarter of my monthly stipend," one university student said. "It's a big help." Many of them said they were experienced demonstrators for hire, and all said they had been recruited through a website called Massovki.ru. (The word massovka, roughly translated, means a throng or a horde.)
Two weeks later, TIME tracked down Sergei Vasilievich, who also operates as a Massovki.ru brigadier. Things had not gone so smoothly for him on the night of Putin's rally. (He agreed to discuss his work as long as TIME printed only his name and patronymic, not his surname.) On election night, he says, he arranged for 77 people to attend the demonstration at the Kremlin walls, promising each person $17. But the more senior brigadier never showed up that night with the money, leaving Sergei to pay the people out of his own pocket. "I was out 30,000 rubles [$1,000]," he says. "The sums pumped into this are enormous. I'm not really interested where this money comes from. The main thing is for the money to reach the people. And that doesn't always happen."
When he arrived for the interview at a Moscow café, Sergei brought along a stack of playing cards and a thick ledger, where he keeps the names and phone numbers of his demonstrators. The playing cards are used to identify them at the end of each rally, they return the card in exchange for their payment. In the past four months, he says, during Russia's protest wars, business has been brisker than ever before. "There's never been such a surge in political orders," he says. Every party that ran in the December parliamentary elections, and every campaign in the presidential vote this month, used the services of brigadiers to pack rallies in Moscow. On average, Sergei estimates that each brigadier would spend an average of $137,000 per rally. "On a good day," he says, about 40% of the demonstrators are paid.
The listings on Massovki.ru are not just for rallies in support of Putin but, according to the site, for other political parties, including A Just Russia, which was created by the Kremlin in 2006, and for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a nationalist party. Both have long denied using demonstrators for hire, as has Putin's United Russia party and Putin's campaign team. But the head of LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, did concede during a rally in February that his crowd was being fed more than just political speeches. "If anyone didn't get enough meat in their buckwheat porridge, go ahead and tear the chef's head off," he told the crowd on Feb. 23, about two weeks before he lost to Putin in the presidential election.
Postings for that rally, like dozens of others, could be found on Massovki.ru, as well as apparent offers to take part in vote-rigging schemes on election day, like the infamous "carousels," in which people are driven around to cast multiple votes. Some of the site's members offer up their services bluntly. "I will sell my vote," reads a message from Feb. 23. A name and cell-phone number are appended to that post.
Along with his playing cards, Sergei brought a stack of absentee ballots, which he says were used to buy votes during the presidential election. Each vote, he says, was worth around $50. But the ultimate buyers of these votes, and of the demonstrators for hire, are nearly impossible to track, Sergei says, because at least five middlemen always separate brigadiers like him from the original order. "It's Putin's minions organizing this," he alleges, while Putin himself is probably unaware of how his rallies are assembled.
But if he didn't know before, Putin has likely learned through the media by now. A handful of brigadiers have come forward in recent weeks to give interviews to the Russian and international press about how the crowds are engineered.
The controversy around these schemes intensified last week when one of Russia's state-run television channels, NTV, fired back at the whistle-blowing brigadiers with a half-hour documentary called Anatomy of a Protest. The program alleges that the anti-Putin rallies held this winter under the slogan "For Fair Elections" were in fact the ones using demonstrators for hire. The pro-Putin rallies, it suggests, were shows of genuine support.
The report showed footage allegedly taken of protesters on Feb. 26, when the opposition held a giant flash mob in Moscow. The people are shown lining up to receive payment while wearing white ribbons, the symbols of the anti-Putin movement. As the voice-over alleges, the organizers of the protests were getting support from the U.S. embassy, which has been the Kremlin's favorite bogeyman during Putin's re-election campaign.
Journalists and dissidents across Russia, as well as much of the Russian blogosphere, were outraged by the NTV report. On Twitter, the hash tag "NTV lies," in Russian, became one of the few Cyrillic tags ever to make it into the global trends on the microblogging site. That was on March 16, when the program aired. The same day, the weekly magazine Expert, whose editor in chief was quoted in the report, said in a statement that it was cutting off all ties with NTV for "breaking all bounds of professional ethics, even the most lenient ones." Alexander Urzhanov, a producer at NTV, also condemned the broadcast on his Facebook page. "It is a real embarrassment, and I am ashamed that this is happening at the channel where I work," he wrote.
On Sunday, about a thousand protesters gathered at Moscow's main television tower, Ostankino, to call for a retraction from NTV and a boycott of the channel. About 100 of them were arrested by riot police, and the channel remained defiant. On Sunday evening, it rebroadcast the controversial documentary, again suggesting that the opposition activists are hired goons who take money from the U.S. State Department. "It's hard to factually counter a claim that absurd," says Maria Baronova, an activist who has helped organize the anti-Putin protests since December. "The only thing we can do is hold more rallies, bigger and bigger ones."
On May 5, two days before Putin's inauguration day, the opposition hopes to bring up to a million people onto the streets of Moscow. Putin's supporters will likely try to do the same, and for Russia's brigadiers, that will probably keep business booming.