I asked about the reaction the NBP gets on the street, handing out leaflets. All three agreed that the population is "neutral," amending that to "neutral or positive." But any support they get from the mainstream population is private; there are consequences for openly supporting the party.
Taisiya had won her spurs, it turned out, with a classic piece of NBP theatrical violence. She'd hit the local governor, one Viktor Maslov, with...well, here's another of those crises your mainstream journalist never confesses: I couldn't understand the key noun, the thing she'd hit Maslov with. It sounded like "gvozdii," nails. But that didn't fit -- too violent for the NBP. They want to draw publicity, not blood (at this stage, anyway).
So for ten sweaty minutes, I tried to figure out what she'd hit him with, and they tried to explain to me. All I could make out was "tsvetii!" But flowers didn't sound like NBP weapons either; too hippie-ish. Their attitude, I'd've thought, was closer to William Burroughs'. At the height of the Viet Nam peace demonstrations, when hippie girls were in the habit of sticking daisies in the barrels of National Guard M-16s, Burroughs said, "The only flower I'll ever give a cop will be in a pot, dropped from a fifth-floor window." Finally, in desperation, I shoved my trusty bilingual dictionary at Ilya, who found it: "gvozdikii," which can mean either "carnation" or "clove." So it was a flower after all. They later showed me photos of Taisiya's attack: in a three picture spread, she gets the governor with a samurai backhand, then another, as he stares in shock, with carnation-flecks on his cheeks.
I mentioned that I'd seen Chubais under fire in another NatsBol egg attack recently, and had been impressed with his nimbleness -- he'd backed out of his chair before the second volley could get him. The NatsBols nodded eagerly at this; they'd noticed the same thing. "It's because Chubais is a more modern person," they explained. "But Maslov, this provincial bigwig, simply couldn't imagine that anyone could do this to him. It never entered his head."
Taisiya paid for her lese-majeste: she was imprisoned for two days and given a long probation, during which she has to be on her best behavior, flower-slashing arm out of action. These days she works on Sergei's campaign, as well as allowing her apartment to be the NBP base in the city. There are 12 party members living there now, Sergei told me.
I asked him to describe a typical day in the run-up to the election. He said that along with actual politicking, meeting and greeting the electorate, he spends most of his time working on the party paper and arguing with the local electoral committee, who say that the NBP isn't a real party, and doesn't have enough locals registered.
This actually seemed to wound the NatsBols much more than the arrests or confiscations. Ilya, in particular, was angry at the slight. "We have 13,000 active members," he said, stressing the "active." "We have thousands of members all over the former USSR, in Israel, in Europe..."
It was something I'd seen in Sinn Fein people long ago: an activist can handle any amount of pressure, even violence from the authorities, but becomes very sensitive at the charge that he's isolated from the people.
The NatsBols had clearly worried about this quite a lot. They had no hope of winning the elections, and admitted it. But that left them with the problem academics call "false consciousness": if you're the real voice of the people, how do you account for the fact that only a few of them are going to vote for you?
Their first answer was that the vote is completely rigged. They told me all the machinations that United Russia is using in Smolensk, some nasty and some just comic. For starters, Sergei explained, all those under the direct control of the security services would be voting United Russia en masse. This included soldiers, prisoners and the hundreds of inmates at Smolensk's institutions for the criminally insane. But Putin's persuaders were working the schools, too: according to the NatsBols, parents showing up at the compulsory parent-teacher conferences would be told by their child's teacher that it was of the utmost importance to the kids' future that they stand behind the president on election day. As for the rest, they attributed Putin's relative popularity -- which they insisted was nowhere near the 80% approval ratings the polls give him -- to his preemptive use of nationalist rhetoric.