Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images
Russians take part in a pro-Putin rally at a Moscow park on Feb. 4. Pro-Kremlin forces have been accused of paying people to attend campaign events ahead of the presidential election in March.
With fewer than two weeks remaining before Russia's presidential elections, supporters and opponents of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are trying to show their strength with rallies and demonstrations.
After being stunned by the size of opposition rallies in December, pro-government forces bounced back with competing events of their own.
But the pro-government forces have been accused of padding their numbers by pressing government workers to attend and even paying for warm bodies. Some people even make their living providing extras for political crowd scenes in Moscow.
Sergei Vassilievich is one of the crowd wranglers, or brigadiers, as they're called in Russia. He helped fill a pro-Putin rally on Feb. 4 with enough people to look impressive on state-run television and provide a counterpoint to a big opposition rally that was taking place at the same time.
Sergei declines to give his family name, but his card says that he is an actors' casting agent. He is a middle-aged man with a theatrical appearance — a shaved head and black leather breeches.
Although it sounds like a military title, the term brigadier actually comes from factory workers during Soviet times, a sort of foreman who organized brigades of workers for various jobs.
A Good Organizer
Sergei prides himself as someone who can be counted upon to produce a required number of people for any purpose, whether it's a movie shoot, a marketing stunt or a political rally.
After the pro-Putin rally, though, not everyone went home happy. Some of the "participants" didn't get paid as promised.
Sergei says he got an order from a middleman to produce 250 people for the rally. He was told they were to be paid 500 rubles a head — that's about $17 for a couple of hours spent standing in the bitter cold, listening to speeches. By Moscow standards, it's not much.
Sergei says a lot of the money intended for extras gets siphoned off by middlemen who find excuses not to pay, and then pocket the difference.
In this case, Sergei says, the middleman didn't give him time to bring all his people to the payment area, so only about one-third of them got their money.
Sergei is not troubled by paying people to show support for political candidates. He says most of his extras are pensioners or students who need the money. "They're not millionaires, the people who come to these rallies," he says.
In addition to the paid extras, Sergei says there were many people bused to the site from towns outside Moscow.
Video posted on YouTube by the opposition showed lines of yellow buses waiting on the sidelines after delivering the demonstrators, many of them from factories and state-owned enterprises.
Sergei says they're far better off than the extras, because they were paid a full day's salary for attending the rally.