(JTA) — On the rooftop of a Soviet-era apartment block, a young man straps into climbing gear and rappels down the side as a small gathering of city workers and police officers watch from below.
On the way down, the climber stops at a balcony and tears loose one of the thousands of banners hung across Moscow bearing the name of Alexei Navalny, a nationalist anti-corruption crusader and the leading challenger in Moscow’s Sept. 8 mayoral elections.
The banners, which authorities are removing from private residences on the grounds that they violate advertising regulations, are part of a campaign strategy developed for Navalny by Leonid Volkov and Maksim Kats, two tech-savvy Jews who are providing Navalny with outside-the-box strategies designed to offset his disadvantage against the incumbent, Sergey Sobyanin, who is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Authorities have intimidated ad agencies out of working with us, so we crowd-sourced,” said Volkov, 32, a venture capitalist turned opposition politician. “Now they move to sabotage that, too.”
Navalny’s candidacy has divided Russian Jews, who are torn between the candidate of an establishment that has been generally good for the Jews and an opposition leader with nationalist associations some find troubling who nevertheless promises to restore democracy and good governance.
A firebrand whose critics accuse him of populism, Navalny apologized for calling Georgians “rodents” in 2008. But he has defended his appearance at nationalist marches and his calls for deporting illegal migrants.
Last week, several Jewish media outlets reported that Navalny had raised a toast to the Holocaust at a reception in Moscow last year – a story that reportedly was placed by an Israeli public relations firm. Navalny categorically denied the story, as did several Jews who were in attendance.
Navalny also has had legal troubles. In July, he was convicted of embezzlement, a ruling that may land him in jail for five years if he loses his appeal. Navalny is being investigated as well in connection with two other corruption probes that he says are fabricated. Many of his supporters have been detained by police.
“What I hear of Navalny does not sound good,” said Boruch Gorin, a top Chabad rabbi and editor in chief of L’chaim, a Russian Jewish monthly. “When I look at Putin’s party, I can say they have been good not only to the Jews but for multicultural Russia. And I am sure many Moscow Jews and non-Jews will remember this when voting.”