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Inside the Kremlin’s party as Putin celebrates election win

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Minutes later Putin walked in, jumped up on stage like a Western politician on the campaign trail and personally chose whom to take questions from, mostly soft-ball inquiries from the Kremlin press pool.

But while the victory he was basking in offered little surprise, the Russian leader did make rare news.

Putin suggested he had agreed to the idea of swapping Alexei Navalny for prisoners held in the West, but offered no explanation for why just days later Navalny was dead.

He was responding to a question from NBC News, which asked whether events such as the jailing of American journalist Evan Gershkovich, the barring of Boris Nadezhdin — a candidate who opposed his war in Ukraine — and the death of Navalny in an Arctic penal colony during the campaign would really have happened in a democracy.

Russia’s independent media has either been disbanded or forced to work from exile in the wake of the Kremlin’s crackdown.

‘Don’t say goodbye’

At another event in central Moscow, Russian politicians, celebrities and journalists had begun to gather for a celebration early Sunday afternoon.

Eating Russian pancakes from the rooftop venue with a stunning view over Moscow, the crowd watched a live show broadcast online with video feeds from various regions, including those in occupied Ukraine who were voting in this election for the first time.

An election night logo read “Russia has no borders” — a reference, organizers told NBC News, to the fact that voting had taken place around the world, although in Ukraine those words may carry a different meaning.

A woman in an elegant gown wore a diamond brooch in the shape of a Z, the ubiquitous pro-war icon of Putin’s Russia. She said the brooch was Chanel, the “Z” repurposed from the piece’s original “N.” She said she was Ukrainian but had renounced her citizenship in 2014, calling Ukraine’s leadership “terrorists” in an echo of a common Kremlin claim.

Everyone there was pro-Putin and pro-war, with musical artists punctuating more serious exchanges throughout the day.

The pop act Grinkevich, from the Ural mountains city of Yekaterinburg, gleefully sang “Don’t say goodbye!” Later, a panel discussion included allegations of Western interference in the elections, denied by governments in the West.

As the results were announced, the three Kremlin-approved candidates who ran against Putin delivered speeches.

Putin wasn’t there, but was a constant presence. Many of the speakers repeated his slogans.

Late into the evening, there were appearances by musical heavy-hitters like Oleg Gazmanov — a Soviet version of Bruce Springsteen, known for his patriotic anthem “I Was Born in the USSR.”

Fans took selfies with Vovan and Lexus, two Russian comedians who have humbled world leaders over the years. In 2020, the duo prank called Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pretending to be Putin. 

Putin election night event in Moscow on March 17, 2024.
Russian comedians Vovan and Lexus.NBC News

Why had they never prank-called the Russian leader himself? “Do you think it’s appropriate to do that in a time of war,” the duo responded to NBC News. “And even before the war, we were not interested … we have had conflict with Ukraine for a very long time.”

Throughout the weekend, there had been small signs of real opposition.

Earlier in the day, lines of voters appeared to honor Navalny’s call to turn up at polling stations en masse at noon, one of his final ideas to protest against the election and Putin’s rule.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Moscow, the barred anti-war hopeful Boris Nadezhdin left his home to vote.

He was just 20 miles from the election celebrations Sunday, but it may as well have been a world away.

Flanked by his family, supporters and huge banks of dirty snow, the liberal politician cast his vote at a kindergarten-turned-polling station.

Nadezhdin brought his two sons, the eldest of whom helped him place his ballot in the box. His mother arrived as cameras waited for Nadezhdin outside. Before talking to the press, he escorted her back inside to help her vote, asking reporters and camera crews to wait a while.

Boris Nadezhdin, an anti-war candidate who was barred from running in the election, meets students after voting in Dolgoprudny
Nadezhdin meets students after voting in Dolgoprudny, Moscow, on Sunday.REUTERS

It was a stark contrast to Putin, who voted Friday alone on a computer at his desk.

“Of course, our election is not very fair and not very free,” Nadezhdin told NBC News outside the polling station a message echoed by Western leaders Monday.

He said he was prevented from running because he would have been a real challenge to Putin. People would have actually voted for him, he said.

Asked if he feared for his life, he said he only worried about his family. “I am sure that [someday] we will have normal, democratic, free and fair elections in the Russian Federation … of course, not on this day … but I do my best,” Nadezhdin said.

“I hope that I will be alive until the day of free elections in the Russian Federation,” he added.

Keir Simmons and Natasha Lebedeva reported from Moscow, and Matthew Bodner from London.

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