MOSCOW – Until a few months ago, Sergei Rassypnov cared little about politics. He went about his life as a Moscow real estate agent without concerning himself about the power plays of Vladimir Putin.
"I was opposed to the regime, but did not show it too much," said Rassypnov.
That all changed in December, when evidence of rampant election fraud by Putin's party triggered a wave of protest: Suddenly, for legions of urban Russians, apathy and indifference was transformed into a startling new activism.
Today, Rassypnov is among tens of thousands of Russians who have signed up to monitor this Sunday's presidential election, in which Prime Minister Putin aims to reclaim the presidency he held for two terms from 2000 to 2008.
Most are volunteering for the first time, no longer willing to tolerate a situation in which people have little confidence their vote will be counted honestly and where election officials produce the results demanded by the Kremlin.
Many of today's volunteer observers long considered Putin an annoying but largely irrelevant part of their lives. They ignored the Kremlin-controlled television networks that celebrate Putin in ways reminiscent of Soviet propaganda.
Indifferent to protest rallies held by marginalized opposition groups, which were routinely broken up by riot police, they expressed their frustration with the stifling political climate under Putin mostly in blogs and on social networking sites.
The mood began to change in September, when Putin announced that he intended to reclaim the presidency, presenting the decision in a way that made it clear he saw the election as no more than a formality. The tipping point was the December parliamentary election, which saw rampant ballot-stuffing in Putin's camp.
Whatever the monitors do, Putin is virtually certain to win against four Kremlin-approved challengers running far behind him in the polls.
But he is intent on clinching a convincing victory in the first round and prove that he still has the people's support despite unprecedented protests against him in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And the governors of Russia's 83 regions, appointed by the Kremlin and dependent on federal funding, have a vested interest in proving their loyalty by getting out the vote for Putin.
Therefore, many expect a repeat of the kind of vote manipulation that allowed Putin's party to cling to its majority in a December parliamentary election.
Rassypnov decided to do his part to try to stop that.
He signed up for one of the dozens of training sessions held at Golos, Russia's oldest election monitoring group. Golos has been operating in Russia for more than a decade and runs a website that compiles evidence of violations despite growing government pressure, police raids, detentions and cyber attacks.
At a recent session, Rassypnov and about three dozen volunteers learned how to identify suspected vote-rigging and document it, for example getting tips on taking video and uploading it online.
"Officials don't do us favors, they don't respond to complaints," Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants told volunteers. "If 100,000 people watch an online video, this is the best complaint to the Prosecutor General's Office."
The observers, aged from their late teens to early 50s, were taught how to call in reports and send results by text message so they appear immediately on Golos' website. In December, results seen at individual polling stations differed significantly from those reported later by the Central Election Commission.
The volunteers also were instructed in how to demand to see certified results and calmly dodge efforts to evict them from polling stations without provoking a confrontation.
During the December election, Golos observers were kicked out of polling stations, threatened, intimidated and offered money in exchange for refusing to monitor the vote, said Melkonyants. Some observers had their video cameras broken.
The 6-foot-tall Rassypnov said he was prepared for a difficult time on Sunday, but was not worried: "I'm not that easy to mess around with."
The volunteers were told to wear comfortable shoes and warm clothes, and pack snacks and bottled water to help them make it through the long election day. As "mobile monitors," they will move from one polling station to another starting at 7 a.m., an hour before polls open, and ending after 8 p.m., when the polls close and election officials have to count the votes and certify the results.
Rassypnov's thoughts were already on what might happen after the election.
"If a group of observers forms a political party, I'll join them," Rassypnov said. "Because today I don't see anyone who can decently represent the people."
Election monitors in Russia must either represent candidates and their political parties or monitor the vote as journalists. Golos will dispatch its 3,000 monitors as correspondents of its online newspaper.
Citizen Observer, an election monitoring group founded ahead of the December election, saw the number of its volunteers increase from 750 to 7,000, when they began turning people away, unable to train any more, spokesman Matvei Petukhov said.
Golos estimates that 30,000 complaints were filed nationwide after the parliamentary election, mainly by political parties and voters. But most of the complaints have been dismissed by election officials and prosecutors, citing lack of evidence. No one is known to have been prosecuted on charges of electoral fraud.
The crowds of new volunteers surprised even longtime election monitors such as Melkonyants.
"Most of them don't care who wins, they just want to ensure an honest vote count," he said.
Those attending the Golos training sessions tend not to support either Putin or those running against him, and few have any illusions that they can change the situation overnight.
"The best thing that can happen -- and this is very realistic -- is a change in people's mentality, when participation in politics will become normal to people," said Svetlana Bardina, 23, who teaches philosophy at a Moscow university.