Self-described political junkie Vitali Shkliarov likes to pepper his conversations with the phrase “it’s a cool story,” a sign of a man who believes he knows the power of a persuasive narrative.
His own story has taken him from childhood poverty in a crumbling Soviet Union to working on Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids while still learning English.
Today, the 41-year-old Belarussian-born political consultant is in Moscow as part of a small but ambitious push to rewrite the script of Russian politics.
“We’re trying to create a new understanding of politics, a sort of political incubator,” he tells CNN in the movement’s headquarters.
Shkliarov says he wants to make politics accessible.
“Sort of like a political Uber – so you don’t have to have a lot of money, experience or expensive consultants to run.”
His experience on successful grassroots campaigns in the US has served him well in Russia, where anti-government parties face an array of obstacles to getting on the ballot.
Last year he started working with leading liberal opposition figures Dmitry Gudkov and Max Katz to change this.
They created a political one-stop shop for people who wanted to stand in Moscow’s local elections this coming Sunday, walking would-be candidates through the complicated registration process and working on the city’s first voter database.
Almost 1,000 mostly first-time independent or opposition candidates are now in the running to fill 1,502 municipal posts.
They get support on fundraising, legal issues and leaflet design as well as regular training sessions, including how to canvass voters door-to-door, a relative novelty in Russia.
Shkliarov is passionate when he talks about what he calls Russia’s much-needed political facelift.
“Russians understand more and more that the way out of this misery is not just blaming the government, not just replacing [President Vladimir] Putin. You have to replace the pattern, so the only way is to participate.”
Like the Sanders campaign, the candidates mainly get by on small donations from individuals, working around rules that make it hard to contribute.
Shkliarov uses vocabulary learned on professionally run American campaigns and brings to the movement a combination of Silicon Valley and Washington attitude. “But we don’t just copy and paste the technology or the approach or the strategy. We’re trying to adapt,” he says.
’Sexy and cool’ politics
His own path to politics started with Barack Obama’s 2008 trip to Germany, where Shkliarov was pursuing a PhD in political science.
He was blown away by how “sexy and cool” the presidential hopeful from Chicago made politics seem.
Shkliarov, who had by then cut his teeth on various election campaigns in Germany, including volunteering for Chancellor Angela Merkel, moved to the United States with his American fiancee in 2010 dreaming of working on Obama’s re-election run.
The dream came true after he took his wife’s advice and offered to work for free.
He progressed from making cold calls to running a team of 40 people within a couple of weeks, he says, in part because his broken English was an ice-breaker.
”My weakness became my biggest strength,” he says.
It confirmed his belief that “in America you get a fair shot, no matter where you’re from.”
Stacking up successes as he moved locations – and got on the payroll - he found himself a short while later pushed into giving a pep talk to hundreds of fatigued volunteers in Milwaukee.
Lost for words at first, he started telling them his story.
“I told the truth. I said I was so inspired by your president because in the country I’m from we didn’t have democracy. I came so far to help your president, who’s not even my president so please don’t give me that bulls**t that you can’t, that’s you’re tired or it’s raining. Can you do it? And they shouted, ‘Yes we can!’”
From Obama to Sanders
When Bernie Sanders announced he was running in 2015, Shkliarov was impressed early on.
”After watching the first debate I said to my wife, ‘He’s amazing.’ What he was talking about was hitting the mark.”
When his old boss offered him a job with the Sanders campaign he jumped at the chance, and was immediately hired as director of mobilization for state of Nevada.
He remembers Sanders fondly as “a bit grumpy” in person but is enthusiastic about the prospect of working for him again if the 76-year-old decides to run in 2020.
“I’ve never seen such an amazing team,” he says.
Eye on Moscow mayoral race
Shkliarov’s work in Moscow combines Obama-style optimism with Sanders’ social conscience.
He sees the Moscow municipal vote as the perfect Russian test ground for this grassroots approach. As the seat of power, what happens in Moscow matters, even at a local level.
Getting just over a hundred of their candidates elected will lock up endorsements that Gudkov has to collect to run for mayor. Opposition candidates usually find it impossible to get such backing.
“What we’re trying to do, fairly quietly, is change the basic landscape of the system so that one day there’s not just one or two opposition leaders, there are 5,000,” he says.
“The system won’t be able to resist then.”
Home from home
Despite his American ties and Belarussian passport, Shkliarov considers himself culturally Russian.
His affection for the United States also shines through, although the current anti-Russia climate disappoints him.
“I’m between two worlds and I see what the Russians don’t get in America and vice versa. I know exactly how they are miscommunicating,” he says.
If his latest Moscow venture doesn’t pay off, the self-described idealist says he’ll soon be back in DC with his family.
For now he is fully focused on election day.
”We’re trying to do politics as a long-term goal, not just winning a campaign or winning one seat. We’ve tried it so many times and every time we failed because the system is so huge.”
This time, he hopes, will be different.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen contributed to this report.