The greatest challenger to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule is a man whose name the dictator won’t say and whom he has tried to kill: Alexei Navalny.
Now, having defiantly returned to Russia after surviving a brazen assassination attempt, the opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader has rallied tens of thousands of supporters to his cause like never before — a real sign of trouble for Putin’s hold on power.
Alexei Navalny has spent over a decade trying to overthrow Putin. Through slick videos, public mobilization, and even an ill-fated presidential run against the autocrat, Navalny has aimed to expose Kremlin corruption and malfeasance.
While Navalny’s ultimate goal seems to be to take Putin’s place, not just depose him, few believe he will actually succeed. Still, his campaign has inspired tens of thousands across the country to take to the streets to express their frustration with the regime — many for the first time — posing an existential threat to Putin.
The problem for the president is, try as he might, he can’t keep the 44-year-old dissent quiet.
Last year, Kremlin operatives tried to assassinate the opposition leader with a highly toxic nerve agent planted in his underwear, a bold operation that most experts say likely would have required Putin’s approval to launch.
Navalny lived, but he spent five months recuperating from a coma in Germany. Yet despite being threatened with immediate arrest upon arrival back in Russia, he vowed to return to his homeland to continue the fight against Putin. Navalny met that fate on January 17 shortly after his flight from Berlin landed in Moscow, and he remains in custody ahead of a February trial that could see him imprisoned for years.
But, again, the regime failed to silence him. Just two days after Navalny’s detention, his team released a two-hour video alleging Putin owns a secret billion-dollar estate and mansion with an underground ice rink, a hookah bar, and a stripper pole-laden stage. It has since been viewed over 100 million times.
Russia erupted. The nation’s citizens, suffering an economic downturn and an unrelenting coronavirus outbreak, occupied the streets of more than 100 Russian cities on January 23, some braving temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Demonstrators tussled with law enforcement more than they had in the past — ranging from snowball fights to physical violence — culminating in the arrest of nearly 4,000 people.
Now Putin is on the defensive. He’s receiving calls from President Joe Biden and other leaders to release Navalny and his followers, even as authorities round up members of the dissident’s team and family. He’s answering questions about the previously unknown palace, a symbol of opulence enjoyed by Russia’s powerful while millions go hungry. And he’s seeing the first real cracks in his regime, making clear that Putin isn’t the all-conquering leader he projects himself to be.
“Putin was an untouchable, a god above everything else. But that’s no longer the case,” Maria Snegovaya, an expert on Russian politics at George Washington University, told me.
Putin broke an implicit promise to Russians. Activists pounced.
Little initially bothered Putin after he became president for the first time in 2000. The economy doubled and living standards rose during his first decade in charge, muting critiques from dissidents of the regime’s repression of free speech and civil rights.
Experts say Russians implicitly understood there was a grand bargain: If Putin could keep the money flowing and not act in an openly corrupt way, then the citizenry would abide by his iron-fisted leadership.
But two events in 2011 ended the fragile deal.
First, Putin that September announced he would reassume the presidency after serving one term as Russia’s prime minister, the No. 2 role. Simply put, Putin was still in charge of the country, but he accepted a technically inferior position to keep up democratic appearances. The president, Dmitri Medvedev, was viewed as little more than a puppet.
By effectively stating “I will be president again” — without giving Russians any real say in the matter — Putin defied the unspoken “don’t be openly corrupt” rule.
Second, Putin’s party, United Russia, got caught rigging the December 2011 legislative elections. Fraud in Russian elections was normal, and there wasn’t more than usual during that particular vote, “but examples of fraud were spread quickly on the internet for the first time,” said Timothy Frye, a Columbia University professor and author of the forthcoming Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.
That provided ammunition to a growing cadre of opposition activists looking for a catalyzing cause — Alexei Navalny among them.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
Navalny, who grew up about 60 miles southwest of Moscow, made his name in 2008 as a blogger. His earliest posts centered on corruption at state-owned companies, and sometimes he’d get extraordinary access by becoming a minority shareholder in the company in order to ask probing questions.
His readership grew, and his platform turned him into one of the main leaders of the 2011 protests in Moscow. Featuring roughly 50,000 people, they were the biggest in the capital city since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I’d like to thank Alexei Navalny,” a young activist shouted in a room of organizers the day before demonstrations began. “Thanks to him, specifically because of the efforts of this concrete person, tomorrow thousands of people will come out to the square. It was he who united us with the idea: all against ‘the Party of Swindlers and Thieves.’”
Navalny rode that wave of popularity to a run for Moscow’s mayor in 2013. It’s more than a prestigious municipal job; whoever runs the capital is viewed by many in Russia as a future top federal official. To win the election, then, would mean more than just getting to lead a global city. It’d mean Navalny was clawing his way into Russia’s inner circle of power.
Navalny ran on an unapologetically nationalist platform, most notably calling for restrictive immigration policies to keep Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia out of the country and supporting Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia. Duke University’s Irina Soboleva told me that the candidate’s hardline stances during the campaign alienated members of Navalny’s young, urban base.
“I consider Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia,” Engelina Tareyeva, who worked with Navalny in a Russian liberal party until he was expelled from it in 2007, wrote of him. “You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power.”
Navalny didn’t win the mayoral race, finishing second with 27 percent of the vote behind incumbent and Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, who won with over half the votes (four other candidates split the remaining count). But Navalny’s strong showing — despite very long odds — gave him the legitimacy and standing to seek more power.
“His ambitions were greater than just being the leader of the urban middle class,” Soboleva said.
Putin regained popularity. Navalny organized against him.
In 2014, Putin sent forces to invade the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. He then annexed the territory because he wanted it returned to Russia’s fold and because Kyiv was on the verge of an economic pact with the European Union. For Putin, such a deal meant Ukraine — long in Russia’s sphere of influence — was tilting away from Moscow. The incursion, then, was both punishment and raw geopolitics.
But there was an added benefit for the autocrat: Russians celebrated the risky invasion. They rewarded Putin with record approval ratings, numbers he desperately needed to muddle through a brutal economic downturn wracking his country.
“Crimea bought the regime four years of wiggle room,” Columbia’s Frye told me.
That period was mostly a quiet one for Russia’s opposition. Just like in the 2000s, it was hard to find a receptive audience for the anti-Putin cause when most people were happy with the leader.
Navalny, then, used the lull to organize against his chief rival. Part of his animus turned personal after Russian law enforcement charged him in 2013 and 2014 with embezzlement, which most experts say was meant to discredit him. After the second charge, Navalny was placed under house arrest and only given permission to speak with his family.
But the opposition leader wasn’t discouraged. Instead, experts told me he developed a three-pronged strategy to prepare for whenever Putin was vulnerable again.
The first part was straightforward: He had to make his politics more appealing to a wider Russian audience. The Islamophobia and hardline nationalism might garner support from ethnic Russians, but certainly not the masses. Without disavowing his previous views, Navalny zeroed in on one core message: corruption.
“It was a sound political strategy,” said Angela Stent, who directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European studies at Georgetown University. After all, Russia was (and remains) one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and the problems this corruption has wrought have impacted nearly every Russian’s life. No other issue, the thinking went, would be as universally understood and enraging.
Getting his message out there would be difficult, though, as the Kremlin held a tight grip over the media. To get around that problem, Navalny made building a large social media presence the second pillar of his plan. “He saw the political utility of YouTube before other opposition leaders,” said George Washington University’s Snegovaya.
The opposition leader has posted video after embarrassing video exposing the corruption of Russia’s elites on his YouTube channel, which today has 6.25 million subscribers. One particularly famous upload from 2017 alleged that former President Medvedev took bribes from oligarchs disguised as charitable donations, a charge he denies.
When the Russian government succeeds in blocking access to the exposés, Navalny and his team place the videos elsewhere — including on pornography sites — so anyone can see them.
The success of his YouTube channel bolstered Navalny’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, and his audience grew. “He sensed that corruption would be accessible enough to build a large following on the internet,” Snegovaya noted.
That allowed him to undertake the third part of his strategy: forming a national network of opposition politicians. Instead of focusing all of his efforts in major cities like Moscow, Navalny opened offices around the country to help local politicians defeat members of Putin’s United Russia party. Providing candidates with financing and know-how, Navalny’s team has helped dissidents take power away from Putin cronies in regional elections across the country.
“There’s no opposition figure in Russia that has the network that Navalny does,” said Columbia’s Frye.
The main goal, of course, was to weaken the president’s party nationwide. But experts told me the side effect — Russians suddenly being able to see politicians without ties to Putin actually working in citizens’ interests — was equally important for Navalny’s movement.
Putin fought back. Navalny withstood the onslaught.
Navalny didn’t get to do all of that without pushback, especially after he announced in 2016 that he would run for president in two years.
In 2017, the opposition leader was attacked with an antiseptic known as “brilliant green” outside his Moscow office, covering half of his face in what looked like paint. “It looks funny but it hurts like hell,” he tweeted at the time, adding that he lost 80 percent of the vision in his right eye.
Reports later confirmed he suffered a chemical burn. It’s still unclear who was responsible, but Navalny, unsurprisingly, blamed the Kremlin.
Later that year, 12 of Russia’s 13 election commissioners voted to bar Navalny from standing against Putin in the presidential race, citing his embezzlement charges from years prior. Navalny was never likely to win — the vote was already rigged in Putin’s favor, and reliable polls showed the dissident failed to attract much support — but the decision once again ended the pretense of a functioning democracy in Russia.
The government’s interest in Navalny didn’t end there. Moscow’s police force detained him in the summer of 2019 for planning what authorities said was an unauthorized protest. While in jail, he suffered a severe skin reaction that required him to seek medical attention at a hospital. He went back behind bars after his recovery, but he claimed the skin reaction was the result of having been poisoned.
The increased harassment made clear that Navalny was a prime Putin target. The worst, though, was yet to come.
Putin got scared. Navalny paid the price.
The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, near Kazakhstan, where an ambulance waited to take him to a local hospital. But Navalny’s condition worsened, and he fell into a coma before he arrived at the facility.
Russia’s Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, where Navalny was first treated, became the site of a frustrating standoff between Navalny’s family and supporters and the doctors overseeing his care. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, and team alleged the doctors were controlled by the Kremlin and tried to cover up the poisoning attack instead of properly treating their patient.
The physicians at the time said Navalny wasn’t poisoned but instead suffered from a “metabolic disorder” that led to low blood sugar. “Poisons or traces of their presence in the body have not been identified,” Anatoly Kalinichenko, the deputy chief doctor at the Omsk emergency hospital, told reporters at the time. “The diagnosis of ‘poisoning’ remains somewhere in the back of our minds, but we do not believe that the patient suffered poisoning.”
But Navalny’s team — including Navalnaya, who was barred from seeing her husband in the hospital — suspected foul play. They had good reason to believe that: The Kremlin has a long, sordid history of poisoning political dissidents, defectors, and other enemies of the state.
“The medics are being totally commanded by the FSB and hardly release anything,” Vladimir Milov, a close Navalny associate, told me while Navalny was in the Russian hospital, using the acronym for Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB responsible for internal security.
“We of course cannot trust this hospital and we demand for Alexei to be given to us, so that we could have him treated in an independent hospital whose doctors we trust,” Navalnaya said in another press conference on August 21.
A medical plane sent by the Berlin-based humanitarian group Cinema for Peace Foundation later arrived in Omsk to take Navalny to Germany for treatment. The Russian doctors initially blocked the transfer, saying Navalny wasn’t stable enough to travel, before finally allowing the German physicians to take a look at the patient’s condition.
Luckily, doctors in Berlin successfully treated Navalny, leading to his release from the hospital on September 23 after a full recovery.
The next month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog — concluded that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, a highly lethal nerve agent. It was developed by the Soviet Union, leading many to conclude that the Kremlin was behind the attack on its longtime adversary.
Navalny confirmed that himself while he remained in Germany. Working with CNN last December, Navalny tricked a Russian agent — part of an elite FSB toxin team that had trailed him for three years — to reveal secret aspects of the operation to kill him. The operative, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, told Navalny during a phone call that Novichok had been placed on “the insides, the crotch” of the dissident’s underpants.
When asked about the Kremlin’s involvement in the assassination attempt, Putin denied it, claiming instead that Navalny was getting help from US intelligence services to make a big fuss out of nothing. If Russian agents had really wanted to finish the job of killing Navalny, Putin told reporters during his annual press conference in December, “they would’ve probably finished it.”
There are no concrete answers as to why the regime would want Navalny dead now after all this time, but experts have two main theories.
The first is that United Russia’s supermajority in the nation’s legislature — the Duma — is under threat in September’s elections. Navalny’s organizing and Putin’s unpopularity due to a flatlining economy and worsening pandemic could lead some Putin-allied lawmakers to lose. If that’s the case, Putin would no longer be able to ram whatever he wants through the governing body.
Putin could try to rig the election, of course, but George Washington University’s Snegovaya told me that “it’s impossible to rig the election completely.” Fewer people actually support the president right now, she said, and international observers watch the vote closely. The dictator’s brutal calculation therefore might have been that killing Navalny would hurt the opposition’s chances ahead of the crucial election.
The other possibility experts floated was that Putin is worried about the revolution in neighboring Belarus. A strong opposition formed against Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving dictator and a staunch Putin ally, and revolts started last year after an election many believe he rigged. Demonstrations haven’t stopped, and Putin, who is notoriously concerned about being toppled in a revolution, might fear a similar phenomenon in his country.
“Putin definitely follows what’s going on in Belarus closely, and he takes what’s happening very personally,” Duke’s Soboleva told me. Putin might be thinking “if you don’t eliminate your political opponents and rivals early, they might be a big problem for you later,” she said.
But instead of eliminating Navalny, Putin made him stronger.
Putin tried to silence his rival. Navalny just gained a larger audience.
Ever since Navalny recovered from the poisoning, the Kremlin has done everything possible to dissuade his return to Russia.
Late last year, the Kremlin placed him on the government’s federal wanted list, claiming he avoided Russian federal authorities while abroad. As part of a probation sentence from the 2014 embezzlement case, Navalny had to check in with inspectors regularly — but that’s hard to do while you’re in a coma.
Even with the threat of arrest hanging over him, Navalny flew to Moscow on January 17 while downplaying widespread fears that he’d be detained upon arrival. “It’s impossible,” he told people aboard his flight. “I feel like a citizen of Russia who has every right to return to my home.”
But, of course, it proved completely possible: Video showed an official approaching Navalny at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport near passport control. Navalny then kissed his wife, Yulia, before going with the official and other guards. He’s been held by the federal prison service ever since as he awaits his February trial.
But Navalny and his team have fought back. The “Putin Palace” video — alleging that the Russian leader has used bribe money to build an estate on land 39 times larger than the principality of Monaco — now has the president answering questions raised by the man he wants silenced. “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Putin said during a video call earlier this week, as always refusing to say Navalny’s name.
Such denials won’t end Putin’s nightmare. The video, sharply edited, sometimes funny, and featuring documents allegedly connecting the Black Sea property to the autocrat, has been viewed over 100 million times on YouTube and will likely continue to fuel anti-Putin sentiments.
“It’s probably the most nervous he’s been in his 21 years in power,” Georgetown’s Stent, who served as the US national intelligence officer for Russia from 2004 to 2006, said of Putin.
Moscow police have arrested Navalny’s brother and harassed multiple members of Navalny’s team. In one stunning video, Navalny’s doctor is seen playing the piano as law enforcement searches her home. The goal, experts said, is to stop the opposition from inciting more protests and continuing their leader’s work while he remains in custody.
Wow. What a scene from #Russia : Navalny’s doctor Anastasy Vasilyeva plays the Piano as Police search her home.
Part of crackdown in chasing Navalny’s allies ahead of protests planned this weekend: pic.twitter.com/P8c6aU9Iko
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) January 27, 2021
So far that plan hasn’t worked, and the opposition plans for large-scale demonstrations again this weekend. If that happens, the rallies could become more than just temporary uprisings. They could mark the beginnings of a bigger movement.
That, at least, is what Navalny hopes.
“You won’t be able to scare us,” he told the judge at his pretrial hearing on Thursday. “We are the majority. Tens of millions of people, whom this power has robbed, cannot be intimidated. More and more people now understand that the law is on our side, the truth is on our side, we are the majority, and we will not let a bunch of scoundrels impose their order on us.”
I asked Milov, Navalny’s longtime associate, if he shares the leader’s optimism. It’s “difficult,” he said, citing the government crackdown. “But we’re still on track.”