Russia’s leading opposition figure has endured ignominy, imprisonment and poisoning over the course of his political career. He isn’t finished yet
Alexei Navalny expected the fate that awaited him when he boarded flight 936 back to Moscow from Berlin on January 17th, five months after his poisoning. Most passengers were already seated when he walked through the plane cabin, wearing a bright green jacket and blue face mask, and wheeling a suitcase behind him. Like his great adversary Vladimir Putin, Navalny knows the power of spectacle. People clapped. Cameras flashed. Reporters, including myself, got up to see the man who had risen from the dead. He was happy to be returning home, he told us. Then he slid into 13A – his “lucky” seat – next to his wife Yulia.
In August 2020, Navalny nearly died after Russian agents smeared Novichok, a nerve agent, on his underpants during a campaign tour in Siberia. Navalny collapsed into a coma on a flight to Moscow. The pilot made an emergency landing and a medical team gave him an antidote, probably saving his life. A few days later, an air ambulance transported him to Berlin: Navalny was so toxic that he was carried in a sealed stretcher that looked like a coffin. He remembers nothing of his weeks in a coma. When he woke, he didn’t even recognize his wife.
As the flight taking him back home took off, Navalny and his wife removed their masks and held up a smartphone camera. Deadpan, Yulia said, “Boy, bring us some vodka, we’re going home.” They immediately tweeted the video to Navalny’s 2.5m followers. Most would have recognized the quote, which comes from “Brat 2” (Brother 2), a cult film from 2000, about a charismatic, young Russian who fights injustice and travels to America to settle scores with an American racketeer. The film appears to be a parable of Western acquisitiveness and Russian integrity, but Navalny believes that the most money-obsessed gangster of all sits in the Kremlin.
He picked up his political tactics from watching American TV series like “The West Wing” and “The Wire”
Despite the prospect of a showdown with the security services, Navalny seemed composed during the flight. He had already faced death and sometimes speaks as though he’s conquered it. “When I died”, he has said to me, only half in jest, “When I was dead”. Aboard the flight, the Navalny’s barely talked. Instead, they watched “Rick and Morty”, an American cartoon, on their iPad.
As we made our descent, I handed my boarding pass to Navalny and asked him to scribble his thoughts on it. “Yo, Arkady”, he wrote, “last time I passed notes across rows was at school. Glad you are on this funny flight going I don’t know where.” In the arrivals hall, Navalny spotted a large poster displaying an image of the Kremlin and paused in front of it, as though to lay claim to this symbol of power. He addressed the accompanying cameras: “This is the happiest day for the past five months of my life. I have come home. I am not afraid.”
In different ways, both Putin and Navalny treat politics as a reality show. Putin runs election campaigns against sham parties with a predetermined outcome. State tv spews lies about Ukrainian fascists and Russia’s “fifth column”, using them to justify real invasions, annexations, and killings. His aim is to manipulate the public and breed such cynicism about democratic politics that change becomes unimaginable.
Navalny’s campaigning work is a reality show too, played out before millions of followers on social media. He aims to reveal the true workings of power behind the smirking façade of the Russian political elite. While the Kremlin is cranking up the 20th-century mechanisms of repression, Navalny is fighting a 21st-century media war, broadcasting the regime’s excesses in bitesize chunks.
The more thuggish state actors often play into Navalny’s hands. As he showed his passport to the border guard at the gate in Moscow, three masked officers dressed in black appeared behind him. With a look of resignation, Yulia took off her mask, hugged and kissed him, then attentively wiped her lipstick from his cheek. Navalny has led away to a police cell far from the cameras.
The Bolsheviks changed the faith but kept the empire, which lasted until 1991
The next day a kangaroo court was hastily arranged inside the police station. A portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, the murderous head of Stalin’s secret police who oversaw the first show trials, looked down from the wall. The charges against Navalny reflected the Kafkaesque nature of Russian justice.
He was accused of breaching the conditions of his probation, set in 2014 after he received a suspended sentence on fabricated charges of fraud and embezzlement. According to the prosecution, during the time he spent on life support in Germany, recuperating from the state’s attempt to assassinate him, he had failed to fulfill his twice-monthly duty of reporting to the Russian prison service. Navalny was remanded in jail for 30 days, pending sentencing.
Despite his incarceration, he went on the offensive. Shortly after Navalny was taken to his cell, his team launched an explosive attack: a slick, two-hour-long film about Putin’s secret palace on the Black Sea.
Hold tight Police officers arrested Alexei Navalny when he tried to register as a candidate in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013 (above). Demonstrators at an anti-corruption rally led by Navalny in Moscow in March 2017 were hauled away by riot police (below)
This is one of the most closely guarded sites in the world, protected by naval patrols and air-defense systems. Navalny’s supporters had launched a drone from an inflatable boat to film the compound, complete with helipads, vineyards, and an underground ice rink. They used architectural plans to make 3D reconstructions of the interior, which has been kitted out with a hookah lounge, pole-dancing stage, and an $850 toilet brush. The film has been watched more than 110m times.
Though Putin controls the courts, security services, and repressive machinery of the state, Navalny increasingly directs the narrative. The video was intended to expose the moral rot at the heart of the Putin regime. But one detail pointed to a less obvious but equally significant point of contrast between the two politicians.
The wrought-iron gates to the mansion were capped with gold, two-headed eagles. They seemed to have been copied from those of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, one of the Romanov residences stormed during the Russian revolution in 1917. Was Navalny’s televisual invasion a prelude to actual revolution? And is Putin a tired emperor waiting to be felled?
Not since Vladimir Lenin has a self-made politician caused such fear within the political establishment. Twenty-five years ago Navalny started out as a jobbing real-estate lawyer; ten years ago he was known as little more than a blogger. Now he is the leading opposition figure in Russia, boasting an agile media operation. Until very recently he had offices across the country, though the Kremlin has moved to arrest his supporters and crush his organization, labeling it as an extremist, akin to terrorists. Navalny may be sitting in prison but his import has never been greater.
It is not just mastery of modern media that has given Navalny his power. However personal the vendetta between Putin and Navalny may seem, their rivalry ultimately reflects a historic battle between nation-state and empire, between restoration and modernization, between the idealized imperial and Soviet past, and “the wonderful Russia of the future”, as Navalny brands his project.
Not since Lenin has a self-made politician caused such fear within the political establishment
This is a fight about what it means to be Russian, what binds the country. And to understand why this argument remains so fraught and so persistent, you need to look to history. Nationalism in Russia has traditionally fallen into two broad (sometimes overlapping) categories: ethnonationalism, which presented ethnic Russians as both a superior people and victims and imperial nationalism, the kind of frenzied flag-waving unleashed by Putin when he attacked Ukraine and Georgia. Navalny wants something different: he believes in civic nationalism, a notion involving collective participation for the common good.
Russia never went through the transition from empire to nation-state. In 1917 a morally bankrupt monarchy was swept away by the Bolsheviks, a millenarian sect promising to modernize the country and transform the world. They changed the faith but kept the empire.
The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was an incomplete affair. Russia, which had formed the core of a multi-ethnic empire, struggled to formulate its own national identity. The Soviet economic order and communist ideology were smashed. But whereas the former republics fostered the idea of national emancipation from the Soviet empire, Russia struggled to formulate its own national identity, unable to break free from its past.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president, was concerned about fostering nationalism in a country where ethnic minorities made up a fifth of the population. Instead of referring to citizens as Russkiy (Russian), signifying ethnocultural identity, he used Rossiysky (of Russia), a word that indicated being a citizen of the Russian state.
He swapped the Red Flag for the pre-Soviet tricolor and abandoned the Soviet anthem for “Motif d’un chant national”, a 19th-century song without words that seemed to sum up the difficulty of expressing what it meant to be Russian. In the absence of any unifying idea, he tried to reconnect Russia to its pre-Bolshevik past at one end and to the West at another. The Soviet period was redacted from the historic narrative.
When Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000 he reinstated Soviet symbols, such as the Stalin-era anthem, albeit with new lyrics. More fundamentally, he also restored Soviet methods of political control, including repression at home and aggression towards Russia’s neighbors. Putin sought to root Russia’s identity in imperial nostalgia and saw the Soviet era as a continuation of that empire. “Putin is the last chord of the USSR,” Navalny told me in Berlin in October when I went to see him as he was recovering from Novichok poisoning.
“I am branded a nationalist by liberals and a liberal by nationalists”
Toxic, imperial nationalism is holding Russia back, says Navalny. He sees post-Soviet Russia as exhibiting the worst aspects of capitalism – greed, materialism, corruption – without any of the democratic or social benefits free societies experience. He thinks Russia can change. A crucial part of his reform program would include devolving many decision-making and tax-raising powers, and ultimately much of the wealth, to Russia’s cities. “Of course deep down Russian people will always feel they are different and special,” says Navalny. “I’d like to see Russia as a normal European country, a country that does not threaten anybody, does not invade anyone, but lives for its own good.”
Putin’s and Navalny’s differing visions of history reflect their different style. Putin has fashioned himself as a modern-day tsar: paternalistic wedded to his country (he is divorced) and his destiny, the only person capable of holding Russia together with his autocratic grip. He has turned inaugurations into coronations. At protests, people now chant, “down with the tsar”.
Politics in Russia has traditionally taken place behind the thick walls of the Kremlin, away from the eyes of uninitiated mortals. Policies are announced to the people from a podium or television screen. Navalny, by contrast, mixes with ordinary people as he campaigns, shaking hands and posing for selfies dressed in jeans and trainers (his clothes and haircut are sharper than a decade ago, but little else has changed).
Navalny strives to present himself as an Everyman. He avoids the ostentatious lifestyle most Russian politicians take for granted: he barely drinks and doesn’t womanize. He has lived in the same three-bedroom apartment for the past 20 years. In February, during a break in his trial, he asked his lawyer to order in a meal from McDonald’s.
Framed An adept user of social media, Navalny took a selfie with his wife Yulia at a rally in Moscow in 2019 (above). Navalny was escorted to prison in handcuffs on his return to Russia in January 2021 after recovering from being poisoned (below)
He has always maintained that fighting the regime should be fun, and he has certainly tried to make it entertaining. He often makes allusions to popular culture, particularly Hollywood films (he likens his current jailers to stormtroopers in “Star Wars”, armed not with laser rifles but iron crowbars). He fashions himself after American presidential candidates: he picked up many of his political tactics, he says, from watching American tv series like “The West Wing” and “The Wire”.
He has broken the wall that separates politicians from the public. At 6’2” he stands tall among his supporters (Putin, by contrast, is 5’7”) and is treated like a celebrity by them. Out on the road, Navalny talks to voters about food prices, health care, schools, and pot-holed roads. In a restaurant in Vladivostok, I once watched as two half-drunk businessmen challenged Navalny’s politics. He suggested they discuss export tariffs and taxes. Twenty minutes later they offered to contribute money to his campaign and declared him “our candidate”.
Few people – if anyone – is allowed into Navalny’s private world. Like most politicians, Navalny inscribes his early life with historical and political context. His origins are unremarkable. He was born in 1976 on the outskirts of Obninsk, a closed nuclear town near Moscow. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet missile forces. His mother was an accountant. When they retired, they took over an artisanal willow-weaving enterprise making baskets and woven figurines.
The quarter-century that separates the birth of Putin and Navalny includes the death of Stalin, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. By the time Navalny was born, Putin was already serving in the Soviet kgb. Navalny remembers the Soviet Union for its decay, rather than its power.
Navalny’s formative political experience was the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, now identifiable as an emblem of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse. Navalny, who was nine at the time, had spent his summers at his grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Chernobyl in Ukraine. His family experienced the cover-up: the Soviet government made locals dig up potatoes in the contaminated fallout zone to show that they weren’t dangerous. When he went back to his grandmother’s abandoned house some 20 years later, he found only her old coat lying on the floor and photos of himself as a child. Everything else had been stolen.
Putin’s regime turned corruption into a system of governance
He has strong memories, too, of food shortages and scarce consumer goods. “I remember myself endlessly queuing for milk, dreaming of chewing gum, and hearing my parents’ conversations about Yugoslav shoes or Czechoslovakian furniture,” he told me.
The turmoil that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was both dangerous and exciting to the teenage Navalny. His own hometown was taken over by a Georgian gangster: “He wore white socks and everyone knew he was a kingpin. He solved issues.” Navalny occasionally got involved in street fights. Once, after a rock concert, he whipped out his nunchucks to rescue a hippy from an attack by drunken yobs. He finally felt released from the drabness of official Soviet culture. “Films, music – everything became accessible,” he said.
As a youth, Navalny saw his hopes for Russia raised then dashed. He favored the politics of Yeltsin, whose government was reforming and privatizing vast swathes of the economy to help Russia become a functioning market democracy. In 1993 Navalny cheered on as Yeltsin’s troops shelled the parliament building when a coalition of imperialists, nationalists, and die-hard communists tried to stage an armed insurgency.
He was equally supportive when Yeltsin launched Russia’s first war in Chechnya a year later: he saw it as a restoration of law and order. Unlike many Russian liberals, he had little sympathy for rebel Chechen fighters. At the time, Navalny was studying law at the second-tier Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, where he witnessed rival gangs from the Caucasus fight a turf war over drugs. A group of Chechen men dominated the trade and controlled Navalny’s dorm which left him with a deep prejudice toward this group.
In 1996, with Yeltsin weakened by a failed war and floundering economy, a small group of business tycoons sensed an opportunity. Under the guise of keeping the communists out of power, they struck a deal with Yeltsin’s government: in return for throwing their financial and media resources behind Yeltsin, they took possession of Russia’s most valuable assets.
When Navalny graduated from university, both he – and his country – seemed to have a bright future ahead. He got a job at Aeroflot Bank, working on antitrust and currency regulations, where he made about $1,000 a month (good money by the standards of the time). Like many of his peers, he went on resort holidays to Turkey, where he met his wife Yulia in 1998. His relationship lasted, but other dreams turned sour.
“I’ve mortally offended him by surviving”
To Navalny, the deal Yeltsin and the oligarchs stitched up did more than simply deprive Russians of their shared wealth. It discredited capitalism, liberalism, and democracy to such an extent that many no longer saw their value. Emboldened and empowered by their wealth and success in securing Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 (he suffered several heart attacks and was all but incapacitated), the oligarchs put themselves in charge of his succession.
Three years later, in 1999, a cabal of oligarchs and members of Yeltsin’s family maneuvered Putin, a former kgb officer with no previous interest in politics, into the presidency. They hoped he would protect their riches and shield them from prosecution. That moment, says Navalny, the elevation of an individual by a few people – rather than his election by the citizens of Russia – was crucial in galvanizing Navalny’s career: “It was Putin who brought me into politics.”
Though the political careers of Putin and Navalny could not have been more different, their lives have become entwined. Putin was elected president in 2000, the year that Navalny joined Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal party, which his parents had voted for. He saw the party mainly as a quick route into parliament. He threw himself into grassroots organizing, managed the parliamentary election campaign in Moscow, and soon joined the top echelons of the party. But he became frustrated with Yabloko’s leaders, who seemed more interested in scrapping with their competitors than securing actual power.
Risen from the dead Navalny, surrounded by his wife and family, recuperated in a hospital in Berlin, after Russian agents attempted to assassinate him with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent (above). Navalny flew back to Moscow from Berlin in January 2021, accompanied by journalists and photographers (below)
Putin had already cultivated an image as a sober, resolute leader who would bring order and stability. He was popular and reaped the benefits of earlier economic reforms, later fuelled by rising oil prices. Incomes soared, bars and coffee shops opened, glossy magazines were launched and consumption boomed. The urban middle class seemed happy to heed Putin’s advice to enjoy life and stay out of politics.
All of this depleted the liberal opposition, which had traditionally drawn its support from the urban middle classes. Yet the need for the opposition was growing. In the name of rebuilding the Russian state, Putin was creating something far more powerful than the Yeltsin era oligarchy. He used the courts and the security apparatus to take control over the economy and police access to the market, for the benefit of a few cronies. Putin’s regime turned corruption into a system of governance.
Navalny had few connections. He was not the kind of person to be invited to liberal soirées in Moscow where journalists, politicians, writers, and actors rubbed shoulders. Instead, he sought to broaden his support and build alliances elsewhere. He turned to Russian nationalists – disenfranchised, working-class people left out of Russia’s oil bonanza, and normally shunned by the middle classes.
In 2005 anti-Putin groups assembled in Moscow for an event branded the “Russian March” (now held each year in multiple cities). It brought together far-right skinheads, supremacists, and neo-imperialists. A few thousand people assembled for the first rally, which was the largest ever demonstration against Putin.
Navalny reckoned that nationalism was too important to be surrendered to a bunch of neo-Nazis. In 2006 he advocated for this group’s right to assemble, and the following year he joined the march. He explained that decision. “We must deprive the fascists of a right to proclaim national ideas…In fact, we should throw them out of that movement. Then those who propagate ethnic hatred will find themselves where they belong – in the dock.”
Yabloko expelled Navalny from the party. Undaunted, Navalny established the National Russian Liberation Movement: its Russian acronym, Narod, meant “people” or “folk”. Russia under Putin was facing a “national catastrophe”, its manifesto declared: “Russia remains the largest piece of the Soviet Union which is yet to become an independent state.”
“He will enter history as Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants”
The manifesto included high-minded talk of civil rights and freedom. Navalny’s own articulation of his views was cruder. Trying to win over some of the nationalist crowd and establish his own credentials, he recorded a number of YouTube videos in which he identified people from the Caucasus with Islamic terrorists, describing them as cockroaches and vermin that should be eliminated. He also called for the deportation of illegal immigrants.
Navalny soon tried to distance himself from some of these earlier comments. “Today they look very stupid,” he told me. Despite his insistence that he was just trying to broaden the party’s appeal, he ended up alienating middle-class liberals without attracting hardcore nationalists. “I accomplished nothing but damage to my own image,” he said later. “I am branded a nationalist by liberals and a liberal by nationalists.”
His work exposing corruption was more successful. I first heard of Navalny, not through his political campaigning but because he was buying shares in some of Russia’s largest state-run companies, which allowed him to turn up to their annual general meetings and grill the management. He published the results of his investigations into graft and looting by Putin’s cronies on his blog and promoted them through social media. This won him tens of thousands of new followers including various middle managers in those companies, who proved to be useful sources.
Russian television was firmly in the hands of the Kremlin, so Navalny used the internet as a vehicle for political transformation. He launched a series of websites aimed at promoting small-scale civic activism. One allowed people to demand road repairs from their local authorities. Another enabled them to monitor public-procurement tenders in order to identify any misconduct.
In 2011 Navalny gathered his programs, which had proved increasingly popular, under the umbrella of his anti-corruption foundation. This became his main political vehicle. For decades the Kremlin had been effectively cultivating a “learned helplessness” among its citizenry, a psychological state in which people stop trying to change a situation because there seems no point. By painting politics as cynical and worthless, the Russian government ensured that no one bothered to challenge it or even cared about voting.
In Russia, speaking the truth has always been a political act
Navalny saw the world differently. Exposing the corruption of the Russian elite simply proved a commonly known truth. He had greater ambitions. If the Kremlin made Russians feel helpless, he wanted them to feel like their voice mattered. As Vedomosti, a newspaper put it: “By his own example, he is showing to Russian citizens that it is possible to defend their rights.”
I was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist in 2011 and, like many, I struggled to get excited about elections that promised no change. Navalny had other ideas. Using his blog, he encouraged people to vote for anyone other than Putin’s United Russia, which he branded “a party of crooks and thieves”. The label resonated. When officials saw the galvanizing effects of Navalny’s call to arms, they began to stuff ballot boxes so energetically and blatantly that social media was flooded with clear evidence of electoral violations.
On December 5th, 2011, the day after the elections, Navalny issued a call for people of all political persuasions – “nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians, Martians” – to protest in Moscow and defend their votes. As the crowds gathered, Navalny climbed onto a makeshift stage, holding his microphone like a rock star. “Thank you that you have felt yourself, citizens. Thank you that you told these asses that we exist. We have a voice. Do we exist?” he asked.
“We exist,” thousands of voices responded.
“They call us micro-bloggers and internet hamsters. I am an internet hamster. And I will bite into the throats of these bastards. What do we call their party?” he asked again.
“The party of crooks and thieves,” the crowd responded.
“The party of crooks, thieves, and murderers,” he corrected them.
Taking a stand When he disembarked in Moscow after his flight home in January 2021, Navalny, conscious of the symbolism, gave his first statement in front of a picture of the Kremlin (above). In February 2021 a Russian court turned a suspended prison sentence into an actual one and sent him to a penal colony (below)
As the crowd clashed with police in front of the menacing kgb building, I went to the Echo Moskvy radio station, where liberals gathered to gossip. There I saw Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who had just come off the air after declaring that “we need to change the political order”. He recalled the hundreds of thousands of people who protested against the Communist Party’s political monopoly in 1990. “It was easy for me to leave power,” he said (which he did in 1991). “I did not steal anything and had nothing to fear. It will be much harder for them.”
After parliamentary elections in 2011, Navalny was arrested and jailed for 15 days. But over the following weeks and months, the protests grew. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Moscow and other cities chanting “Russia without Putin” and “We are the power here”. Navalny had finally emerged as an influential political actor.
The demonstrations caused Putin to change his political messaging. He was already appealing to imperial nostalgia for the Soviet era. Now he started harping on about traditional values and religious orthodoxy, to paint his own regime not only as the natural heir of Russia’s past but as a bulwark against the alien and degenerate Western values.
Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, treasured since Catherine the Great and a holiday destination for the Soviet leadership. This was Putin’s own appeal to nationalism. It had the added advantage that it pushed Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign out of the spotlight. His wars in Ukraine and the Caucasus, as well as in Syria, demonstrated that Russia was still a military power.
As his ratings soared at home, he moved to silence the opposition. Navalny was detained in 2014 and spent the next few months under house arrest. When I visited Navalny in his office in August 2015, most Russian liberals were in a state of depression. Boris Nemtsov, another liberal politician, had been murdered earlier that year. Many young, educated Russians were leaving the country.
Putin’s regime continues to rest on the twin pillars of fear and lies. Navalny has staked his life on destroying both
Navalny admitted it was possible that within a year he might be sidelined once more. But he wouldn’t leave, he said. “Emigration is not an option for me, and it is not an option for 99% of people who work with me.” He knew his situation looked perilous, but he also believed that the collapse of Putin’s regime was “historically inevitable”. He would wait it out.
Persistence proved to be among Navalny’s most important qualities. By late 2016, the euphoria sparked by the annexation of Crimea began to subside. Economic sanctions imposed by the West were hitting real incomes and public opinion began to turn. In March 2017 Navalny launched his campaign for the presidential election the following year, by releasing a documentary about the secret wealth amassed by Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s servile prime minister. This sparked protests across Russia.
Inevitably Navalny wasn’t allowed to run for president. That didn’t stop him campaigning, crisscrossing the country to speak at rallies. Around this time a group of secret-service operatives, who worked for a clandestine unit that specialized in banned chemical weapons, began to shadow Navalny, as revealed last year by Bellingcat, an independent investigative-journalism outlet.
These Russian agents followed him for three years until they moved in for the kill in August 2020, daubing Navalny’s boxer shorts with a nerve agent. The attempt coincided with a national uprising in Belarus against a rigged election by Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for more than 25 years. “Their success will be our success,” Navalny said on his YouTube channel, about the unprecedented demonstrations in Belarus. Sure enough, when protests broke out in the far east of Russia last summer over the arrest of a popular governor, demonstrators expressed solidarity with Belarus. The lesson for the Kremlin was clear. An opposition leader like Navalny was a clear and present danger.
By this time the regime had been playing cat and mouse with him for a decade, hoping to marginalize him. Now it decided to act. When Navalny came round in a Berlin hospital, after more than two weeks in a coma, he told his associates, “so Putin has decided to kill me after all.”
When I went to see Navalny in Berlin in October he was speaking at double speed, as if on fast forward, probably an after-effect of the nerve agent. At his trial two weeks after returning to Moscow in January, Navalny said in his closing statement that Putin – not he – was the one living in fear: “I’ve mortally offended him by surviving,” he said, speaking, handcuffed, from a bullet-proof glass cage in the courtroom. “He will enter history as a poisoner. We had Yaroslav the Wise and Alexander the Liberator. And now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants”. Outside the court, members of the security services were busily arresting anyone who came to support him.
A national anthem without words summed up the difficulty of expressing what it meant to be Russian
He turned up the rhetoric again at his appeal another two weeks later, quoting the Bible: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”. Then he turned to another of his sacred texts, the film “Brat 2”, borrowing the hero’s words in the culminating moment, as he confronts the American kingpin.
“What is the most popular political slogan in Russia?” he asked the judge before turning to the court.
“Help me, someone…Where does power lie?” He spoke as though addressing a rally: “Real power lies in truth…Those who have the truth have the power. Tens of millions of people want the truth and they’ll get it sooner or later.”
In Russia, speaking the truth has always been a political act. A prison cell, a dock, and a scaffold have often made the best pulpits. Navalny’s words echoed those of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist who published “Live Not by Lies”, an essay condemning the Soviet system, on the day he was arrested in 1974.
Long march to freedom Navalny’s personal doctor (center) and wife (right) addressed the media at the Siberian hospital where Navalny was taken after being poisoned in August 2020 (above). Protesters in Berlin demanded Navalny’s release after he was detained on his return to Russia in January 2021 (below)
“Violence quickly grows old,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “After only a few years it loses confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally – since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence.” It’s an idea that still resonates. Putin’s regime continues to rest on the twin pillars of fear and lies. Navalny has staked his life on pulling down that edifice.
Navalny was sent to prison for two and half years for breaching the probation conditions set on conviction for trumped-up fraud charges in 2014, and taken to one of Russia’s harshest penal colonies not far from Moscow. He was already suffering from severe back pain and numbness in his legs. The guards stopped him from sleeping. When the authorities refused to let him see his personal doctors, he went on a hunger strike.
Two weeks into the strike, Navalny was suddenly tantalized by the smell of grilled chicken. Officers had brought an electric stove into the jail – a “friendly, Orwellian concentration camp”, as Navalny labels it – and an inmate had begun to cook. Prisoners don’t normally eat such tasty fare. But this chicken wasn’t a treat: its sole purpose was to taunt Russia’s political prisoner number one.
For all the humiliation and degradation he has faced, the demonization on state tv, even the assassination attempt, Navalny believes that the grilled chicken is the aptest example of the pettiness, cruelty, and corruption of Putin’s regime. As he wrote in an Instagram post sent through his lawyers in March: “The whole gang of thieves…do not believe that between ideas and a chicken, anyone would choose ideas.”
History will work its course while Navalny serves his time in prison. Every morning he is woken at 6 am to march, dressed in a black prison robe, as loudspeakers blast a Soviet-era anthem: “Glory to our free fatherland”. Navalny has become, as he recently described himself on social media “a skeleton staggering around his cell”. His hunger strike is over, but even as arrest follows the arrest on the streets of Russia, time is already transforming Navalny into a myth. The regime has already killed so many of its critics. But myths can survive death. Sometimes they are enhanced by it.
When Navalny was tempted to eat, he managed to resist by thinking of the tens of thousands of Russians who “are being treated like slaves – in prisons and in the country – whose names will never be known”. That, says Navalny, was the essence of his struggle. He was caught in an “epic battle between my human spirit and a prison chicken”. No one should bet on the chicken.
Arkady Ostrovsky is The Economist’s Russia editor and author of “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War”
ILLUSTRATIONS: MICHELLE THOMPSON
additional images: getty