In 2003, four years into President Vladimir Putin’s tenure and with liberal politics at a nadir, I visited the Moscow office of the center-left Yabloko Party. There, among the 50-something inveterate anti-communists that dominated the party, sat a 27-year-old staff member. It was Aleksei Navalny.
We quickly became friendly. We were members of the same generation and the same culture, we had the same views about good and evil, we spoke the same language. Though we didn’t always agree, I felt that he and I were — to quote Rudyard Kipling — “of one blood.”
It was obvious that such a man would feel cramped in a stuffy old party, and so it turned out. But it was not at all obvious that Mr. Navalny would rise to be the undisputed leader of the opposition, his challenge to Mr. Putin’s rule so profound it would lead to the regime’s efforts to silence him — through attempted assassination, imprisonment and illness that last week threatened to tip over into death — and to thousands of Russians, across the country, taking to the streets to protest his mistreatment. Russia now has two national leaders: Mr. Putin in the Kremlin and Mr. Navalny in prison.
When we first met, such a future — if someone had beamed back from 2021 to tell us of it — would have seemed far-fetched. At the time, an opposition movement was slowly taking shape. And at comings together of opposition figures, united in their disagreement with Mr. Putin if little else, I would often see my old acquaintance Aleksei Navalny. He understood that real political life was there, not in his own party, and he rapidly became one of the notable figures of the opposition.
His expulsion from Yabloko in 2007 for participating in a nationalist demonstration — which he’d attended out of solidarity with the nationalists facing the Kremlin’s repression — was no great loss for him. He had already created a name for himself as the author of a popular blog: While others cursed Mr. Putin and held protests for freedom of assembly, Mr. Navalny set to work exposing abuses in state corporations and accusing the authorities of thievery. Criticizing corruption was more convincing than slogans advocating democracy.
Yet the turning point, for the country and for Mr. Navalny, came in 2011, when Mr. Putin decided to become president of Russia again and his party, United Russia, gathered a wildly improbable majority. Mass protests broke out and the leaders of the opposition, who had grown accustomed to seeing a hundred or so people at their gatherings, suddenly found themselves looking out at tens of thousands of citizens.
It’s tempting at this point to say that there was a leadership competition that Mr. Navalny won, but that would not be true. There were many other leaders: the liberal Boris Nemtsov, the Communist Sergei Udaltsov, the nationalist Alexander Potkin, the former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the chess champion Garry Kasparov. But one after the other — through assassination, intimidation, imprisonment and blackmail — they disappeared from the scene.
That left just Mr. Navalny, leading some to suspect he was working for the Kremlin, an impression bolstered by the fact that in 2013 he was publicly released from prison and allowed to participate in the Moscow mayoral election. If any suspicions lingered — even after he was given another suspended sentence and attacked with green dye — they were decisively ended in August last year, when Mr. Navalny was apparently poisoned with Novichok aboard a flight to Moscow. It became clear that the Kremlin had simply been keeping Mr. Navalny for dessert.
Mr. Navalny insists that his poisoners, acting on Mr. Putin’s orders, intended to kill him. But perhaps, as an investigation by the Dossier Center — financed by the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Kremlin critic who spent nearly 10 years in prison — suggested, the plan was not to kill Mr. Navalny but to frighten him away. That would make sense. After all, many of Mr. Putin’s previous opponents have, in duress or fear, permanently left Russia.
When Mr. Putin agreed to allow Mr. Navalny’s evacuation to Germany for treatment, he in all likelihood felt sure that the man would not come back. It was a fair bet: Over the years of Mr. Putin’s power, the more people have had access to automobiles, appliances and consumer electronics, the more they have consented to limitations on their freedom and political activity. Mr. Putin probably felt sure that Mr. Navalny was like the others — that between prison in Russia and a life of comfort in Europe, he would choose the latter. But Mr. Putin miscalculated.
Even before completing his treatment in Germany, Mr. Navalny stated that he was going back to Russia; he even publicly announced his flight number and departure time. Once arrived, he was duly arrested at passport control. There followed an emergency hearing at a local police precinct house, several weeks in a Moscow jail and then sentencing to over two years in a penal colony. At every step, Mr. Navalny released statements on social media through his lawyers, his trademark humor and self-confidence visible throughout.
Even when in jail his legs started to fail and he demanded to see his doctors, he made a joke about it: He said that he had gotten used to his leg and didn’t want to lose it. It was the behavior of a brave, proud, unbroken man standing up to an inhumane system, whose weapons are prison and violence — an archetypical plot, familiar to any country that has experienced dictatorship. Though Mr. Navalny’s condition, at times dire, seems to have stabilized, there can be no assurance of his safety as long as he languishes in prison. The prospects for the opposition movement — not least after the activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Mr. Navalny’s political organization, were suspended on Monday — look bleak.
As for Mr. Putin, he has discovered the folly of refusing to face his opponent honestly. The protests that swept across the country on Wednesday — following major demonstrations in support of Mr. Navalny in January — attest to the strength of Mr. Navalny’s appeal and, more important perhaps, to the depth of ordinary Russians’ dissatisfaction with their ruler. This was of his own doing. By not recognizing Mr. Navalny’s right to participate in politics, Mr. Putin brought himself into a confrontation with a leader who is his equal.
Now, after getting rid of all his opponents, real and imaginary, Mr. Putin finds himself alone. Like the queen in a Russian fairy tale, who every day asks a magic mirror who’s the fairest of them all, he desperately craves supremacy. But when he asks the mirror who Russia’s true leader is, it answers: Aleksei Navalny.
Oleg Kashin (@KSHN) is a journalist and the author of “Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin.” This essay was translated by Carol Apollonio from the Russian.
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