Alexei Navalny, march, Boris Nemtsov
Alexei Navalny was poisoned by Novichok in Russia in August of 2020. Photo credit: Michał Siergiejevicz / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Whatever move the Russian authorities make now, they will end up in a worse position than before.

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Editor’s Note: Alexei Navalny, who returned to Russia from Germany in late January 2021, was jailed for three and a half years by a Russian court for ostensibly violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud. The fact that he was almost irrefutably poisoned by agents of the Vladimir Putin regime was not taken into account. However, a year was deducted from his sentence for time served under house arrest. As a renowned political activist, Navalny has campaigned against corruption and Putin since 2011.

Alexei Navalny. You might have heard of him. On August 20 last year, the Russian opposition leader made headlines across the world after being poisoned with the nerve agent novichok on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk. The plane made an emergency landing, and Navalny, already in a coma, was taken to a local Siberian hospital. After some delay, he was evacuated to Germany for treatment, where he stayed to recuperate. Navalny is convinced, and has provided documentary evidence, that the Kremlin was behind his attempted assassination. And yet, on January 17, surrounded by a crowd of journalists, he flew back to Russia.

The story of Navalny is extraordinary — even by Russian standards. The lawyer-turned-politician and anti-corruption activist rose to prominence after organizing large protests in 2011-2012 over Vladimir Putin’s return for a third presidential term (amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging). Since then, he has run for office, first in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, where he came in second, and then for president in the 2018 elections, where he was barred from running by Russia’s Central Electoral Commission — citing his previous criminal convictions on charges of embezzlement in 2013 and 2014.

Both cases are widely believed to be politically motivated, and according to the European Court of Human Rights, violated his rights to a fair trial. These same charges of fraud and parole violation were raised again to scare him from going back to Russia.

Navalny: Highly Successful in Harnessing Social Media

But Navalny is no stranger to state repression. He has been arrested more times than you can count on both hands. And it is no wonder that he has made an enemy of himself to Putin’s circle. If Putin effectively controls the official news channels, Navalny has proven more successful at harnessing the power of social media.

Navalny’s highly popular YouTube videos investigate the systemic corruption of Russia’s ruling elite, and attract tens of millions of views. By exposing the shady connections and the incredible wealth of public officials and Putin allies, replete with megayachts, mansions, offshore accounts, and private jets — at a time when ordinary Russians can barely get by (the average monthly wage is less than $600) — Navalny strikes a chord with the Russian public. Such scandalous exposés directly threaten the state’s legitimacy.

More than that, social media also provides Navalny with a platform for his political campaigning — promoting his tactical “Smart Voting” strategy, which has successfully deprived the United Russia party of votes and seats in regional and federal elections. The United Russia party, or the “party of crooks and thieves” as Navalny famously calls them, is Putin’s main tool of political control.

One in a Long Line of Victims of the Putin Regime

Many speculate that Navalny’s Smart Voting campaign in the 2020 regional elections, combined with the timing — the unrest in nearby Belarus, and anti-Putin protests in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk — pushed a paranoid state to extrajudicial murder. The brazen attempt at Navalny’s life in August was shocking, but not surprising.

This reaction is not unique: Navalny joins a long list of Kremlin critics fallen victim to the most extreme measures. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2016 and the Skripals in 2018 on UK soil, are proven precedents. Even a high profile does not protect you — as the tragic case of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s murder in 2015 brought home.

But Navalny did not die. Not only did he survive and recover, but in December 2020, helped by the investigative website Bellingcat, he provided strong evidence that the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, had been behind his attempted assassination and even identified the agents involved.

It gets better. Navalny, posing as an FSB official, called one of the operatives, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, and duped him into a detailed admission of the failed operation. All of this is on YouTube, there for millions to see. The Kremlin, as usual, denies everything, even suggesting among other explanations that Navalny poisoned himself.

More Than a Thorn in the Government’s Side

What cannot be denied is that instead of solving the Navalny problem, things have gotten worse for Putin. Instead of silencing Russia’s top dissident, Navalny has been emboldened. His latest move to return to Russia on January 17, 2021, knowing full well the risks and potential danger to his life, was a historic act. Navalny refuses to be scared into exile and submission.

His decision to fly back to Russia with Pobeda (“Victory”) Airlines was highly symbolic. It was — and still is — a direct challenge to Putin, and the president may have used up all his cards. Analysts have likened Navalny’s step to the chess move zugzwang, where a player is forced to make a disadvantageous move. Whatever the Russian authorities do now, they will end up in a worse position than before.

They cannot try to kill him again — the world is watching. They cannot ignore him — he is too much of a threat. And by jailing him, Navalny becomes a prisoner of conscience, a martyr for a just cause, and just maybe, the next Nelson Mandela.

If Navalny had given up and stayed abroad, all that he had fought for, suffered for, and almost died for would have been for nothing. Navalny clearly considers himself the only person, at the present time, who can trigger democratic change in Russia. He sees it as his duty to take on this responsibility and disarm the regime of its spell of fear over the Russian people. Sacrificing his freedom and the future of his family, Navalny has performed the highest act of bravery. 

Crimes and Punishments of Radical Artists in Putin’s Russia

The “Putin Generation”

It is still too early to tell whether Navalny’s gambit will pay off. His video “Putin’s Palace” has been a huge hit, gathering over 100 million views in just a week. Tens of thousands of people have come out to the streets calling for Navalny’s release and for Putin to step down. The “Putin Generation,” who have never known a Russia without Putin, are especially tired of the autocrat. They want change; many identify with Navalny’s resonant call for Russia to become a “normal country.”

I may well be too Westernized in hoping this will happen any time soon. The great majority of Russians are still passive and depoliticized, if not as fervently pro-Putin as in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation. Putin’s approval ratings are still high, Navalny’s are still low. And Navalny is far from perfect — from my Genevan persective, he is still too illiberal and nationalistic. But I do not buy into the cynical narrative, often encouraged by Kremlin propagandists, that Navalny is no better than Putin and is only fighting for power.

The recent protests sparked by Navalny suggest that the president is losing his grip, and Navalny is gaining the moral upper hand. (Editorial Note: According to some European and North American analysts, Putin could face overthrow by an increasingly nervous Russian military.) More and more Russians are overcoming the fear of repression — a fear that is hard for me to imagine, writing from a safe distance in cozy Switzerland.

To me, it is a moving reminder that democracy is a privilege that is not guaranteed. In these bleak times, Navalny’s remarkable story has been especially inspiring. Even to those outside Russia, he serves as a reminder that there are things worth fighting for, and that if we want a better future, we may all have to summon some bravery. Hugging his wife goodbye as police took him into custody, without his lawyer, Navalny announced: “I am not afraid.” His wife, Yulia, echoed his message as she left the airport without her husband: “Alexei is not afraid. I am not afraid. You shouldn’t be afraid either.”

Nikita Furley Artamonov is in his final year at Durham University in the UK, studying history and Russian. This article is part of Global Geneva’s “Youth Writes” educational initiative encouraging young people to write and share their experiences, and also to better understand the role of quality journalism.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Rave / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).


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