As the life of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny hangs in the balance, so does the fate of the movement he leads. For many years, the anti-corruption crusader has offered the only serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule. According to the German government, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same deadly nerve agent used in the UK against Russian double agent Sergey Skripal in 2018. With doctors predicting a long and difficult recovery, will the temporary loss of its lodestar cripple Russia’s already embattled opposition or set it free from the shadow of a brilliant but flawed leader?
If Russia’s failings are too often blamed on one man, for over a decade the country’s salvation has been linked—in the Western imagination at least—to the promise of another. Navalny—corporate lawyer, activist investor, and presidential candidate—has turned his online exposés of official corruption into a formidable political force. Forensically researched but leavened with acerbic wit, memes, and pop culture references, his viral videos attract millions of views.
Navalny is not allowed on Russian terrestrial television, yet 5 million people subscribe to his YouTube channel; his recent video ridiculing the July constitutional referendum that potentially extended Vladimir Putin’s presidency until 2036 was viewed 12 million times. In the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, he managed to secure a quarter of the votes despite being denied any mainstream media airtime. Credible allegations of ballot-stuffing accompanied the Kremlin-backed winner.
Navalny’s telegenic, market-friendly persona, and strident opposition to Putin have made him into a darling of the West. Here, finally, was a Russian liberal preaching shareholder capitalism and free expression without the political baggage of Yeltsin-era figures such as the assassinated Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov or vengeful oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose oil company Yukos was nationalized after he crossed Putin. Writing in The Washington Post last week, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul likened Navalny to Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Vaclav Havel, all in the same sentence.
Such breathless pronouncements gloss over Navalny’s troubling history of right-wing, nationalist, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. In 2007, Navalny was expelled from the small, classically liberal Yabloko party over his nationalist views. Calling for a “normal nationalism,” he regularly attended the annual Russian March, a rally that attracted neo-Nazis. Nor did Navalny’s animosity to the Kremlin prevent him from supporting the 2008 war with Georgia or stating, in a 2014 radio interview, that he would not return Crimea to Ukraine if he had the power to do so. When Navalny ran for president in 2018, one columnist even likened him to Donald Trump for his plans to introduce visas for migrant workers from former Soviet republics.
Unsurprisingly, the left has been much more ambivalent about Navalny. In his 2018 book Russia Without Putin, Tony Wood, a member of the editorial committee of New Left Review dismissed Navalny’s philosophy as “a digest of the last three decades of conventional western social and economic policy,” ideas that “led the world into a pervasive crisis from which there is no end in sight.” Were Navalny ever to win power, Wood wrote, his policies “would leave so much of the substantive content of the post-Soviet system in place that, for the majority of Russians, it would be hard to see what had changed.”
Yet after speaking to both to his supporters and critics, it becomes clear that in recent years Navalny has taken an unexpected but unmistakable left turn. That may have been what turned him from a niche liberal troublemaker into a genuine existential threat to the Kremlin.
Violetta Grudina heads Navalny’s organization in my hometown, the arctic city of Murmansk. A longtime liberal activist, she now describes the organization’s job in strongly social justice terms. “For local and regional officials, the question of people’s quality of life is not just on the bottom of the list; it doesn’t figure on the list at all,” she told me. “The people who own the mines in the region are all billionaires. Governors come and go, but they are all beholden to these oligarchs. Their sole task is to facilitate the transfer of the region’s natural wealth to them and to Moscow.” This kind of language was rarely used by Navalny’s people in the past.
On a day-to-day level, says Grudina, “we are a citizens’ advice organization as much as a political one.” She explained that people “come to us as a last resort, having been through all the other circles of hell. They need help with legal questions, or are looking for impartial information. Most are not even our supporters but soon realize that we are working on their behalf.”
Even the investigative work of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Navalny’s muckraking initiative devoted to uncovering the misdeeds of politicians and oligarchs, became more socially conscious recently. After years of spotlighting graft and venality at the top of Russian politics—including revelations that Dmitry Medvedev owned a duck house on his estate and once bought 20 pairs of shoes in a day—Navalny turned his ire to corruption with more direct impact on citizens.
In late 2018, the FBK linked a dysentery outbreak in Moscow schools to several monopolistic catering companies allegedly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate sometimes described as “Putin’s chef,” who also sponsors Russian mercenaries abroad. The report caused widespread outrage and led Prigozhin to file, and win, a USD 1.2 million lawsuit against the FBK. Facing financial ruin, in June, Navalny was forced to dissolve the organization.
Despite this setback, Navalny’s socially orientated, regionally inflected, and nonpartisan approach has paid dividends. By removing the taint of tribalism and Moscow elitism, Navalny has succeeded where all other members of the liberal opposition have failed. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, he has built bridges with Russia’s large mass of disaffected people who do not identify as reformist at all—in particular, the supporters of the so-called systemic opposition.
The term describes the five parliamentary political parties that ostensibly oppose the ruling United Russia Party but appear to have made a pact with the Kremlin not to put up a serious fight. Chief among them is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), whose voters have long been dismissed as “red-brown” Stalinists’ nostalgic for Soviet central planning and military might. Nevertheless, the KRPF remains the second-largest party in parliament after United Russia.
Navalny reached out to the KRPF through an initiative called Smart Vote, designed to prevent United Russia from splitting the opposition vote. It debuted during the contested Moscow city Duma elections last September in response to independent candidates being barred from running. The premise was simple. On his website, Navalny told his supporters to vote for a single candidate per district, selected by him and his team on the sole basis of their perceived ability to beat the United Russia candidate. The gambit worked. On the night, 20 Smart Vote candidates won, claiming nearly half of the assembly’s 45 seats. Two-thirds came from the KPRF, one of whose candidates even managed to unseat Moscow’s head of United Russia.
One of the KPRF’s beneficiaries of smart voting was 37-year-old Evgeny Stupin, a criminal lawyer and former police detective. “I am very grateful to Navalny for his support, which played a significant role and added at least 5 to 7 percent to my margin,” Stupin told me. “Smart Voting is a highly effective project, and the more different opposition parties, regardless of their political stripe, get involved, the harder it will be for United Russia and Putin to hang on to power.”
Stupin denied that the KPRF is an opposition party in name only, but acknowledged that there exists a contradiction within its ranks. “It’s true that there are those who insist on compliance with the Kremlin,” he said, “but there are also others who believe in an uncompromising struggle against the regime using all legal means.”
The successful partnership led many on the left to put aside their reservations. “Thanks to Navalny, we are now seeing a new configuration of opposition forces that makes it harder for the authorities to divide people by ideology,” says the radical activist, poet, and musician Kirill Medvedev. “Unifying the liberal and pro-Soviet electorate was an important strategic move, one that made the government very nervous.”
It has reason to be. Since last year’s Moscow election debacle, the Kremlin’s grip has been rocked by a crescendo of protests against a series of official blunders. In late 2018, the government raised the state pension age, something Putin had previously vowed not to do. In fact, it was Navalny who originally called for raising the pension age, from a position of fiscal conservatism. However, by 2018 he had changed his mind and organized a wave of illegal protests in over two dozen cities. Nearly 1000 people were detained.
In July 2019, protests swept through Moscow after the city’s electoral commission refused to register independent candidates from running in the municipal elections. In June 2020, the government pushed through a controversial constitutional reform that would allow Putin to remain in office until he turns 84. The referendum was plagued by allegations of fraud, voter coercion, and ballot stuffing, with the final tally of 78 percent in favor widely mocked.
This June, thousands took to the streets in Siberia’s Khabarovsk region after governor Sergey Furgal was arrested over a murder that allegedly took place 15 years ago. Many local people viewed the arrest as a politically motivated attempt to replace a relatively independent local figure (Furgal is a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, one of the parties that make up the systemic opposition) with a Moscow apparatchik with no ties to the region. Nearly two months since Furgal’s removal, people continue to attend regular protests.
In August, electoral fraud in neighboring Belarus further inflamed tensions. Witnessing President Alexander Lukashenko’s blatant power grab, many Russians saw clear parallels between two entitled middle-aged men who, despite nearly a half century of rule between them, tried to cheat their way to becoming presidents for life. Some in Khabarovsk have now begun to carry the red and white flags of the Belarusian opposition.
For two decades, Putin has warned that any regime change would plunge the country back into the misery of the 1990s. It was a persuasive argument for millions who still remember the years when life expectancy plummeted, unemployment soared, and the country’s wealth was carved up by oligarchs and criminal gangs. With official encouragement, that decade’s epic dislocation and trauma have morphed into the closest thing post-Soviet Russia has to a national foundation myth. Over time, the ’90s became weaponized by the Kremlin into an all-purpose bogeyman, a modern version of Babai, the sinister, shape-shifting sprite of Russian folklore that takes the form of one’s darkest fear. Traditionally used to frighten children into finishing their porridge, Babai has become redeployed to warn parents away from the evils of democratic regime change.
Yet there are signs that the strategy is losing its grip over the public imagination. For one thing, since Putin first came to power in 2000, an entire generation has come of age with no firsthand experience of the 1990s. They include Grudina, Navalny’s director of operations in Murmansk. “All those scare stories about the chaos after the fall of the USSR, they frighten me much less than the nightmare we are currently living through,” she told me. “People like me who have lived most or all our lives under Putin, we have nothing to compare it to. We didn’t see the ’90s. We don’t get triggered by them. You can’t scare us with that stuff.”
Another member of the post-90s generation trying to enter politics is 28-year-old Ksenia Fadeeva. She is running as an independent candidate in the upcoming municipal elections in Tomsk, the Siberian city where Navalny was taken in last week. Fadeeva, who leads Navalny’s chapter in Tomsk, met with him and other activists the night before he was poisoned. The chapter is now preparing to release the Smart Vote list of candidates ahead of the elections on September 13.
“We are not in the business of helping the KPRF,” she told me. “We just want to break the monopoly of United Russia. It doesn’t matter if they are communist, LDPR, Yabloko; what matters is that they can win.” Fadeeva told me she has no doubt that the leadership of all the parliamentary parties is controlled by the Kremlin, but believes that the very experience of having grassroots backing can be transformative. “Once a candidate has felt the support of real voters behind them, rather than the Kremlin or some local bosses; once they got a taste of that agency, they will start acting like an independent,” said Fadeeva.
For her, Navalny’s biggest achievement was not in bringing together the liberals and the left but in bringing politics to ordinary people. “When I go out and meet voters in my district, nobody asks me if I’m a liberal,” she said. “They ask me when their hot water will come back on.” She remembers how, when she was out campaigning, a man approached, pointed incredulously at her photo on the poster, and exclaimed “But that’s you! You are here in person, handing out these flyers yourself.” He had only ever seen United Russia candidates on billboards and the local evening news.
Navalny’s unique gift for uniting disparate people, ideas, and movements undoubtedly helped make him a target. He appears to be the only person in Russia capable of tying together the public’s inchoate grievances into a common purpose. Through Smart Voting, Navalny has already shown his power to hijack and reinvigorate the country’s formerly rubber-stamping institutions. “For the government, losing the 2020 Duma elections would be fatal. So they decided to take him out of action before it’s too late,” Fadeeva believes.
What will happen to the movement now that he faces, at best, a long road to convalescence? “Navalny has no rivals,” Wood told me. Since the publication of his book on Putin, the academic has acknowledged Navalny’s move to the left but remains skeptical about the depth of his commitment to a radical program. Nor does he feel that Navalny has fully jettisoned his earlier nationalism. “If he found it politically expedient to pick on Central Asians he would do it again,” Wood said. (Even Fedeeva admitted to me that Navalny “still has some nationalist, anti-immigrant positions.”)
Medvedev is more sympathetic about Navalny’s ability to amplify and deliver on aspects of the left’s agenda, precisely because of his belief that Navalny, rather than being personally wedded to any specific program—nationalism included—will do whatever gets him the most opposition votes. Yet what bothers the radical activist is the disproportionate influence of one man over the entire opposition movement. “We on the left always maintained that the opposition should not need an overarching leader, that it should be about consensus among various equal groups, but Navalny had other ideas,” said Medvedev. “Maybe his absense, hard that it would be for us to endure on a human level, could create an opportunity to build a movement that does not hinge on a single individual.”
If he’s right, the brutal attempt to decapitate the opposition may yet backfire. With Navalny out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the opposition now has a chance to rebalance itself through a more diverse, horizontal, and collective approach. Certainly, neither Grudina and Fadeeva nor Stupin and his progressive colleagues within the systemic opposition are letting the shock of what happened to Navalny put them off the fight. “For a while, we couldn’t breathe,” Fadeeva told me. “But our work does not stop, so we keep going.”