Could Alexei Navalny be the man to finally take down Putin?

The Kremlin’s most prominent critic is behind bars. But who exactly is the man Putin refuses to name, and why is he seen as such a threat to the Russian status quo?

On Tuesday, February 2nd 2021, Alexei Navalny was detained to serve a sentence of 32 months in jail. 

The political campaigner and anti-corruption activist has been a regular guest in Russia’s jail system over the last few decades. But never has he taken up quite so permanent a residency.

Navalny, who has called Putin’s United Russia party a cabal of “crooks and thieves” and has ridiculed Putin himself as a “small minded bureaucrat” and an “accidental president”, had returned to Russia from Berlin in January, most likely knowing he would face jail time in his home country.

Navalny’s exile to Berlin occurred after he was attacked with a Novichok nerve agent poison on a commercial flight in August 2020. Navalny was evacuated to Berlin for specialist treatment, where medical professionals confirmed a nerve agent had been used and that it was of the same family of nerve agents as that used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018. 

Navalny accused Russian security forces of the poisoning, and released a video in December of him impersonating a Russian security official as he speaks by phone to a supposed chemical weapons expert who seems to confirm the poison had been placed in Navalny’s underwear prior to the flight. 

Boldly, Navalny returned to Moscow from Berlin on 17th January 2021 and was immediately arrested for violating parole conditions from an earlier conviction, leading to his sentencing earlier this month.

After surviving a poisoning, 32 months in jail – no matter how brutal his time may be – might be seen as getting off lightly for Putin’s most vociferous critic. Yet, with a long and storied history, simply placing him behind bars is unlikely to stop Alexei Navalny’s campaign for justice. 

Navalny returns to Russia in a bold move following his Novichok poisoning last summer

Born roughly 62 miles from Moscow in 1976 to parents of Russian and Ukrainian descent, Navalny’s 44 years are as storied as any Russian epic. 

Before becoming a political figurehead, Navalny initially obtained a law degree from Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, graduating in 1998. 

During this period Navalny was instrumental in a series of anti-corruption investigations including publishing allegations that leaders of a national pipeline company had stolen four billion dollars. 

Navalny went on to accuse the Hungarian and Russian governments of shady dealings. Supposedly, Hungary sold a former embassy building to a private company for $21 million, and the owner then sold this to the Russian government for $116 million. It is not currently clear if an investigation into this was conducted in Russia. 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shows a heart symbol to his wife during his recent sentencing

Over the next few years Navalny publicly accused deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov of corruption, claiming that companies owned by Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov had transferred tens of millions of dollars to Shuvalov. He also accused prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption, a charge which the authorities ignored. 


Throughout this period, institutional corruption, which Navalny believe’s Putin’s government embodies, was his main focus of action. 

However, Navalny has not been without his own brushes with the law. In 2012 he was charged with embezzlement after he was accused of conspiring to steal timber from a state-owned company in 2009. Navalny was sentenced to five years in jail, but released on appeal, with the conviction eventually being reduced to probation. 

In reaction to the trial, Los Angeles-based law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP published a report into the Russian Federation’s prosecutions of Navalny, concluding that “the Kremlin has reverted to misuse of the Russian legal system to harass, isolate and attempt to silence political opponents”.

Navalny has been involved with Russian politics for over two decades. His first foray into the field came when he joined the democratic party Yabloko in 2000. Over the next seven years Navalny rose within the party, becoming deputy chief of the Moscow branch.

In 2007 he was expelled from Yabloko after establishing a nationalist party, The People, and criticising Yabloko’s leadership. The People quickly allied itself with two well known nationalist groups, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and Great Russia. 

As his profile grew, Navalny took to blogging to interact with the Russian people. In one video he appears to compare migrants to cockroaches. To date he has refused to distance himself from, or apologise for, this. 

Navalny’s first arrest came in December 2011 after he joined protestors demonstrating against accusations of electoral fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. Navalny was sentenced to the maximum of 15 days in jail and was housed with other well-known activists including Sergei Udaltsov who was associated with radical Russian communist youth group the Vanguard of the Red Youth. 

Russian police arrested more than 5,000 people at protests in support of Navalny in January

At the time, Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Echo of Moscow radio station, called Navalny’s arrest “a political mistake: jailing Navalny transforms him from an online leader into an offline one”.

Immediately upon his release, Navalny urged Russians to unite against Putin, who Navalny claimed would try to snatch victory in the forthcoming presidential election. 

His arrest and continued stand against Putin prompted the BBC to describe him as “arguably the only major opposition figure to emerge in Russia in the past five years“.

Further protests and arrests followed after Putin’s election as president in 2012. Then, in 2013 Navalny ran for major of Moscow. He lost out on securing the position, and claimed the election results were fake, a charge he took to the Supreme Court of Russia, which upheld the results. 

Undeterred by his first attempt at securing public office, Navalny announced his intention to run for president in 2016. 

Then, in 2017 he organised a series of anti-corruption rallies across 95 Russian cities. The cause was even taken up by protests in Prague, Basel, Bonn and London. 

The Economist called Navalny the only viable opponent to Putin 2018 — and the case for him seems even stronger now

With support for Navalny growing, The Economist called him the “most viable” contender to Putin in the 2018 election.  

The backlash against Navalny’s growing influence leapt to violent measures when he was attacked by unknown assailants outside his office in the Anti-Corruption Foundation in April 2017. Navalny had green dye sprayed in his face, which had reportedly been mixed with a caustic chemical, leading to him losing 80 percent of his sight in his right eye. Navalny was quick to accuse the Kremlin of orchestrating the attack. 

Following arrests for organising and participating in protests agains the government, the Human Rights Watch accused Russian police of “systematic interference with Navalny’s presidential campaign” citing harassment and intimidation. 

“Russian authorities should let Navalny’s campaigners work without undue interference and properly investigate attacks against them by ultra-nationalists and pro-government groups,” the group advised. 

However, the presidential bid came to nothing when Russia’s Central Electoral Commission barred Navalny from running for president, citing his corruption conviction. Navalny then called for a boycott of the election, claiming his removal denied millions of Russians of their vote

The following year Navalny campaigned in support of a number of unofficial candidates and was jailed on more than one occasion – a seemingly endless series of scuffles with the Russian government that came to a head with Navalny’s poisoning last year, and eventual long-term imprisonment this February.

The imprisonment sparked protests from Navalny’s tens of thousands of supporters, including diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden – all of whom were later exported from the country in what German chancellor Angela Merkel called an “unjustified” expulsion. 

Putin's secret $1 billion Black Sea Palace was revealed by Navalny in a jaw-dropping video expose last month

Even with Navalny behind bars, his influence is not yet over. On January 19th 2021, Navalny released videos detailing plans for a lavish $1 billion presidential mansion on the Black Sea. At a time when many in Russia are feeling the sting of poverty ever more acutely, the video sparked three separate protests and reportedly caused public perception of the Kremlin and Putin to dip even further.

There’s every possibility that Navalny’s fight against the Russian status quo may ultimately end up a somewhat Sisyphean undertaking. In 2020 Navalny campaigned against a vote on Russian constitutional amendments, calling it a “violation of the constitution”. The reforms – which passed in a landslide – allow Putin to significantly strengthen his position, serving a further two terms in office, meaning he could potentially be president until 2036. 

But, with international attention on his fight for a fairer Russia – as well as a groundswell of support within his own country – Navalny’s popular revolt seems to be far from over. Something the man he dubbed “Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants” must know only too well. 

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