How Navalny Changed Russia

A memorial to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, St. Petersburg, Russia, February 2024. Stringer / Reuters
A memorial to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, St. Petersburg, Russia, February 2024. Stringer / Reuters

The announcement on Friday that the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died in a remote Russian prison colony has left observers of the country in shock. For years, the most fearless critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pervasive corruption of Putin’s inner circle, Navalny had been serving a draconian 19-year sentence for extremism. Indeed, it was highly unlikely that he would ever be released as long as Putin was in power. But apparently, even that was not enough. According to the Russian prison service, Navalny collapsed after a short walk in the prison yard and lost consciousness and died soon after. The details of his death have yet to emerge, but in a Friday news conference, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed the consensus view of observers in Russia and around the world: “Putin is responsible”.

As brazen and heinous as it would be, a decision by Putin to kill Navalny should not come as a surprise. For the Russian president, silencing him once and for all makes perfect sense, even if the Kremlin’s spin doctors try to deny it. After all, Navalny was a master of social media who had often managed to beat the Kremlin at its own information game, exposing terrible abuses and misdeeds by the regime in Moscow and broadcasting them to millions of people over YouTube and other platforms—even as the government did everything it could to silence him. In December 2020, he even managed to get a confession out of his own would-be government assassins, who had embarrassingly bungled an effort to poison him on a flight from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow in August 2020.

Even more dangerous was Navalny’s extraordinary, boundary-defying popularity. Unlike any Russian opposition figure since Putin came to power almost a quarter century ago, Navalny was able to build a following that went far beyond Russia’s urban elites. He reached people from every corner of the country, including workers and IT engineers as well as liberals and professionals. His supporters were often equally fervent at home and abroad. And he was especially good at galvanizing young Russians who might otherwise have turned away from politics altogether.

For Russian society, confused, depressed, and constantly besieged by an ever more repressive regime, Navalny was a lone unifying figure. Although Russian authorities isolated him in increasingly restrictive layers of confinement since his arrest on his return to Russia in 2021, he continued to have that stature right up to the moment of his death. Navalny’s demise marks a dark new step in Putin’s ruthless pursuit of power. But it also raises a stark challenge for Russia’s opposition, which must now figure out how to sustain the unity he created and seize the movement he left behind.

ONE HUNDRED TOWNS AND CITIES

Navalny was hardly a prophet, but over the past decade he and a growing legion of supporters found a rare way to overcome the political obstacles that Russia’s liberal opposition had long found insurmountable. Since the 1990s, Russian liberals had been seemingly cursed by the reality that only in Russia’s biggest cities—places such as Moscow and St. Petersburg—could their push for democratic reforms be truly heard. Only in these urban environments were there liberal-minded populations who cared about building liberal institutions and democratic checks and balances. The rest of the country didn’t understand what democracy was about.

Putin, like almost every autocratic leader in Moscow before him, from the tsars to Stalin, has long promoted this divide. As Putin’s Kremlin portrayed it, “real Russia”—the country beyond the big cities—didn’t understand Western freedoms. For these ordinary Russians, liberalism meant anarchy, and for this reason, it was too early to give them Western-style rights. The liberals were out of touch with their own country. Again and again, this official narrative—and the liberal reformers’ relatively small following—was used as evidence that Russians were not ready for democracy. Thus began Putin’s strategy of “managed democracy”; only a strongman at the top who understood the country was capable of making reforms.

To some extent, the actual experience of Russia from the late c ommunist years to the 2010s seemed to support the Kremlin’s story. During the perestroika years in the 1980s, for example, the democracy movement was largely concentrated in the big cities. And when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, only the democratic party Yabloko succeeded in building a broader network in other parts of Russia. But even Yabloko was unable to attract more than 20 percent of the vote at its peak in the 1990s. After Putin came to power, regional democratic activity quickly declined, seeming to provide further confirmation that Russia’s liberals, isolated in their big cities, were disconnected from the needs and interests of the rest of the vast country.

Navalny was the first opposition figure who managed to break this narrative. Combining his skills in using social media and a lawyer’s knack for unearthing precise, prosecutorial evidence with innate gifts as a communicator and a keen sense of the issues ordinary Russians cared about most, Navalny was able to attack the Putin regime in ways that had eluded more conventional liberals. Consider the reaction to Navalny’s 2017 YouTube documentary, “Don’t Call Him Dimon”, which exposed, in meticulous detail the rampant corruption of the Russian prime minister and close Putin associate Dmitry Medvedev. The viral film helped Navalny organize protests in around 100 cities and towns across Russia that year, and by 2023 it had attracted more than 45 million views on YouTube. This national network of Navalny supporters, never enjoyed by other opposition figures, allowed him to destroy the Kremlin’s conceits that he was just another lonely liberal in an ivory tower in Moscow, dreaming up implausible reforms.

YOUNG RUSSIANS

But Navalny’s power went far beyond his national message. By 2015, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, there was a growing consensus that Putin’s propaganda had largely succeeded on Russia’s youth, who were too young to remember the fleeting, tumultuous democratic reforms of the 1990s and had never really known democracy. Through years of indoctrination and top-down rule, it was assumed that Putin’s Kremlin had taken this rising generation out of politics altogether. Leave politics to us professionals, the understanding supposedly went, and we will let you enjoy the benefits of high oil prices, Western luxuries, and a rising standard of living.

Navalny’s organization, the FBK, or Anti-Corruption Foundation, exploded that myth. Crowds of teenagers joined the Navalny protests and became one of the movement’s principal forces. In 2017, a photo of a Russian police officer trying to pull two young boys down from a lamppost in Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow became a symbol for Navalny supporters across the country. Navalny not only built a national opposition political organization for the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history—one that had a vast regional presence and appealed to multiple strata of Russian society. He also captivated Russia’s youth in ways that the Kremlin could not, posing a real threat to the long-term durability of the regime. And all this was accomplished in the face of ever-tightening repression, both covert and overt, from the Russian authorities.

Perhaps the most crucial element in Navalny’s unifying presence was social media, which his organization continually exploited—even after his arrest in 2021. Navalny’s team proved to be surprisingly adept at continually overcoming the technological challenges to political activity in Putin’s Russia. Navalny’s unstoppable social media presence became especially important after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine when the Kremlin took steps to silence or exile all opposition forces.

Large-scale arrests by Russian authorities at the beginning of the war made clear that any political opposition activities in the country would be impossible. Yet at the same time, Russian journalists who had gone into exile continued to engage with the Russians in the country, despite online censorship. It proved to be surprisingly successful: millions of Russians continue to rely on Russian exile journalists to get accurate information about crucial developments in the war in Ukraine, or about such internal upheavals as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s 2023 mutiny.

At the heart of this shift to online journalism, however, was the approach that Navalny had perfected over the previous decade. As the war began, opposition activists in exile discovered and adopted many of the Navalny organization’s strategies. Soon, all Russian opposition groups had moved to YouTube and Telegram, following the Navalny’s team successful use of these platforms, including when Navalny himself had been in exile in Germany, after his poisoning. These platforms quickly became the real home of Russia’s opposition, serving Russians both in the country and in its now vast diaspora with commentary, investigations, and daily news coverage that had now become completely unavailable in official Russian media.

A MOVEMENT UNLEASHED

Even after his arrest, Navalny’s name continued to be at the heart of the opposition agenda, not only because he was the most recognizable opposition figure but also because he commanded unified support, both in the country and outside. Indeed, many of his supporters had been opposed to his decision to return to Russia in 2021, understanding that he was essentially returning to prison. They needed a leader to listen to and wanted him on the outside. But even from prison he found a way to communicate with them, no doubt further rankling the Kremlin.

In a way, Navalny’s death marks the culmination of years of efforts by the Russian state to eliminate all sources of opposition. For more than two decades, Putin has made political assassination an essential part of the Kremlin’s toolkit. It is a method he has used against troublemakers such as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. He has used it against his political opponents Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down close to the Kremlin in 2015, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been poisoned twice and is now in prison. Navalny, who had survived previous assassination attempts, was an even greater target.

But even now, the forces that Navalny unleashed are unlikely to go away. His death is a terrible blow to anti-Putin Russians. It will be hard to find a successor who can unify the opposition in the same way, even if the task is pressing, for it will be crucial for the Russian opposition to have a say in a post-Putin future. But Navalny has left behind his organization and his supporters, and that is what matters. Those people are not going anywhere, and there may be more of them now than ever.

Andrei Soldatov is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Co-Founder and Editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities. Irina Borogan is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Co-Founder and Deputy Editor of Agentura.ru. They are the co-authors of The Compatriots: The Russian Exiles Who Fought Against the Kremlin.

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