Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader who galvanised huge protests against Putin – obituary

Navalny addresses a political rally in Moscow in 2019
Alexei Navalny addresses a political rally in Moscow in 2019 - Pavel Golovkin/AP
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Alexei Navalny, who has died in prison aged 47, emerged in 2012 as the leading figure in the opposition to President Putin of Russia, albeit one whose ideology and goals appeared increasingly unclear, even ambiguous, as greater prominence brought more scrutiny.

Navalny’s rise was often attributed to his being the first Russian politician to harness the power of the internet. From 2008, he exposed corruption in his blog on the platform LiveJournal, which with his use of social media had garnered him a substantial following among the young.

In 2011 he set up an anti-corruption foundation and described Putin’s United Russia party, in a phrase soon widely echoed, as one of “crooks and thieves”. This appeared to have stung the authorities into retribution, and the following year he was convicted of using his position as an adviser to the governor of Kirov to embezzle $500,000 of timber.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, which would have prevented him from standing in the forthcoming elections for the mayor of Moscow. He was released the following day, however, and the publicity around the court case proved to have raised his profile hugely amongst a public largely reliant for information on state media.

Navalny after his arrest at an anti-corruption rally, March 2017
Navalny after his arrest at an anti-corruption rally, March 2017 - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV

Navalny led rallies against Putin that attracted upwards of 100,000 people, the most since the end of the Soviet Union, and which were aggressively broken up by police. Despite being barred from appearing on television, he polled 27 per cent in the election (and claimed the vote had been rigged), much higher than anticipated.

His conviction was subsequently set aside after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his trial was unfair. However, his sentence was later reaffirmed (albeit in suspended form) by the Russian courts. His brother was also subsequently imprisoned on suspected fraud charges.

His showing in Moscow led Navalny effectively to replace Gary Kasparov, the chess champion, as the head of the opposition to Putin’s regime, a status that was consolidated after the murder in 2015 of Boris Nemtsov, the leading liberal politician.

Two years later, he took aim at Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, whom he accused of corruptly amassing a vast property empire, including a duck house that became a symbol of protest.

Navalny is treated by his wife Yulia after being sprayed with green antiseptic by unknown assailants in 2017
Navalny is treated by his wife Yulia after being sprayed with green antiseptic by unknown assailants in 2017 - Evgeny Feldman/AP

Campaigning under a slogan intended to undermine Medvedev’s use of his diminutive to appear the straight man – “He is not Dimon to You” – Navalny led a series of marches in cities across Russia. He was arrested several times and attacked in the street, being sprayed in the face with a green dye that partially cost him the sight in an eye.

In late 2017, Navalny, who had for years been denied permission to formally register a political party, announced that he would stand in the following year’s presidential elections. The country’s electoral commission barred him, citing his conviction, and Navalny urged a boycott of the vote. In February 2018 he was convicted of assaulting a police officer while being arrested during a protest the previous month. He was jailed on several subsequent occasions for organising anti-Kremlin protests.

Yet for all his speech-making, it remained unclear what Navalny’s aims were. There was a decided absence of firm policies or ideas beyond trite mottos and talk about reforming institutions (especially the judiciary), decentralising power and improving the minimum wage.

Moreover, many of Navalny’s known pronouncements and actions were, to liberals anyhow, rather troubling. His first engagement with politics, in the opposition party Yabloko, had come to an abrupt end in 2007 when he had been expelled for attending a nationalist march. He later called himself a “nationalist-democrat” and made this awkward marriage the touchstone of his party, Narod (“The People”).

Navalny is seen on a videolink from prison in a Moscow courtroom in 2022
Navalny is seen on a videolink from prison in a Moscow courtroom in 2022 - Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Thereafter, he consistently made populist pronouncements about tighter controls on immigrants – Georgians were “rats”. He wanted better integration with Ukraine, from where his father came, and spoke in interviews of the desirability of an economic if not military dominance of its neighbour by Russia (he approved of gun ownership). He was proud of his Orthodox faith, even if that had once lapsed, and boasted that all his family were blue-eyed blonds.

Equally, there were questions as to how his work was funded and about how deep his support really ran, especially outside Moscow. Who was it that supported Navalny? There were those who concluded that much of his popularity stemmed from his appealing simultaneously to several factions, nationalists as well as younger liberals, and they wondered if once again Russia was falling for a personality cult rather than for a leader with answers.

Alexei Anatolievich Navalny was born at Butyn, outside Moscow, on June 4 1976. His father Anatoly, who was Ukrainian, was an army officer, and Alexei grew up in closed garrison towns such as Obninsk, although he and his younger brother Oleg would spend summers with their grandmother near Kyiv.

Their mother Lyudmila worked as a micro-electronics laboratory assistant, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union she and her husband bought a basket-weaving factory. Alexei read law at the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, graduating in 1998, and later studied finance. In 2010 he attended a course at Yale for several months.

Navalny leads a march in memory of his murdered ally Boris Nemtsov
Navalny leads a march in memory of his murdered ally Boris Nemtsov - Grigroryanich/Alamy

Having found work in the law, Navalny joined Yabloko in 2000 and by 2007 was deputy head of its Moscow section. After founding Narod, in 2008 he bought stock in five leading companies, among them Rosneft and Gazprom, and became an activist shareholder, pressing for greater transparency and accountability.

It was his publication in his blog of allegations of corruption that first gained him public attention. In 2010, he documented a fiddle at Transneft that was engineered to conceal the disappearance of $4 billion during the building of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific pipeline.

He also examined state procurement, pointing to MPs who had acquired French chateaux. Navalny then formalised this project under the name RosPil, a pun on the Russian word for sawdust, or money illegally appropriated. This helped prompt Medvedev to admit in 2011 that a trillion roubles ($33 billion) had been siphoned off from government contracts.

That year, Navalny exposed a deal between the Russian and Hungarian governments involving the sale and re-acquisition of the latter’s embassy building in Moscow at a greatly inflated price. He went on to point fingers at such prominent figures as Igor Shuvalov, the deputy prime minister, whom he accused of profiting illegally from Alisher Usmanov’s acquisition of the British steel firm Corus (which Shuvalov denied). Other targets included Alexander Bastrykin, head of the federal investigative authority, whom he accused of owning undeclared foreign real estate (which Bastrykin denied).

While he was detained in prison in the summer of 2019 Navalny was treated in hospital for symptoms which suggested poisoning. In August 2020 he was more seriously stricken, however, during a flight to Moscow from Siberia. An emergency landing was made at Omsk, and Kira Yarmysh, the press secretary for Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, reported on Twitter that he was unconscious in hospital after being poisoned. She added: “We suspect that Alexei was poisoned by something mixed into [his] tea. It was the only thing he drank since morning.”

Navalny with his family in a Berlin hospital in 2020 following his poisoning with a nerve agent
Navalny with his family in a Berlin hospital in 2020 following his poisoning with a nerve agent - Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A plane was sent from Germany to evacuate him, although the authorities at first refused to let him go. Eventually, German doctors announced that he had been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent.

Towards the end of 2020, Navalny released a video of himself impersonating a Russian security official in a phone call to a chemical weapons officer – who told him that the Novichok had been placed on his clothes, particularly his underwear.

In the New Year he returned to Russia and was immediately detained, and the suspended sentence he had received in a fraud case involving the Yves Rocher cosmetics firm was replaced by a prison sentence of two and a half years, to be served in a correctional colony, where his health deteriorated significantly; Amnesty International accused Russia of killing him slowly, by torture and ill-treatment.

In March 2022, in what Amnesty described as a “sham” trial, Navalny was sentenced to nine years for embezzlement and corruption; he subsequently complained that he was being kept in permanent solitary confinement, and a year later he was transferred to an isolated punishment cell.

In August 2023 Navalny received an additional 19 years in a “special regime” colony on charges of inciting extremist activity and “rehabilitating Nazi ideology”. He was sent to a colony known as “Polar Wolf” inside the Arctic Circle, considered to be one of Russia’s toughest prisons.

Alexei Navalny is survived by his wife Yulia, whom he married in 2000, and by their son and daughter.

Alexei Navalny, born June 4 1976, death announced February 16 2024

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