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From the file

Russia | Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned, then imprisoned, by the Kremlin. But as millions spread his message online, what next for “Navalnyism’?

Alexei Navalny’s meme army

Tuesday 9 March 2021

The revolution will be viral


“The reason why it all happened is one man’s hatred and fear – one man hiding in a bunker. I mortally offended him by surviving an attempt at my life he ordered. And then I committed an even more serious offence: I didn’t go into hiding. And that’s driving this thieving little man in his bunker out of his mind.”

So declared Alexei Navalny from behind his courtroom cage as he prepared to be sentenced to nearly three years in prison. His crime was to have challenged the man in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin, with the one tool available to him – the power of speech. 

For the best part of a decade, Navalny has been probing the Mafia-style financial links between those at the top of Russian politics, security and business. He has mixed tenacity with mockery. Frozen out of state-controlled mainstream media, the opposition leader has used every digital platform, every social media channel available. He has had a number of successes, but none that matches a remarkable YouTube broadcast just two days after he was thrown in jail in January. It is called Putin’s Palace. It is the focus of this tale.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny takes part in a march at Strastnoy Boulevard in Moscow in memory of Russian politician and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the 4th anniversary of his death, 24 February 2019

This is the story of one man, his artistry and his courage. Navalny has been poisoned not once, but twice. On the first occasion in 2017, unidentified men flung green dye in his face. He lost partial sight in one eye. Navalny has had everything thrown at him by an all-powerful system. He may ultimately be doomed to fail, but even if he does his methods are likely to outlast his epic personal struggle.

This is the story of political resistance, poisoning and a film. Vlogger, activist, politician extraordinaire, Navalny is on a mission to bring down Putin – dictator, Tsar, a former KGB officer with a penchant for luxury. 

Navalny’s early story, in brief, goes like this. He is born in a village outside Moscow. His father is a military officer. He travels to a number of garrison towns as a child. He earns two university degrees – in economics and law. So far, so respectable, so unremarkable.

In 2000, aged 24, he joins one of the permitted opposition groups, called Yabloko. He works there for several years until he falls out with its leader. Navalny has started to dabble with unsavoury nativist politics. He appears in a 2007 pro-gun rights video, presenting himself as a “certified nationalist” who wants to exterminate “flies and cockroaches” – while bearded Muslim men appear in cutaways. In other posts he calls on Russians to “stop feeding the Caucasus”, a reference to the poorer mainly Muslim regions of the south. 

Even though he has long moved away from it, this period comes back periodically to haunt him. It is now exploited by the Kremlin and its proxies in the western media to undermine Navalny’s credentials. A few weeks ago, the human rights organisation Amnesty International declared him a “prisoner of conscience”, only to reverse its decision after intense lobbying from the heart of the Putin machine. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What matters is the history of the last 10 years. Navalny has become the best hope, indeed the only hope, for liberal democracy in Russia. He devotes himself to exposing corruption in a series of remarkably forensic online exposés. And he enters the political fray, directly challenging Putin for power – something nobody has seriously tried to do before. 

Alexei Navalny with his supporters during a public meeting for independent candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, 22 April 2019

“He is a very new type of politician in a country where politics have been traditionally dominated from within the system,” says Arkady Ostrovsky, who runs coverage of Russia for the Economist magazine. Like me, Ostrovsky has witnessed the country’s many recent upheavals, from the collapse of Communism, to a brief flowering of democracy in the 1990s (alongside no little chaos), to the Latin American-style authoritarianism of the Putin era.

In 2011-12, Navalny inspires huge numbers onto the streets to protest against corruption. He is arrested for his troubles. In 2013, he comes second in elections for the Mayor of Moscow, a remarkable feat given he is repeatedly arrested, his family is followed, and his finances are frozen. When he tries to take on Putin for the actual presidency of the country in 2018, he is prevented from doing so. Putin is becoming ever more paranoid. Even though he never mentions him by name, the president increasingly realises the danger that Navalny poses. 

The paradox is that by 2020 the opposition movement seems to be losing momentum. Even the most hardened activists seem resigned to Putin’s latest conjuring trick. He rewrites the constitution so that he can serve until 2036 at least. Parliament and the courts nod through everything he does.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, arrives for a meeting with officers from the country’s armed forces and the Interior Ministry at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2014, days after Russia’s annexation of Crimea

But on 20 August, everything changes. On one of his many campaigning trips to the Russian hinterland, Navalny falls violently ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk back to Moscow. As the passenger screams in agony, the plane makes an emergency landing in the nearby city Omsk. He is rushed to hospital. 

If it were not for the extraordinary quick-wittedness of the pilot, the paramedics on the ground, and the doctors in Germany to whom he was whisked, he would have died. Which, after all, was the intention when operatives of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) sneaked into Navalny’s hotel room in Tomsk and smeared the seams of his boxers with the chemical agent, novichok – the same poison used in the Salisbury poisonings of 2018.

A photo shared on Instagram shows Alexei Navalny with his wife and children during his hospital treatment in Berlin after being poisoned, 15 September 2020

Navalny spends five months in Berlin recuperating. He begins planning his return home to Russia. On 17 January, he takes a flight back to Moscow. 

Ostrovsky is one of dozens of journalists on board. He is sitting a couple of rows behind him, watching him watching the animated sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty on his laptop. That is one way to spend your last hours of freedom, knowing that almost certainly you are committing yourself to a long spell in jail. At the last moment, the plane is diverted to a different Moscow airport, to keep Navalny away from thousands of his supporters, who are waiting for him on the ground. At passport control he holds an impromptu press conference. His wife Yulia kisses him on the cheek. He wipes away the lipstick. This is live streamed to millions around the world. He is arrested, and taken away. 

Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya leaves Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on 17 January 2021 after arriving from Berlin with her husband, who was arrested and detained shortly after landing

Two days later, without warning and with Navalny behind bars, his team drops a bombshell on YouTube. He has produced brilliant investigations on corruption before. But nothing remotely like this. Russian politics is about to be shaken to its core. 

He starts the tale in Dresden, talking about Putin’s past as a KGB operative there. He names one name, the head of the state’s biggest oil company, as a fellow agent. That is a new detail, but it probably passes most viewers by. In any case, it seems like a strange start to what’s supposed to be a movie about a secret palace. But this is a conversation in the shadows, about power. “You know I know things that you would rather I didn’t know”. Here, Navalny is addressing an audience of one: Putin.

His main audience is the Russian public. The story begins in earnest with three men in Hawaiian shirts on a rubber dinghy. This is where the fun begins. They’ve ditched their usual mobile phones, because they’re always tracked. They look like innocent holidaymakers who’ve gone out on the Black Sea for a ride. The intrepid trio, members of Navalny’s investigative team, are bobbing on the sea, alongside a resort called Gelendzhik. They launch a bright orange drone.

Drone footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s billion-dollar palace, revealed by Navalny and his team on YouTube

You can see on the horizon Putin’s top-secret billion-dollar palace. Russians have heard the rumours. Soon they are going to see it up close. It’s incredible that the men even got this far. Putin’s imperial folly has its own airstrip, border guards and checkpoints. They try four times to launch the drone; they finally strike lucky. Thanks to the footage, and floorplans sneaked out by disgruntled construction engineers, Navalny takes his viewers inside Putin’s hidden palace.

It is an estate 30 times the size of Monaco. It contains 700 acres of vineyards, a helipad, a succession of Versailles-style reception rooms, a casino and a church (a great combination), even a subterranean ice-hockey-rink-for one.

It is a monument to vulgarity. And we’re transfixed. 

The floorplans create an incredibly detailed 3D model of the entire palace. Viewers are taken into a room where Putin can play with his toy electric cars. 

Obsessives like me might watch from start to finish. Indeed, I have – many times. For everyone else there are the funny soundbites, ready-made memes, artfully done. Pop-up animations, a cracking, mocking voice over – so many memeable moments. 

When a pole pops out of a stage in Putin’s private shisha lounge, what could it possibly be for? Not saucy dancing, surely? A giant, animated cooking shawarma appears on it instead – the only reasonable explanation. We head inside the games room where Russia’s great leader beats all his mates at Dance Dance Revolution. Gold-painted toilet brushes, from Italy (where else?) at a cool €800 a pop, or perhaps a poop? That equates to four times the monthly state pension. We see Vlad the Great pop up styled as Louis XIV, the Sun King, avec opulent wig and as a lounge lizard reclining on his chaise longue, Gatsby-style.

A still from Navalny’s YouTube video depicting President Putin as King Louis XIV of France

The best of the lot is the “akvadiskoteka”. Nobody, not even Navalny, has a clue what it’s supposed to be. There are two of them apparently in the palace. Since the video was released, there are even more spin-off videos circulating online, made by Russian rappers, rock stars and members of the public, involving animations of the hero-president breakdancing in one of his gold-plated jacuzzis. 

The production values are high. The visuals are grabby. The tone is mocking. Ever since he came on the scene, in his blogs, videos – and even at his own court appearances – Navalny uses simple, catchy phrases to get through to audiences who usually find politics complicated and boring. 

Putin’s party, United Russia, is now described by millions of people as the “party of crooks and thieves”. As for the president himself, thanks to Navalny he has come to be known as “the underpants poisoner”. “It’s a piece of entertainment that hooks people up,” Ostrovsky says. “As Navalny always maintained, fighting against the authorities should be fun.” 

Navalny operates on a number of levels, but with the same goal. He makes people laugh. He makes them shout in anger. The absurd display of wealth he shows us at Putin’s palace cuts through. It speaks to everything that’s wrong – the nexus of money, status and power.

Demonstrators march during an unauthorised protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Omsk, Russia, on 31 January 2021

“In Russia you’re not respected unless you have access to enormous wealth such as the private jet and the superyacht,” Catherine Belton tells me. A former Moscow correspondent at the Financial Times, her recent book on Putin and his money has become a global bestseller. She knows as much as anyone about the minutiae of Putin’s wealth: the web of transfers, the shell companies, the state assets siphoned off by his friends on his behalf. She is impressed with what Navalny has dug up. As she points out, the Putin money tree is complicated by design. The genius of Navalny’s film is that the slapstick does not detract from the ultra-serious message. 

Close to the end of the two-hour epic, Navalny sharply switches tone. Suddenly, he gets really angry. He and his team haven’t spent all this time producing this documentary and compiling the charge sheet against Putin just to embarrass him. His message is: don’t just laugh at your leader. Try to get rid of your leader. He calls on citizens to take to the streets. 

In just over a week the video is seen by 100 million people around the world, including an estimated 70 million in Russia. Pretty much the entire adult population has been invited to revel in Putin’s humiliation. In most countries, revelations far less damaging than these would spell the end for political leaders. Not in Russia. An opinion poll conducted shortly after the film by the Levada Centre, a firm that’s reasonably independent and respected, asked those who had viewed it whether their views of their president had changed as a result. Only 17 per cent of respondents said they now thought worse of him, whereas 77 per cent said it hadn’t altered their view of him. 

I ask Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and author, who has spent his career probing issues around the internet and the security services, to explain. Part of it, he says, is the classic narrative of respect for the hard man who has restored “order” after “chaos”; he has made Russia “great again” and they might feel that a big palace is his just deserts. The other explanation is more intriguing. Soldatov suggests that people might think stealing is the purpose of Russian politics. In fact, they might be suspicious of Navalny because “by definition, [they are] greedier because they are younger. They’re hungry and they actually want to come to power exactly for the same reason, to steal more. Therefore, it’s probably safer to stay with the old guys.” 

Soldatov may well be right, at least as regards an older demographic fed a diet of Putin propaganda nightly on state-controlled TV. This is going to be a long battle –and as this YouTube intervention shows, one that will increasingly be fought online. One thing I don’t understand is why Putin hasn’t tried harder to control the internet. Within months of taking power in 2000, he had crushed the one independent, and very feisty, TV station, turning it into a mouthpiece. The state has a small army of brilliant young techies and coders, who know how to hack. So why didn’t Russia go the way of China? 

A protestor wearing a coat reading “Navalny” stands in front of riot police during a rally in support of the jailed opposition leader in Saint Petersburg on 31 January 2021

“The Chinese internet was built right from the beginning with the added element of censorship and surveillance,” Soldatov explains. “In my country, for more than 30 years the internet developed unrestricted. Mostly because Putin didn’t pay attention to it.” 

That was until the pro-Navalny protests a decade ago. Since then the Kremlin has been playing censorship catch-up. It’s installed filtering, blocked some sites and will shortly require all new phones to have Russian-state apps installed, with a backdoor to the security services. The main weapon, however, has been good old-fashioned repression, the knock on the door to someone who might have liked a cartoon that lampooned the authorities. The rules are kept deliberately vague, so nobody knows where they stand.

The problem, Soldatov notes, is that the authorities have not been able to shut down social media platforms and when something exciting happens, many users respond to it immediately, usually unthinkingly. Online activism is the entry point, the trigger. In order to challenge power, Navalny needs his supporters also to take to the streets. And that’s what they do within days of him returning to Russia and being thrown in jail. Protests involving tens of thousands of people take place not just in Moscow and St Petersburg, but in dozens of other towns across the country.

Navalny knows how to galvanise people, particularly the young. He has done it spectacularly with the aid of this film – but not just the film, not just YouTube. His regular channel, Navalny Live, has more than two million subscribers. Most nights somewhere between 200,000 and one million people tune in to reports presented by a team of telegenic and smart aides. Other independent websites and digital TV stations play an important role, including TV Dozhd (TV Rain in English) and Medizona. 

As for social media, he, his team and his supporters use anything at their disposal – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Older people spread the word on Whatsapp. The medium of choice for the younger generation of Russians is TikTok. In one video that’s now disappeared, a teenage girl gives a tutorial on how to escape arrest by impersonating an American. In another, a girl gives tips on what to wear at the protest. 

The Kremlin has ordered TikTok to remove a considerable amount of content. That leads Navalny fans to migrate to other platforms. It’s a game of cat and mouse. 

Online agitation, resistance by meme, will continue; and for all its attempts, the Kremlin won’t be able to stop it. Yet for all his mastery of politics and the internet, for all the fervour of his supporters, Navalny languishes in jail. Nobody knows how long he’ll be there, or whether he’ll even survive it. 

In the meantime, Putin is comfortable in the knowledge that his arch enemy is in prison. He has all the luxury and wealth anyone could ever hope for. He knows that the international community will go through the motions of more sanctions, but he is blithely indifferent. His targeted repression is working, for the moment at least. 

Yet he too is trapped in a cage of his own, albeit a gilded one, with nowhere to go.

Whatever happens to Navalny, he has changed politics in Russia for good. His use of tech has opened up a new front; he has punctured the pomposity of Putin and the most powerful. He won’t give up. In the new Russia, whoever holds the tech advantage may hold the key to power.

Photographs Getty Images, Navalny.com

Next in this file

Russian corruption has been endemic for years; long enough for the watchdogs to know how it operates by laundering money through front companies. Why does the UK still make it so easy to pull off those old, corrupt tricks?

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