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What does the story of Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya tell us about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the state of opposition?
7 March 2022
28 March 2022
Why this story?
Alexei Navalny has been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin for more than ten years. His anti-corruption foundation has exposed dozens of high-ranking Russian officials. He has repeatedly tried to stand for public office, never stinting in his criticism and sometimes mocking of the Russian president. In 2020 he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent and was evacuated to a hospital in Berlin. He made an extraordinary recovery and in early 2021 he and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, flew back to Moscow. On arrival they were separated and Alexei was detained. He has been in prison ever since.
Amid the unfolding human horror in Ukraine, we found ourselves wondering what had happened to the organised opposition in Russia. Does Alexei Navalny still have any influence? With her husband in jail, does Yulia Navalnaya have a role? And what does their story of defiance tell us about Putin’s Russia? Jasper Corbett, Editor
[Clip: sound of of ventilator/life support machine]
This is the sound of someone violating their parole.
[Clip: sound of of ventilator/life support machine]
Lying in a hospital bed in Berlin, Alexei Navalny is in a coma. He has been for several days now, after being poisoned by agents of the Russian state. Secret agents, and a nerve agent.
It’s amazing he’s still alive. The dose was meant to kill him. It kicked in on a plane in Siberia and left him screaming in pain – and then at the mercy of doctors too scared of Vladimir Putin to do what it would take to save him.
In Berlin he’s stable but unconscious – and, as Russian officials announce, he’s violating his parole.
Navalny is the first person in 17 years to have seriously challenged Putin’s power. The last well-known Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead in front of the Kremlin – and he never even ran for president.
Navalny did, or at least he tried to. He ran on an anti-corruption platform in 2018, and on his own brass neck. He said things other Russians only dared think. “Putin is a thief.” “He’s stealing my country.” That sort of thing.
In the process he became Putin’s public enemy number one.
After being poisoned, in the summer of 2020, he was med-evaced to Berlin. And he spent a month in that hospital bed – a month filled with hallucinations. Hallucinations of transforming into Dr Octavius from Spiderman, scenes in his head like something out of Fear and Loathing.
And by his side throughout was his wife, Yulia….
[Clip: Yulia Navalnaya speaking in Russian]
To this day, Alexei credits Yulia with saving his life.
As he convalesced, she would play him Duran Duran, brief the press, face down Putin.
She stepped into his shoes.
And, less than six months after his almost assassination, the two of them Alexei and Yulia – did something remarkable.
Something that made the whole world pay attention and ask: why? They went home.
I’m Giles Whittell and this week on The Slow Newscast from Tortoise: a tale of intimate defiance. The story of how Alexei Navalny and his wife walked, eyes wide open, into a trap – a trap that could kill them. Or, just maybe, if war continues to upend Russia’s alternative reality, could catapult them into power.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine prompts two big questions: one is whether he will win or be humiliated on the battlefield. The other: will he keep his stranglehold on power in Moscow or could this war be his undoing?
The answer to the second of these questions depends at least partly on the Navalnys.
After his month of wild dreams, Alexei was released from hospital. The Germans confirmed it was Novichok: another failed assassination using a poison from the Cold War.
As usual, Putin was loudly condemned by western governments for the attempted assassination, but not punished.
Not that it was even an attempt, of course. He corrected the record a few months after Navalny got out of hospital…
“[If Russian special services had wanted to kill Navalny] they would’ve probably finished it… but in this case, his wife asked me, and I immediately gave the order to let him out of the country to be treated in Germany… This is a trick to attack the leaders.” CNN Clip of Putin with translated voiceover
Giles Whittell, narrating: Well, if you say so, Mr Putin.
A few days later, Navalny showed the instinct for publicity – and for the jugular – that made his name.
He released a video in which, almost unbelievably, he and an accomplice used a prank call to lure a senior FSB agent – a member of the Russian security services – into confessing to trying to kill him.
[Clip: Start of prank telephone call with Konstatin Kudryavtsev in Russia.]
Giles Whittell, narrating: The agent’s name was Konstantin Kudryavtsev. The video became the second most watched clip on the Navalnys’ YouTube channel, just behind one shot five years earlier in which drones revealed in garish colour five luxury estates owned by the then Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.
That video has since notched up almost 30 million views.
Putin was already threatening Alexei Navalny with jail. He now demanded a suspended sentence for parole violation. Parole violation, let’s remember, while in a coma.
Kafka wouldn’t have dared write it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Putin was throwing down a gauntlet.
The Navalnys picked it up. How could they not? If there was a power couple in Russia’s endangered opposition, they were it.
They had dirt under their fingernails from a long street fight with Putin’s thugs, or at least he did. But they also had glamour – good looks, two beautiful children. His charisma, her strength, their ongoing love affair.
From the moment of Alexei’s poisoning, Yulia had stepped up. She had got him to hospital in Berlin by demanding publicly that Putin let him go. She supervised his recovery. She and Alexei then jointly took their next,
It was simple, they said. Moscow was their home…
[Clip: Yulia Navalnaya speaking in Russian, with a translated voiceover in English, saying “I’m not afraid to come back to Russia. We’re absolutely coming back to Russia.”]
Giles Whittell, narrating: Alexei posted on social media: “Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, I miss it.”
And so on January 17th last year, the world turned to watch as Mr and Mrs Navalny made their way to Berlin airport.
Polina Ivanova: A large crowd had gathered outside Berlin airport… and everyone was waiting for Yulia and Alexei to arrive.
Giles Whittell, narrating: One of the waiting crowd was Polina Ivanova, at the time Reuter’s Russian correspondent.
Polina Ivanonva: And the plane boarded and Navalny had announced beforehand what exactly what flight he would be taking. And the plane was filled with journalists.
Giles Whittell, narrating: The plane was packed.
Polina Ivanova: Navalny, he got on last and he did his initial few statements and then, um, much of the rest of the flight it was spent with his wife. It was a pretty heart wrenching and heartwarming picture at the same time; I think they watched cartoons on their phones, held hands and obviously anxiety grew as we approached Russia.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Before take-off Alexei had posted on Instagram a clip of Yulia saying “bring us some vodka, boy, we’re flying home”. It’s a line from a Russian gangster film. It’s not clear if she got any but it might have taken the edge off things.
Closing in on Moscow and whatever Putin had in store for them, the Navalnys watched an episode of Rick and Morty, the cartoon about interdimensional adventure, and family.
The flight was live-streamed in its entirety by Dozhd, the independent Russian television channel. Hundreds of thousands of people watched.
Quite apart from what was at stake politically, this was reality TV at its most real and intense.
[Clip: Dozhd live-stream]
Giles Whittell, narrating: What were the Navalnys thinking? It’s hard to know and almost impossible now to ask, but outwardly they were fearless.
Polina Ivanova: I mean, he had his usual approach to risk and danger, which is to be absolutely strident in his faith in himself and that he was doing the right thing. He spoke a lot about how Russia was his home and he absolutely had every right to return and that he was doing nothing wrong.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Reports from others on the plane said Alexei laughed dismissively when asked if he was worried he’d get arrested.
He has a catchphrase now: vsyo budet khorosho. Everything’s going to be alright. Looking back, it’s poignant, it’s brave and naive all at the same time – almost unbearably so. Because even then it was pretty clear that everything was not going to be alright.
Polina Ivanova: So it was supposed to, it was supposed to land in Vnukovo airport and as the plane approached, and the lights had already been dimmed and we were going into our descent, the pilot came onto the intercom and said that there were technical difficulties.
And then there was another pause and we could sense that the plane was turning and he, once again came on, on the radio and said that we’re gonna make our way to Sheremetyevo airport. He obviously knew that this was no accident and knew exactly what was going on on board I think.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Throughout the build-up Alexei and Yulia had been brazen about their plans – from announcing their return to Moscow to specifying exactly which flight they were getting. It was as if having picked up Putin’s gauntlet they were daring him to take them on.
To take them on, and their public.
It’s about an hour’s drive round the outer Moscow ring road from Vnukovo to Sheremetyevo. By the time they landed, there was already a sizeable contingent of Navalny supporters and journalists waiting at the airport. Putin may have denied them a Hollywood welcome at the airport where they expected to land, but they had still shown they could pull a crowd at a moment’s notice at the airport where they did land .
Polina Ivanova: If your question is whether it was a sort of victorious return, then, then no, it was not. It didn’t have that atmosphere of, um… it was an act of sort of protest and defiance rather than a conquering return. Partly just because everyone knew all was coming.
Before we reached your passport control, and he stopped before a big, uh, picture of the Kremlin and I think at the time you could see, you know, that was when the press huddle sort of gathered around him and you could see that it was something like 20 journalists had been on board with him.
And he did a short speech, uh, effectively saying again that he’s not afraid, this was the main sort of message. And then they walked to passport control where everything took a turn for the worse.
Giles Whittell, narrating: They were met by a posse of men in face masks, white gloves and black uniforms.
Polina Ivanova: There was a very emotional moment when he said goodbye to his wife and, and ultimately went with the border guards. And, um, they, uh, he kept asking them sort of, are you detaining me?
Are you detaining me? Is this a detention? Are you detaining me? He hugged his wife across the gate. And they said goodbye.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Left behind, surrounded by a flock of reporters, was Yulia Navalnaya…
Polina Ivanova: I remember she wasn’t visibly emotional. Yulia did not… she was calm, focused and she just asked if she could have time to just, um, process everything and gather her thoughts. And then when she walked out, it was a very impressive scene. It was a huge crowd in the airport and there were people in the balconies above as well applauding, um, applauding Yulia.
She met Navalny’s brother who joined her, and someone who gave her flowers. I remember her carrying flowers and she walked out with them outside where it was, you know, it was really icy cold and, and, uh, people were waiting for a long time to see her.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It was five months since Putin had almost taken her husband with novichok. And now he’d taken him again, and as he was led away, almost in a real time a new role opened up for Yulia – as an icon of defiance, of opposition, of resilience – if she wanted it.
Polina Ivanova: And before getting into the car, she gave a short speech, which echoed basically what Navalny had said just before…
[Clip: Yulia Navalnaya speaking in Russian]
Polina Ivanova: … talking about, um, how she’s not afraid and how Navalny is not afraid.
[Clip: People chanting “Yulia”]
Giles Whittell, narrating: Alexei Navalny had – to all intents and purposes – walked straight into Putin’s handcuffs.
Left behind at the airport, surrounded by journalists and reporters, was Yulia Navalnaya, proud and defiant like her husband, mentally regrouping in his absence.
Except that, in a surprisingly concrete sense, he wasn’t absent at all.
[Clip: Putin’s Palace video]
Giles Whittell, narrating: To follow the success of their FSB confession video, Navalny’s team had another video that had been a long time in the works.
It was called Putin’s Palace…
[Clip: Putin’s Palace video]
Giles Whittell, narrating: … and it was an extraordinary exposé, almost two hours long, of a presidential retreat on the Black Sea said to have cost nearly a billion dollars.
Front and centre, with Putin’s grotesque extravagance as backdrop, was Alexei.
[Clip: Putin’s Palace video]
Giles Whittell, narrating: In this one scene three men flying another camera drone sit in a tiny inflatable on waters overlooked by a huge mansion. Putin’s mansion. In the middle of nowhere, on the scale of Versailles.
The video caught fire online. More than a hundred and twenty million people have watched it.
Four days after its release, the streets of cities across Russia were flooded with tens of thousands of protesters.
A week later, more protests. Some of the biggest since 2012, that was when demonstrations against Putin’s decision to reinstate himself as president for a third term had spread far beyond Moscow and St Petersburg.
Among the protestors was Yulia Navalnaya
That both Yulia and Alexei were physically in Russia at the time was hugely significant.
Maria Lipman: I think if he had stayed abroad that would have been the end of him as a political figure.
This is Maria Lipman, an academic and a pillar of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia. For decades a resident of Moscow and now suddenly she’s an exile in Armenia.
Maria Lipman: For about 10 years he demonstrated that he was unafraid of persecution, prosecution, harassment, physical attacks, that he was unafraid of being jailed. And after that to stay abroad, you know, that would have been the end of his public image. So, uh, was it self sacrificial? This is something to ask of him. Did he expect that by sacrificing himself, by opting for coming back, knowing full well that he would be locked up probably for a very long time… Did he mean that this would have invigorates the Russian public? And galvanise a protest maybe?
Giles Whittell, narrating: Momentum was beginning to build. But it was no match for Putin’s anger.
[News clip: Alexei Navalny seen in a glass cage earlier today. Awaiting the judge to announce his fate, Navalny was ordered to jail tonight for violating his probation.]
Giles Whittell, narrating: Less than a week after landing, Alexei Navalny was sentenced to almost three years in a penal colony.
[News clip: In a show of affection before he was led away, Navalny making a heart with his hands for his wife.]
Giles Whittell, narrating: On being sentenced, Alexei drew a heart on the perspex barrier in the courtroom. It was a gesture of love, but also the gesture of the wives and girlfriends and partners of Belarusian dissidents who’d been jailed a year earlier protesting against their tyrant, Alexander Lukashenko.
At the sentencing Yulia wore a red top, and that too was significant.
Katya Fedorova: My name is Katya Fedorova. Actually I’m a fashion journalist from Moscow who used to write about skirts and dresses, and I used to work for Russian Vogue, Russian Interview, Grazia and numerous others…
Giles Whittell, narrating: Crushed by the sentencing of Alexei, Katya saw in Yulia a symbol to rally behind…
Katya Fedorova: We were so completely destroyed by that sentencing and I felt like I had to do something. And the thing is I’m a fashion journalist, you know, a lot of my subscribers are women and they’re not into politics, and I felt like so many people are scared to go outside to protest. And I wanted to give them a way to show solidarity that wouldn’t feel dangerous and would also feel understandable to them if you know what I mean?
I took a picture and I wrote a post on my telegram channel and Instagram. That basically, if you want to support Yulia in that horrible situation, wear red.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Tens of thousands of Russian women began posting selfies of themselves wearing red – a show of support but also of hope…
Katya Fedorova: A lot of women in Russia are apolitical. But they can’t not feel for her – just as women, as wives, as mothers say, I think part of it is not. And I am sure if she would want to run for office, like a lot of people would support her.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Katya is one of many people who looked to Yulia in the hope that she might fill the void left by Alexei. Yulia’s determination, her quick thinking during the poisoning, her quiet defiance since then, had caused a shift in the way people – both in Russia and abroad – began to view her.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Bloomberg ran a piece the day after the sentencing entitled: ‘Alexey Navalny Has a Secret Weapon: His Wife’. Vanity Fair called her Russia’s real first lady.
And Katya says it’s no surprise Russians saw in Yulia a new figurehead…
Katya Fedorova: Yulia to me is someone I look up to big time and I think also because she remains as apolitical also as she possibly can in that situation, you know, cause a lot of people urged her to run for office and things like that.
And she never did that. And she always explains that this is my family and all this, my husband I’ll support him throughout or whatever. And they think that resonates with a lot of women in Russia, even those who are not into politics and things like that. So I think that’s one of the reasons she became such an icon. For me, she’s just, you know, someone that I admire for her strength, for her resilience, for the way she handles all this.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Yulia was steadfast. She issued a statement to 60 Minutes, the CBS News show, insisting she and Alexei had made the right choice returning to Moscow:
[60 Minutes clip: In her message she said, returning to Moscow might have looked like a tough decision, a difficult choice to make. It was the opposite in fact. What could be easier than coming back home to the place you love?]
Giles Whittell, narrating: You can believe her, and at the same time find yourself wondering if the Navalnys’ were playing Putin’s game, not their own.
[Clip: Alexei speaking in Russian on the phone]
Giles Whittell, narrating: Here Alexei is telling Yulia over the phone, how much weight he’s lost. He’s on hunger strike, six days in.
His doctor is demanding via the world’s press that she be allowed to see him. It’s two months since the sentencing, and the protests have died down.
Putin, meanwhile, is making plans. Members of FBK – Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation – are getting arrested.
By June they’ve been officially deemed extremists. Those who haven’t been arrested begin to leave the country.
Censorship is tightened. There’s a new law requiring that a government licence be issued for anything that falls into the broad category of education. Open Russia, founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled oligarch and former advisor to Boris Yeltsin, is forced to close.
Memorial, by far the country’s most influential human rights group, is shut down. Two of the biggest opposition groups are gone, and so is Russia’s conscience.
Maria Lipman: There is no opposition in Russia to speak of in a political sense.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Maria sees the past year as a turning point in Putin’s crackdown on opposition…
Maria Lipman: Navalny’s arrest pushed people to overcome their fear and join protests that were striking, especially in their geography. How many places, cities and smaller towns saw political protests. Apparently the Kremlin was prepared for that and suppressed protests with unprecedented brutality. And so the year 2021 was marked by further crackdown on the media and further crackdown on remaining freedoms, and more severe punishments for those who still dared defy government policy.
Giles Whittell: Alexei’s group and others have been formally labelled exremists or terrorists, am I right?
Maria Lipman: Extremists, yes indeed. And what’s worse is it’s not only the label itself, which effectively eliminated the organisation that Alexei and his associates had launched, but also anyone who in any way abeted this organisation by financing it or in any way being associated with it can now be prosecuted as an accomplice. The new law is applied retroactively.
Giles Whittell, narrating: A ten-year project to purge Russian society of dissent is reaching its climax. At the same time, Putin is preparing to change facts on the ground – and not just in Russia. It’s late 2021. His grip on his own country has never been tighter, and his tanks are massing on the border with Ukraine.
[Clip: Putin announcing the invasion of Ukraine]
Giles Whittell, narrating: On the February 24th, Vladimir Putin announced what to many people had seemed inconceivable: a full scale invasion. War in Europe again.
All eyes in the past few weeks have been on Ukraine, but 60 miles east of Moscow – on the outskirts of a small town called Pokrov – the Kremlin has been waging another battle.
Against Alexei Navalny.
In a courtroom set up in his penal colony, Navalny has been defending himself against new fraud charges, which from all the available evidence are bogus. The point is to keep Navalny out of sight and out of mind.
The trial, like the war, has not gone entirely to the Kremlin’s plan.
A key witness called by prosecutors refused to testify and called the case absurd.
Navalny’s team revealed that the judge had been receiving calls from the President’s Administration – from the Kremlin – while in court.
But state brutality is not so much about these bumps in the road as the end result: nine years.
[Clip: Navalny prosecuted for 9 more years]
Giles Whittell, narrating: And many opposition figures aren’t risking the same fate as Alexei Navalny.
There is no new Navalny waiting in the wings…
Maria Lipman: Nobody can compare it to him. His group, uh, consists of people who are currently either in jail or in exile, and nobody can compare with Alexei Navalny as applies to his unparalleled charisma, his political and organisational talents, or his sense of humour or his ability to bring people together around him.
There are many talented people and brave people around or should I say there used to be, because now, as I mentioned, they are either in jail or in exile, but no he was the face, the spirit, the soul of this movement. And he was the only one who claimed the, uh, the potential should I say, of being a public leader.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Two weeks into the war, Putin gave an extraordinary speech attacking liberals, the pro-western middle class – as traitors, as “scum”. It was a warning shot not just to big figures like the Navalnys… but to everyone who doesn’t toe the Kremlin line.
That includes people like Katya Fedorova, who fled on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
Katya Fedorova: Putin called us traitors to the state. And that we don’t love our country or whatever. Like no, I love my country. I’m Russian, you know?
Giles Whittell, narrating: Putin is crushing the opposition on multiple fronts.
He’s not just detaining them.
He’s dispersing them across Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Americas.
And he’s driving a wedge between them and their families with his version of the truth…
Katya Fedorova: I hope that in the future I’ll be able to… I don’t know, build bridges, some sort of cultural, cultural bridges in Russia. And between people of Russia and Ukraine, which I think the war is horrible and people dying is horrible, but also the fact that like, families are breaking apart and friends stopped talking to each other. It’s insane.
Giles Whittell, narrating: If you were to place the Russian opposition with a single pin on a map, you’d probably go for Istanbul in Turkey, Tbilisi in Georgia or Yerevan in Armenia.
But that wouldn’t capture the fact the opposition is now spread across the world.
It has no real centre, says Polina Ivanova…
Polina Ivanova: I think the one place you wouldn’t go for it right now is, is one place you wouldn’t go to meet the opposition right now is Moscow at the moment. Just, it’s very, um, it’s a very difficult place to be.
Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s a bleak picture, but perhaps that’s why the Navalnys may still have power.
After her husband was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, Yulia took to Instagram.
She did something Putin has almost never done – she shared an image of her family. And she wrote:
“Family is the strength of any normal person, and even more so of a real politician…”
That image, the Navalnys sitting at a table, their teenage boy doubled over laughing, is so different from the images Russians have been fed of Putin these past twenty years. Macho. Maybe smiling thinly. More often sneering. And usually alone.
Katya Fedorova: I think you forgot how it feels to have, you know, a family… to have a president who is a human being.
You can see them and you know, like, like Boris Johnson or Barack Obama, or even Donald Trump. I’m sure people would, but I forgot… I’m like is that even possible? Like, yeah. It used to be like that before, remember Boris Yeltsin’s family.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Perhaps the people who want Yulia Navalnaya to take up her husband’s mantle… are missing the point, not least because becoming an overtly political figure in Russia makes you a target.
Yulia’s strength is in evading that net. Or maybe that is just what we all hope.
Maria Lipman: If you ask me I would say that there is a lot of wishful thinking and understandably so, of course, you know, many people looking at the horrible war, the horrific horrific developments in Ukraine… that they really want this to come to an end and an end that will be to their taste.
Members of Putin’s close elite stay to rally around him out of fear, out of natural support for his policy. But you know, uh, uh, if I sound pessimistic, I think, um, you should remember that as a person of a certain age, I may not hope to see Russia free and Russia returning or moving to where it’s something that would be a freer regime. I’m sure young people take a different attitude, and maybe they are right? After all, Putin is almost 70. Most of those who are oppositionist activists or sympathisers are in their 30s or 40s. So they may have a different worldview and outlook on Russia’s future. Not myself.
Giles Whittell, narrating: Maria may not see Russia again. But the Navalnys are still there, and even though Alexei’s in prison, he and Yulia still represent the hopes of a younger generation for a new Russia after Putin.
How we got here
The coverage of the war in Ukraine seems at times to be threaded with a faint line of optimism: that Putin’s inner circle are dissenting, that people are fleeing abroad and organising, that this could be Putin’s end. But is this really true?
To understand whether this is Western optimism or a real moment, it made sense to start by looking at the man who for many years had the best chance of toppling Putin: Alexei Navalny. What we found is that this is a moment, just in a different way to what perhaps the West was hoping. We found Navalny’s team reticent to speak out while Alexei underwent a sham-trial, and we found former protestors, activists, bloggers and journalists all having fled Russia with no sense of a cohesive opposition force beyond patches of online resistance.
Through asking why Alexei Navalny returned home to Moscow to face inevitable arrest – and why Yulia Navalnaya doesn’t step into his shoes – we have been able to interrogate the optimism in the West’s coverage and hopefully answer the question: why hasn’t there been a revolution? Giles Whittell, Editor
- ‘How Yulia Navalnaya became Russia’s real First Lady’ – Julia Ioffe, Vanity Fair
- ‘Russia’s shattered opposition fights to make its voice heard on Ukraine’ – Robert Mackey, The Intercept
- ‘The man Putin fears’ – Simon Shuster, Time
- ‘Navalny still needling the tsar from his ‘friendly concentration camp’’ – Matthew Campbell, The Times
- ‘True beliefs and opportunism: Navalny’s tangled political development’ – Felix Light; Pjotr Sauer, The Moscow Times
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Producers / Reporters: Giles Whittell, Matt Russell, Xavier Greenwood, Claudia Williams.
Sound Design: Tom Burchell
Editor: Jasper Corbett