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The Legacy of a True Russian Patriot

Alexei Navalny loved Russia and was willing to risk everything for it. It is hard to grasp the magnitude of his death for his people and his country.

By Lucian Kim

February 2024

Alexei Navalny defied death several times in his career as Vladimir Putin’s chief domestic opponent. When I worked as National Public Radio’s correspondent in Moscow a few years ago, my editors asked me to prepare an obituary in the event of Navalny’s untimely death. I reached out to Oksana Baulina, the former editor of Navalny’s YouTube channel whom I had met several years earlier. She was living abroad as she no longer felt safe in Russia. But Baulina was not surprised that Navalny had returned to Russia to face arrest after recovering from a 2020 assassination attempt with the Novichok nerve agent. That was how tough and principled he was, she said.

Baulina died before Navalny at the age of 42. She was working for an independent Russian news outlet when she was killed in Kyiv covering the Russian invasion in March 2022. After Baulina, tens and hundreds of thousands of people — Ukrainians and Russians — perished in Putin’s senseless war. Navalny, 47, is the latest victim of a killing machine that has gone out of control.

Even though Navalny’s death was foretold so often, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of this loss for Russia. While the Putin regime tried to downplay Navalny’s importance, he refused to be erased and kept coming back. As long as he was alive, Navalny’s supporters could hope that he would one day emerge triumphant to lead Russia into a better future. Now that hope is extinguished. Russia, more than other countries, has a tendency to devour its best and its brightest.

As a Moscow correspondent, I encountered Navalny a number of times. I first saw him on a frigid December night in 2011, when he was released from a Moscow jail after serving a two-week sentence for disobeying the police at a rally against vote rigging. A gaggle of supporters cheered as Navalny was met by his wife Yulia. “Aren’t you afraid?” someone asked. “I’m not afraid,” Navalny replied. “These fifteen days strengthened my belief that there’s nothing to fear. We are not at all alone; the majority is behind us. We are the majority. They’re the ones who are scared, and we see and feel that.”

Navalny’s rally helped set off a protest movement that presented the first serious challenge to Putin as he sought an unprecedented third presidential term. Three days after Navalny’s release, tens of thousands of Russians packed a central Moscow thoroughfare named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Navalny fired up the crowd, saying that he saw enough people to storm the Kremlin. “We’re a peaceful force. We won’t do that yet,” he shouted. “But if those swindlers and thieves keep trying to cheat us and lie to us and steal from us, then we’ll take it ourselves! It’s ours!” Navalny — up to that point an anticorruption gadfly with a niche following — was on his way to becoming an opposition leader.

The Kremlin responded by saddling Navalny with legal cases. Undaunted, he ran for Moscow mayor in 2013, winning nearly a third of the vote despite being blacklisted by state media. Four years later, Navalny was on the campaign trail again, barnstorming across Russia in a quixotic quest to stop Putin from serving a fourth term. I accompanied him as he opened campaign offices in Russia’s conservative heartland, where he was mobbed by young volunteers and supporters. His campaign had the energy and drive that the Kremlin’s fake opposition parties could never imitate. In Tula and Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, I met young people inspired by Navalny’s vision of a Russia where elections were fair, the media were free, and crooks went to jail. Although Navalny was barred from the ballot, he succeeded in setting up a network of 80 offices across Russia. Thanks to his mastery of social media, Navalny bypassed the Kremlin’s censorship and reached millions of people who otherwise never would have heard of him.

In February 2018, I interviewed Navalny in the Moscow headquarters of his Anti-Corruption Foundation. The police had raided the office in a nondescript business center twice in the previous year, unceremoniously sawing down the front door. Navalny sat in a corner office behind a desk strewn with papers and books. I arrived ten minutes early, but he didn’t make me wait and gladly took our conversation into overtime. Navalny was informal, unguarded, and funny — the exact opposite of the Putinite official.

My first question was about what motivated him to keep going, even as his brother Oleg was in prison and he faced constant threats. “I want to live in a normal country and refuse to accept any talk about Russia being doomed to being a bad, poor, or servile country,” Navalny replied. “I want to live here, and I can’t tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine.”

In stark contrast to Putin, Navalny saw Western democracies as examples and partners for Russia. “We’re a Western country,” he said. “Russia — based on its size, population, nuclear weapons, and intellectual potential — should strive to be a leading European country.” Russia should aim to become a member of the European Union and should join a security system with leading NATO countries to fight common threats, Navalny said. When we spoke, Putin had already seized Crimea and was stoking a low-level war in eastern Ukraine. Navalny was skeptical that a quick return of Crimea was feasible, but he was clear that Russia should end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Navalny leaves behind a vision of Russia as a democracy embedded in the Western family of nations. Other Russian politicians shared that vision, including Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down below the Kremlin walls nine years ago. What distinguished Navalny was that he popularized the idea among Russians — especially young Russians — that Russia has everything it takes to be a modern democracy despite its history of dictatorship and inequality. Navalny liked to refer unironically to the country he wanted to lead as “the wonderful Russia of the future.”

Navalny was no doubt a Russian patriot. Many will call him a Russian nationalist because of his flirtation with far-right nationalists and ambivalence over what to do with Crimea. In my interview, Navalny did not disavow the nationalist label. He argued that he had tried to unite nationalists with liberals against Putin. Navalny described his nationalism in the sense of an old-fashioned European nation-state, as opposed to Putin’s reborn imperialism. What added to Navalny’s complexity was that his father came from Ukraine. In a 2014 interview, Navalny said that he did not see “any difference” between Russians and Ukrainians. Like Putin, Navalny maintained that Russians were Europe’s “largest divided nation,” though he disagreed that Russia should expand its borders to “reunite” them.

I sensed a certain political opportunism in Navalny’s nationalism. Skinheads and neo-Nazis never showed up at his rallies while middle-class families, hipsters, and progressive babushkas did. Navalny evolved after he took on a national role, and his speeches were about free elections and economic development, not the wounds of history or the deceit of the West.

Perhaps Navalny’s most lasting legacy will be in the courage he demonstrated in the face of overwhelming odds. I asked him if he and his family were in danger. “Anyone who openly opposes the regime is exposed to some degree of danger,” he said. “I can’t measure it in percentages, it’s there. But if you keep thinking about it, you won’t be able to do anything.” Navalny insisted to me that he did not see himself as a dissident — a lone voice in the darkness — but believed he represented a majority of Russians. At the end of my interview, I asked Navalny if the movement he had started was bigger than he himself. “Navalny the man is just a rallying point,” he said. “Navalny the man simply started this, but in fact it’s a lot bigger. It’s not been about me for a long time. Many people say that they came to be part of a movement for change and a better Russia — and that they don’t support me.”

In fact, beyond protest rallies I met few Russians who actively supported Navalny. But everywhere I went in Russia, I met people who wanted freedom, peace, and justice. They are still in Russia, and they are still alive.

Lucian Kim is a journalist who has covered Putin’s Russia since 2003. He is writing a book on why Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images




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