“We don’t know how strong we really are:” Alexei Navalny became the leader of the Russian opposition

And with the world’s eyes now trained on Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a brutal invasion of Ukraine, Navalny’s message of resistance is finding new weight inside and outside Russia, even as he remains behind bars.

Here’s what you need to know about Navalny’s political development, assassination attempt and future in Russia.


Navalny first gained visibility in 2008, when he began blogging about corruption in Russian state-owned companies. By 2011, he had emerged as one of the leaders of the massive protests that erupted after allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections.

“Those gathered here can kick this thieving ass***** out of the Kremlin tomorrow,” Navalny said at a 2011 protest.

In July 2013 he posted his first YouTube video, a step-by-step instructional guide showing how to build a “motion cube,” a box-like tent structure decorated on its side. The clip marked the beginning of Russian dissidents. A campaign to be elected mayor of Moscow, and the humble beginnings of his YouTube revolution.

But his movement was cut short when he was convicted on embezzlement charges just as he was preparing to run for mayor. Navalny has denied the allegations and called them politically motivated. A retrial in 2017 barred him from running for public office — this time against Putin for president.

Although Navalny is best known as an activist, his investigations have become a major thorn in the side of some of Russia’s most powerful figures. His videos about the apparently unexplained wealth of top government officials have particularly angered the Kremlin.

A video about former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drew more than 35 million views on YouTube.

But with increased results came greater risks. In March 2017, that video sparked the largest anti-government protests Russia has seen in years. Thousands of people joined the rallies in nearly 100 cities across Russia. Navalny himself was arrested and imprisoned for 15 days.

The following month, he was doused with antiseptic green paint, damaging his sight in one eye.

“Listen, I have something clear to tell you. You cannot be allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong,” Navalny told his supporters in a CNN film.

“We must use this power, not give up, we must remember that we are a great power oppressed by this evil evil. We do not know how strong we really are.”

Poisoning and recovery

By 2020, there are signs that the ground is shifting beneath Navalny’s opposition movement.

The Kremlin took a more publicly confrontational posture toward its chief critic, culminating in accusations of a poisoning attempt in August of that year.

Navalny fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. Loud moaning can be heard in video footage apparently recorded on the flight he took. More video, recorded through the plane’s window, showed the immobilized man being carried on a wheeled stretcher to a waiting ambulance.

Navalny was treated at a Berlin hospital, and the German government later concluded that he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group.

CNN and Bellingcat’s joint investigation involving the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning pieced together how an elite unit of the agency followed Navalny’s team throughout a trip to Siberia when Navalny fell ill from exposure to Novichok.

The investigation found that the unit, which includes chemical weapons experts, followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017. Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Putin himself said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they would have “finished” the job.

Nevertheless, several Western officials and Navalny himself have openly blamed the Kremlin.

“It’s impossible to believe. The whole idea of ​​being poisoned by a chemical weapon is kind of stupid, what the f**k?” Navalny says in a new CNN film. “That’s why it’s so clever, because even reasonable people refuse to believe they’re like, what? Come on…poisoned? Seriously?”

The news that Navalny was seriously ill sent new shock waves through Russian society, raising alarming parallels with some of Russia’s more brazen political assassinations in recent times.

Western governments, independent researchers and Russia watchers have noted a consistent pattern of Russian state involvement in assassinations both inside Russia and abroad.

Opposition behind bars

After a five-month stay in Germany recovering from Novichok poisoning, Navalny was promptly arrested when he returned to Moscow last year, for violating probation rules imposed by the 2014 case.

He was sent to a penal colony, where he staged a hunger strike — protesting prison authorities’ refusal to grant him access to medical care, keeping his scrutiny front and center of the Putin regime.

At a hearing last year, Navalny apparently used the platform to launch a broadside against the Russian leader and his government, comparing him to the foolish “naked king” from the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and calling out judges and prosecutors. “Traitors.”

“I want to say that your king is naked, and more than one little boy is shouting about it – now millions are shouting about it. It’s clear. Twenty years of incompetent rule has come. This: the crown is slipping from his ears,” Navalny said of Putin, after the activist’s imprisonment and Referring to mass anti-government protests in Russia during his fast.

“Your naked king wants to rule until the end. He doesn’t care about the country; he clings to power and wants to rule indefinitely,” Navalny said.

Days after he ended his hunger strike, Navalny’s network of regional offices for his political movement was “officially disbanded,” according to his chief, Leonid Volkov.

The offices were initially established in February 2017 with the aim of organizing activities for volunteers during the Russian presidential election campaign. After the election, regional offices took over other local political jobs.

But perhaps the biggest blow to his movement came last month when Navalny was found guilty by Moscow’s Lefortovo court of stealing from his anti-corruption foundation. He was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison.

After the sentence was announced, Navalny wrote on Twitter: “9 years. My favorite TV series ‘The Wire’ characters used to say: ‘You only do two days. The day you go in and the day you. Come out.'” He added: “I have There was also a T-shirt with this slogan, but it was confiscated by the prison authorities, considering the print to be extremist.”

However, his beliefs did not waver.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Navalny took to social media to condemn the attack, prompting anti-war protests across the country as “the backbone of the movement against war and death,” according to Reuters.

In another tweet, Navalny said: “I am very grateful to everyone for their support. And guys, I want to say: the best support for me and other political prisoners is not sympathy and kind words, but actions. Any activity against the fraudulent and thieving Putin regime. Any opposition to these war criminals .”

Thousands of people have been arrested for weeks in Russia, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg, for anti-war demonstrations.
A young woman met on the sidelines of the first night of protests last month told CNN in tears that she loved Russia but not its leader and therefore concluded she should leave the country.

There is real frustration with that generation, but they are a minority — less than 10% of the nation.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), a state-owned but internationally respected organization, found that 68% supported Putin’s decision to undertake a “special military operation”. Along with false accusations of Nazism and genocide in Ukraine, he announced; 22% opposed it and 10% found it difficult to answer.

It is a sobering assessment that when Putin puts his finger in the wind of public opinion, he can be reasonably certain that it is blowing in the direction he has instructed his state organs to set.

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