Having survived an assassination attempt, the opposition leader is now in a Moscow prison. But in many ways, his work is already done.
Nine days ago, Alexey Navalny returned to Russia – and changed the country’s politics forever.
The opposition leader had been in Germany since August 2020, recovering from what is now internationally recognised as an assassination attempt by the Kremlin (which President Vladimir Putin denies). But while there, he was far from idle. In December, he and a team of investigators published an investigation into his likely FSB killers – and then managed to dupe one of them into speaking with Navalny on the phone.
Then on 13 January, the 44-year-old politician announced his return to Russia, arriving four days later, when he was promptly arrested at a Moscow airport. The following day, while Navalny live-streamed his arrest proceedings from a court session held in a police station, his team released another damning YouTube clip.
In a two-hour video, which has more than 90 million views, Navalny’s team investigated a secret Black Sea palace, estimated to be worth $1.5bn, which was allegedly gifted to Putin as a bribe from oligarchs. Putin denied owning the palace as Navalny called for mass protests across the country.
Navalny’s story has a long tail – from an investigative muckraker and nationalist who was active in Russia’s powerful far-right world of the late 2000s to, in effect, a global celebrity and the man viewed by many as Putin’s only challenger.
There are still important questions over Navalny’s views, from his disgusting racist statements to his use of anti-migrant sentiment (e.g. during the 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign), and his position on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, occupied by Russia in 2014. We must also ask: if a person is set to be wrongfully imprisoned, can a discussion about their politics harm the movement to free them? (And that’s something everyone has to answer for themselves.)
But as we’ve detailed at oDR, openDemocracy’s post-Soviet space project, the shifts in Russian society that Navalny has been a part of are highly important.
Rewind ten years to Russia’s last big protest mobilisation – when parliamentary elections were tampered with on a mass scale – and we can recall the disconnect between Russia’s capitals and its regional centres. While many people in Moscow and St Petersburg attended weekly protests over election fraud throughout 2011 and 2012, the mobilisations over these political issues in Russia’s regional towns were less successful, as they often had more grounded real-life agendas – empirical arguments made, for example, with different focuses by sociologists Carine Clément and Mischa Gabowitsch.
In the years since, single-issue and social protests – whether over the battle against a landfill for Moscow waste in the Russian north, or the 2018 mobilisation against the rise in retirement age – have continued in Russian regional centres, if not expanded.
Here, Navalny’s organising network (among others) has contributed to two shifts in public perception in Russia. Firstly, as argued by sociologists Oleg Zhuravlev, Darya Lupenko and Violetta Alexandrova, people are now more likely to connect local problems around public services or corruption to national-level problems with systemic corruption, rule of law and underfunding in the public sector. And then, as a result, while there are still specific regional agendas, there is increased alignment between opposition politics across the country.
Thus, the pro-Navalny protest in Moscow this weekend was important, but even more so was the turnout across the country, with more than 100 cities holding demonstrations in support of Navalny and against corruption. Set against a backdrop of strained public services for Russia’s non-capital citizens, the Navalny team – with its videos, protests and exposés – has contributed to a significant change in the way that people are politicised. What happens in, say, Russia’s regional towns is increasingly part of a bigger picture, though there is still a disconnect.
Indeed, it’s been clear for a while that “politics” – from the huge energy in the Russian feminist movement to the battle over a healthcare system under strain after years of austerity – is back in Russia. Navalny provides a useful umbrella symbol for many different interests in Russia. But many observers will be asking whether this emerging big tent can hold together under pressure from both Russia’s repressive apparatus and its own political contradictions.
In the meantime, it’s clear that Russian citizens are being politicised at an impressive rate, in part due to Navalny, now isolated in a Moscow investigative prison, and his team. The question is: how successful can the Russian regime fight a rearguard action, frightening, imprisoning and depoliticising active citizens?