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The Most Dangerous Blogger in the World

How Aleksey Navalny changed Russian politics

Wikimedia Commons

Today, a provincial court in the Russian city of Kirov sentenced Aleksey Navalny, the only real leader to emerge among the opposition since the fall of the Soviet Union, to five years in a prison camp, and slapped him with a hefty fine for an embezzlement scheme so convoluted it could only be fiction: He was accused, as he liked to put it, of “stealing a forest.” 

It goes like this: While serving as a volunteer advisor to the governor of Kirov in 2008, Navalny tried to reform the local lumber industry. This, in turn, served as fodder for opening a case against him when he started digging into the corrupt dealings of government officials and state companies on his well-trafficked blog. The charge was that Navalny set up terms of trade that were unprofitable for the Kirov government, and, as a result, cost them one million rubles, or $30,000, for which he faced up to seven years in jail. 

But as Navalny’s stature and political power among the urban middle class grew, the case, closed countless times by local prosecutors, kept being reopened. Last summer, after months of anti-Kremlin protests by a constituency Navalny had done much to create and mobilize, Navalny’s home was searched and ransacked by the Investigative Committee—the Russian FBI. Shortly thereafter, the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexandr Bastrykin—Putin’s classmate and close friend—growled at his subordinates in a public (and terrifying) meeting, that the Committee was to go after this man “with the last name Navalny” without “lowing” like cowards. Almost immediately, the case was reopened and the sum Navalny allegedly stole suddenly jumped to 16 million rubles, or $500,000. And now he faced up to ten years in jail.

There was no way that Navalny wouldn’t be found guilty, or that he would somehow escape being sent to prison, despite rumors—based more on desperation and hope than on any reality—that he’d get a suspended sentence. Putin had clearly given his buddy Bastrykin a carte blanche to tighten the screws on the opposition that, after a disputed parliamentary election in December 2011, had been protesting by the tens of thousands. Navalny’s case was one of many; as Josh Yaffa reported for TNR, over two dozen people had also been swept up in the disciplinary dragnet. It didn’t help Navalny’s case that, as if in response to the ramped up charges, he published information on his blog that Bastrykin owned a business in the Czech Republic, where he also had established permanent residency. (Imagine, for example, if Robert Mueller was found to have residency in, say, Costa Rica.)

Not that it really hurt Navalny either. There was no way that, with someone like Bastrykin calling for his head, Navalny wasn’t going to jail, and he knew it. He didn’t like to hypothesize and fantasize, but he was always very straightforward—and often glib and funny—about the risks he took. As the judge speed-read through the 100-page verdict and anxiety in the Russian language Twitter universe picked up, he asked his followers to stop being so sad and posted a picture of the Joker asking, “Why so serious?” 

“Aleksey knew perfectly well that he would get a real sentence, and that it would be a long one,” his wife Yulia said after it was all over. In a packed, tiny courtroom, she and her husband briefly hugged, then he was handcuffed, and led out of the room. The judge, who had read the verdict in a trembling voice without looking up, had already escaped. “Aleksey, as much as it is possible, was ready for this,” she said. (Navalny’s co-defendant, businessman Petr Ofitserov, however, and his wife Lydia, were not ready: Ofitserov, a father of five, got four years, which he could have avoided by making a deal with the prosecutors. After the sentence was read, Lydia clung to Petr until the bailiffs separated them and led him away, and she collapsed into tears.)

But Yulia is a politician’s wife and, like her husband, she too was ready. In the last year, she had accompanied him to every court date and protest, standing tall, blonde, and glamorous at his side. Sometimes, they trotted out the kids, now five and eleven. In a country not used to seeing the hearth and home of its leaders, images of the young and handsome Navalny family were quite powerful. Before long, Yulia had come to be Russia’s alternative first lady, and that’s how people referred to her. Navalny, though he didn’t like the labels, was their president. 

When I first met Navalny, in December 2010, he was just a blogger writing about corruption, and I was going to do a small business story on him. It didn’t take more than five minutes to realize that I was eating sushi with the real deal, a young Yeltsin or a young Clinton just starting his ascent. Aleksey is tall and powerfully built, he is good-looking in a homey, Russian way; he is witty and sharp, with the foul mouth of a kid who didn’t grow up among the rarified Moscow intelligentsia, a salt-of-the-earth image he carefully cultivated. He is intensely, effortlessly charismatic, and manages to convince you that his wiles and talent for political maneuver are reserved only for the good fight. “He’s a natural-born politician,” Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian political analyst, told me at the time. “If Russia were a country with an open-field political competition, he’d be assured of a brilliant political career. He might even become a Presidential candidate.”

But this wasn’t Navalny’s main asset. Unlike every other person in opposition politics during the Putin era, Navalny understood that Putin was not Russia’s main problem. Rather, the problem was the post-Soviet culture of greed, fear and cynicism that Putin encouraged and exploited. Navalny carefully distanced himself from the shrill, old-guard Western-friendly liberals—“hellish, insane, crazy mass of the leftovers and bread crusts of the democracy movement of the eighties,” he called them—who simply participated in Putin’s cult of personality in reverse, for it is also cultish to believe that one man is responsible for all the evil in your country.

And yet, Navalny argued forcefully that Russians are no worse than anyone else—than the Georgians, or the Indonesians, or anyone else who had conquered corruption in their countries and established at least a semblance of the rule of law. Though this strain led him sometimes into the dark wilds of Russian nationalism, he would explode at the suggestion that Russians were somehow genetically or culturally predisposed to corruption and authoritarianism. “There is no cultural, mental or other kind of obstacle for us to live normally. It doesn’t exist,” he told me that winter. And Russia, he said, was not so different from Europe as to be unable to attain European standards of everything. “Everyone understands that it’s much better to live that way, and they all want to live that way. And we could live that way. We too could build a European-style democracy.”

Navalny had no illusions that this was a quickly attainable goal. Instead of organizing tiny, futile protests in the style of the old guard, he worked quietly and methodically for years to build the foundation for the massive anti-Kremlin protests of 2011-2012. Even before he started his popular blog—“The Final Battle Between Good and Neutrality”—Navalny, a lawyer by training, worked on projects that got young Muscovites involved in the minutiae of their communities, protesting illegal development and the like, teaching them to use official, bureaucratic channels to their advantage. On his blog, he detailed the ridiculous but rather crude schemes through which state banks and oil and gas companies embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars. He posted the sheaves of documents that supported his allegations, and, perhaps because the country is so outrageously and obviously corrupt, this proved to be so popular that Navalny turned the venture into a separate, crowdsourced enterprise, and, later a Fund to Fight Corruption to which people actively still donate money, despite official intimidation. This has allowed him not to rely on politically toxic funds from America and the West, and to be locally self-sufficient.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this. Navalny did something very simple on his blog: He held officials and official companies accountable in a way a destroyed civil society was unable and unwilling to do. “Navalny is making stealing just as dangerous as it is now safe,” Internet entrepreneur Anton Nossik told me then. “He’s changing the public’s and the bureaucrats’ perception of the risks.” He made people living in a society atomized and sedated by the oil boom and by Putin’s politics feel like they were somehow responsible for what happened in their country—and, more importantly, that they could change things. This is no small mental step in a country where, by product of historical and generational design, over 80 percent of the population feels absolutely powerless. And in doing so, Navalny began to chip away at the Russian perception that politics is a dirty, useless word.

His slow, meticulous work, his long-term vision is what ultimately brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets of Moscow. Many of them had voted for the first time in the December 2011 elections because of Navalny, and so felt cheated when they saw how badly they had been rigged. And so they came out in unprecedented droves, and signed up for the tedious work of election monitoring by the thousands, something that would have been unimaginable just a couple years prior. Recognizing the importance of this shift, as well as who was responsible, the authorities arrested Navalny the day after the elections, on December 5, 2011. It was not to be the last time.

It is a cliché said of every put-upon opposition leader in the world, but it is particularly true of Navalny and the Russians: Navalny showed Russians how not to be afraid. The volume of fear—for one’s physical safety, for one’s livelihood, for one’s family—that fills the average Russian mind even today is staggering. It is, in part, a product of Russia's unfathomably bloody and ruthless history; and in part because today’s system plays on that fear by intimating that quiet ignorance is one’s safest bet, and making an example of those who don’t comply. 

Navalny based his entire persona on being that example, and showing that not only was he fine, but that one could lead a happy and productive life not being so jumpy and overly cautious. He took the scariest people in the Russian system—people like Bastrykin—head on, and he did it with a biting sense of humor that made his blog not only an enraging but entertaining read. Even as he was shuttling back and forth between Moscow and Kirov for the trial, he managed to collect signatures and register for the Moscow mayoral election. He had a whole staff campaigning for him. He went to friends’ birthday parties and cracked the best jokes about what awaited him. As the judge read the verdict, he kept tweeting, and turning to smile and wink at his mother and wife. (In the hours after his conviction, his staff announced he is obviously no longer running, and has called for a boycott of the election.) 

Mostly this is just Navalny’s gregarious personality, but it is also political strategy. It’s scary to tilt at windmills alone, but if you want others to charge them with you, you have to convince them that they only seem scary. Two years ago, when I first spoke to Navalny, he was very clear on this: There is no evil Putin machine, and if you push hard enough, it will collapse. “The people who work in business at a high enough level can tell you that there’s no machine at all,” he said. “It’s all a fiction. That is, they can destroy a single person, like [Sergei] Magnitsky or me or [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. But, if they try to do anything systemically against a huge number of people, there’s no machine. It’s a ragtag group of crooks unified under the portrait of Putin. There’s no super-repressive regime. There are no mythical Cheka agents that we need to be scared of. It’s just a bunch of crooks.” When things happened to opponents of the system, he said, it was because they showed up individually. “But if tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly we’d live in a different country,” he said. “Starting tomorrow.”

Tomorrow did bring a different Russia, even if the so-called Snow Revolution collapsed under pressure from the machine, and because of its own disorganization and vagueness. But it is still different, as the thousands streaming into the streets of Moscow to protest Navalny’s conviction clearly show. (As did the Russian stock indexes, which plummeted 1.5 percent on news of the verdict.) These protestors are not afraid of the water cannons or the special troops. Today, Navalny’s conviction ironically showed them, is already tomorrow.

Navalny’s trial was really the first time he had appeared on national television, which is all state owned and has blacklisted him. (Putin, for his part, talks about Navalny publicly as a sort of menace, but is too scared to utter his name out loud, for fear of legitimizing him and, like some scene out of a fantasy novel, bringing his mysterious Internet power to life.) The point was to preempt Navalny’s small but rising name recognition, and to associate him irrevocably with crime and corruption. However, polls show that Russians are cynical enough to understand that these charges are trumped up, that they are retaliation for his political work, and for his undermining of some very powerful monied interests.

Understanding this, Navalny turned his closing argument into a stump speech. “Let’s get out of the world of fantasy and fairytales,” he said. “In the fifteen years of a huge influx of oil and gas money, what did the average citizen get? Did any of us get better access to health care, to educational infrastructure, to new housing? What did any of us get?”

Navalny has not been shy about his political ambitions—he has said he wants to run for president—and here, he was especially frank. “Those who think that the threat of six years in prison"—what the prosecutor originally asked for—"will scare me into fleeing the country are deeply mistaken,” he said in his slightly nasal, swaggering timbre as the judge looked on, looking pained. “I can not run from myself. I do not have any other option, and I don’t want to do anything else. What I want to do is help the citizens of my country.” And, he added, echoing the title of his blog, “I think that not a single person among us has the right to be neutral …. Because every time somebody says, let me just stand off to the side and everything will pass me by, he helps this revolting feudal order, helps that spider sitting in the Kremlin, helps those hundred families sucking Russia dry. You are helping them every time.”

The day before he traveled to Kirov, Navalny wrote one last and very long blog post.

“It’s a strange feeling when you have to write something very meaningful before the verdict,” he wrote with his usual irreverence. “In any case, this is what I’d like to say …. Enough whining and being scared. It’s time to organize and get to work.” He went on, citing not lofty principles of freedom and human rights, but of the nitty-gritty political work that must form their foundation. “All these years, I’ve been learning alongside you how to organize even in conditions of a state propaganda machine, intimidation, and a lack of money. And we’ve learned some things. We’ve learned to collect money … we’ve learned to lead investigations better than those who are supposed to do the investigating. We’ve learned how to find the property of crooks, as well as their foreign residency permits. We’ve learned to produce, finance and distribute newspapers …. We’ve learned to organize large protests …. We’ve learned to form parties …. We’ve learned how to collect 100,000 real signatures for our petitions.”

“There is no one but you,” he went on. “There is no one who cares about what’s going on in the country more than you. There are no magic volunteers who will show up and do the work for you…And if you’ve already gotten to the point where you are reading this blog, then you are the vanguard. There is no one but you.”

The main thing, he said, was to not give into fear. What, after all, could the system do to us? Throw us in jail?

“But what’s their actual potential for this?” he asked. “Arresting twenty people? Fifty people? One hundred people, if they really exert themselves? That is the terrifying potential. Of course, it’s rather unpleasant to end up as one of those 20-50-100 people, but all kinds of things happen in life. Sometimes, pianos fall on people’s heads.”