Navalny’s Long-Running Battle with Putin Enters a New Phase

The story line has a both cinematic and ghoulish arc: the charismatic protest leader poisoned by the secret police manages to miraculously survive. As he recuperates abroad, he investigates the details of his own attempted assasination, luring one of the ham-fisted would-be killers into admitting his guilt. And then, resurrected from the dead, he returns home, where his immediate arrest at passport control is live-streamed.

Fantastic, grim, and however hard to imagine, the turn of events is entirely true—and has set in motion the largest demonstrations and the most severe crisis in Russian politics in years. On Saturday, Moscow and a number of other cities in Russia saw large-scale protests in support of Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader who was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok last August, and who, after convalescing from the attack in Berlin, was promptly taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on January 17th. Even for those who do not see Navalny as a hero, it was hard not to feel that there was something heroic in his return to Russian soil. “He has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love,” my colleague Masha Gessen wrote last week.

Navalny faces a number of criminal investigations related to past cases and likely future ones, all motivated by his status as Russia’s most visible and popular opposition leader. Bloomberg, citing sources close to Russia’s leadership, reported that officials were considering sentencing Navalny to three and a half years in prison, to be followed by another sentence that could add ten. In response to his arrest, and the court proceedings soon to come, Navalny and his supporters called for a nationwide day of protest.

What’s more, while being held in jail last week, Navalny released another of his anti-corruption investigations, which have become a popular and resonant genre on Russian-language YouTube. (Navalny is feared not only for his political activism but for his role as Russia’s most influential investigative journalist, whose videos regularly reach tens of millions of people, eclipsing the viewership of state television.) This one, “Putin’s Palace,” resurfaces a tale that has cropped up over the years but has never before been pulled together by someone with the charisma and popularity of Navalny. The video tells of a lavish residence, on the Black Sea coast, whose construction was funded by oligarchs close to Putin and which is now nominally owned by other figures in Putin’s orbit. As of Sunday, the video had been watched more than eighty-three million times. In Navalny’s presentation, the particulars are less important than the three-dimensional visualizations of the palace’s gaudy interiors, replete with a hookah bar and casino with slot machines.

By publicly identifying the members of the F.S.B. team involved in the assassination attempt against him, choosing to return to Russia even after the Kremlin signalled that he would be arrested on the spot, and releasing “Putin’s Palace” after he was, Navalny has managed to force the Kremlin to play his game time and again. Navalny is creating a model of guerrilla political warfare for the digital age: the Russian state holds all the formal power and can tap virtually unlimited resources to stop the opposition leader, but he catches them flat-footed all the same. “He has shown the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead,” as Gessen put it. (Such is the power, it seems, of consistent fearlessness in the face of a seemingly omnipotent state apparatus.) Since Navalny’s return, events in Russia have felt as if they were barrelling toward some sort of dramatic resolution.

However tempting that idea may be, it is safer to wager that Russian politics are merely entering the beginning of a protracted new phase. Navalny won’t be able to seismically disrupt Putin’s system just yet, but he can chip away at the passive support that has undergirded and enabled it for so long. As for Putin and his ruling élite, they may have hoped to crush Navalny once and for all, but, having failed to do so, they won’t be able to easily or quickly rid themselves of Navalny the individual, nor the discontent and frustration that he galvanizes.

On Saturday afternoon, when I arrived in Pushkin Square—the site, smack in the center of Moscow, where protesters had gathered—nearly all of the chants I heard were not so much in Navalny’s personal defense but rather directed at the perceived impunity and lawlessness of Putin’s system. Protests had cropped up in as many as a hundred cities and towns across the country. In St. Petersburg, a sizable crowd blocked Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare. Several thousand gathered in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. Even in Yakutsk, a faraway regional capital, where the day’s temperatures reached minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, a number of people came out to the central square. Navalny is still far from a universally loved politician: polling from the independent Levada Center in September showed that twenty per cent of those surveyed approved of his activities, and fifty per cent did not. But he is the only independent figure able to mobilize sizable crowds in dozens of Russian cities at once.

In Moscow, I saw plenty of young faces, but I didn’t feel as old as I did in 2017, when a previous wave of street protests led by Navalny galvanized many high-school and university students. I also ran into a number of acquaintances and friends of friends, many of them in their sixties. In the days before the protest, much had been made of Russia’s TikTok generation—countless viral videos had appeared on the social network, posted by Russian teens and adolescents who described how to avoid arrest by pretending to be an American tourist (tell the police “I left my passport at my hotel” and “I’m gonna call my lawyer”) as well as offering more quotidian tips (“Lock your phone with a password” and “Wear comfortable shoes, so you can run away”). In Pushkin Square, the under-twenty cohort felt far from dominant, but its presence was still palpable. I overheard a group of teen-agers chatting nearby. “You don’t remember ‘Don’t Call Him Dimon’?” one asked, referring to a viral investigation of Navalny’s from 2017, which outlined allegedly corrupt schemes connected to Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s Prime Minister. “I guess you were too young back then.”

The crowd felt large, and was later estimated by Reuters at forty thousand people. It was of a size that meant that neither side could claim, or be forced to admit, outright victory or loss. It represented neither an empty whimper nor an explosion of widespread outrage; rather, it was enough to insure that it would not be the last such gathering. Perhaps most significant was the appearance of a number of people new to the world of opposition activism: a team led by an anthropologist named Alexandra Arkhipova conducted spot polling in Pushkin Square, and determined that some forty per cent of those surveyed were attending a protest for the first time. It seemed that many who might not support Navalny as an individual were nonetheless aggrieved by the state’s treatment of him, the cynicism and brazenness of the attempt on his life, and the state’s persecution of him for having the temerity to survive. A seventeen-year-old protester told a reporter for Meduza, an independent online news site, that she was “upset about everything.”

As I made my way in a long circle around the square, things were tense and uneasy but essentially peaceful. Every now and then a phalanx of riot police, dressed in body armor with their faces masked by black helmet visors, surged into the crowd, pulling someone out for arrest. (By the end of the day, more than three thousand people would be arrested all over Russia.) What struck me as interesting, and a new phenomenon in the nearly ten years I have spent covering protests in Moscow, were the periodic flashes of physical resistance among the protesters. I saw a scrum of people push a phalanx of riot police off their position on the square; in another spot, as I learned later, a handful of people used what one could only describe as the techniques of M.M.A. street fighting to fend off the police. As the skies turned dark, the crowd skewed younger and more brazen. I saw a number of teen-agers throw snowballs at the back window of a police van driving past—not exactly the storming of the Winter Palace, but a level of boldness and confrontation I had not witnessed in my time in Moscow.

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