Advertisement

'Yulia ... is our hope': Can Alexei Navalny's widow continue the fight against Putin?

MOSCOW − In the days and years before her husband died covered in bruises at a Russian prison camp north of the Arctic Circle, Yulia Navalnaya mostly avoided the spotlight.

The trained economist was content holding her family together behind the scenes as her famous spouse, Alexei Navalny, suffered a near-fatal poisoning by Russia’s security services and was jailed over his opposition to Vladimir Putin.

Her “key task,” she once told an interviewer, was caring for her two children as their father led the civic resistance against Putin’s brutal government.

Then came Navalny’s suspicious death last week, and Yulia Navalnaya was transformed from homemaker to opposition leader.

On Monday, she took up her late husband’s mantle, telling her fellow Russians in an internet video: "I call on you to stand with me, to share not only anguish and pain, but anger."

And on Thursday, after meetings with leaders in Eurpoe, Yulia Navalnaya and her daughter Dasha met with President Joe Biden in San Francisco. "The president expressed his admiration for Alexei Navalny’s extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia in which the rule of law applies equally to everyone," the White House said.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya in Berlin's Charite hospital in Sept. 2020. Russian oppositon leader Navalny died on February 16, 2024 at an Arctic Circle prison colony. Yulia Navalnaya has taken up leadership of his movement.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya in Berlin's Charite hospital in Sept. 2020. Russian oppositon leader Navalny died on February 16, 2024 at an Arctic Circle prison colony. Yulia Navalnaya has taken up leadership of his movement.

More: Alexei Navalny, a thorn in Vladimir Putin's side, died. What does it mean for Russia?

'The best symbol of the fight' against Putin

Now comes the hard part: Can Yulia Navalnaya, who lives in exile in Europe, hold together her late husband’s movement?

“She will be the best symbol of the fight against Putin’s war in Ukraine and repressions at home, of our rage,” opposition politician Lubov Sobol told USA TODAY. “She has all qualities to become a brilliant political leader: she is sincere, she is smart, she has a great sense humor and self-irony that many politicians of the old format are missing.”

“I have known Aleksey and Yulia for 13 years,” said Sobol, who was a key aide to Navalny and corresponded with him in prison. “When Yulia said she would lead the opposition, I felt like now we have a tiny beam of hope.”

This photo released by Yulia Navalnaya Twitter channel on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia, left, and his daughter Daria Navalnaya posing for a selfie somewhere in US.
This photo released by Yulia Navalnaya Twitter channel on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia, left, and his daughter Daria Navalnaya posing for a selfie somewhere in US.

More: President Biden calls Putin a 'crazy SOB,' mocks Trump for comparing himself to Navalny

More: Donald Trump says Alexei Navalny's death made him 'more aware' of his own political rivals, court cases

Fatal bravery

Navalny and his team rose to prominence by revealing stunning levels of corruption inside Russia’s government. Yulia was with him in 2020 after he was evacuated to Germany for treatment for exposure to a nerve agent. While there, Navalny used a “spoofed” telephone number to trick the security agent who poisoned him into confessing.

He returned to Russia in January 2021, reportedly choosing the chance of continued influence at home over diminished relevancy abroad. Navalny was promptly jailed on charges of extremism and embezzlement. That same day, his anticorruption movement released a 110-minute expose detailing years of graft by Putin and his cronies.

Yulia appears in the 2022 Oscar-winning documentary "Navalny," which followed the couple through Alexei's recovery from the poisoning and his investigation of who was responsible.

"She is taking to her husband's advice, that you see at the end of our film, which is, 'Don't give up, be active.' The opposition is now in good hands," Odessa Rae, who produced the documentary, told USA TODAY.

More: 'Navalny': How to watch the Oscar-winning documentary about the late Putin critic

Russians 'are not going to risk their freedom'

It’s not clear if Yulia Navalnaya, working from beyond Russia’s borders, can generate that kind of direct opposition among activists inside the country – especially now, when Putin’s grip has never been stronger.

Lev Shlosberg, the deputy head of Russia’s last remaining liberal party, Yabloko, is skeptical.

“Navalnaya’s statement was not supported by any real political resources,” Shlosberg told USA TODAY. “Navalny’s groups are recognized as extremist in Russia, people face long prison terms for taking part in them.”

Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny's wife, released a video blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for his death and vowing to continue his work.
Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny's wife, released a video blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for his death and vowing to continue his work.

Three of Navalny’s lawyers − Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexei Lipster − were arrested in October.  On February 15, one day before the news of Navalny’s death, a Moscow district court ordered the arrest of two more, Olga Mikhailova and Aleksandra Fedulova, for “affiliation with an extremist group” and passing Navalny letters in prison from his supporters.

At least 350 people were reported arrested in demonstrations over Navalny's death. A 2022 poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 14% of Russians approved of Navalny's activities. That number fell to 9% by Feb. 2023, one year into the Ukaine war.

“People do sympathize with Alexei,” said Shlosberg, who is based in the western Russian city of Pskov. “But they are not going to risk their freedom.”

Family-focused, until now

February 19, 2024: Flowers are seen placed around a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in front of the former Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, three days after Navalny died in a Russian Arctic prison. Navalny's widow Yulia Navalnaya accused Russian President Putin of killing her husband and vowed to continue Navalny's work.

The couple met in Turkey, where they were both on vacation, in 1998 and they married two years later. Their daughter Dasha studied at Stanford University, and they have a son, Zakhar.

“My main task is for our family to stay the same, despite everything,” Yulia told Harper’s Bazaar Germany in a 2021 profile.

But she had always been politically minded: She and Navalny were both members of the liberal Yablonko party when they first crossed paths in Istanbul. And she spoke at several opposition rallies. In 2018, when the head of Russia's national guard challenged Navalny to a duel, Yulia Navalnaya wrote on Instagram, “This is a threat from an arrogant bandit who revels in his impunity.”

More: How did Navalny die? No clear answers as 400 arrested for paying tribute

Dismal elections

Navalny's death, one month before Russia's presidential elections, underscored Putin's dominance of the Russian landscape less than a year after he faced an armed uprising by a government-funded mercenary army, and with Russian forces making their first gains in Ukraine since 2022.

Alexei Navaly’s last instruction to his followers was to start “flash mobs” of protesters outside polling places during the March 15 - 17 polls, which Russian opposition leaders and Western governments say will be a sham. “The four candidates faking the competition are all pro-war, they are on (Western) sanction lists,” Sobol said. “Putin could not afford to allow access to television to a single anti-war candidate.”

Navalny, who was barred from running for president after a fraud conviction in 2017, called his last appeal for a street protest “Noon Against Putin.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is running for reelection next month, facing token opposition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is running for reelection next month, facing token opposition.

A 'ray of hope'

That may be the most opposition groups can hope for: Occasional street protests and a stray ray of light from abroad.

On Monday night, after Navalnaya took up her late husband’s role as opposition leader, two young women in Moscow laid carnations in Navalny’s honor at Lubyanka Square in Moscow, home to the well-guarded headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the former K.G.B.

“Yulia Navalnaya is our hope,” one of the women, a 21-year-old writer, said. She asked that her name not be published.

Since her husband’s death, Navalnaya has been meeting with Western leaders in an effort to maximize pressure on the Kremlin. On Friday, Biden announced new economic sanctions against 500 people and entities connected to Russia's prison service, defense industry and financial sector.

Alexei Navalny's widow Yulia Navalnaya takes part in a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on February 19, 2024. Navalnaya accused Russian president of killing her husband and vowed to continue his work.
Alexei Navalny's widow Yulia Navalnaya takes part in a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on February 19, 2024. Navalnaya accused Russian president of killing her husband and vowed to continue his work.

A Siberian morgue and a veiled threat

In a sign of Navalny's power even in death, the dissident's mother on Thursday said she had finally been allowed to view his corpse at a Siberian morgue, even as authorities pressed her to hold a private funeral. “According to the law, they should have given me Alexei’s body right away, but they haven’t done it yet,” Lyudmila Navalnaya said on Navalny’s YouTube channel. “Instead, they blackmail me and set conditions for where, when and how Alexei should be buried.”

Prison officials said Navalny collapsed after feeling unwell. No independent autopsy has taken place.

While Lyudmila Navalnaya is working to give her son a proper funeral, the harassment of Yulia Navalnaya is likely only just beginning, a leading supporter of the Kremlin suggested.

“It is clear that the American or British intelligence agencies in charge of her want to make her a Joan of Arc,” Sergey Markov, a former Putin adviser, said of Yulia Navalnaya in a veiled threat published by Pravda.

“Our advice to her is to run away somewhere quiet.”

More: President Biden to hit Russia with 'major sanctions' in response to death of Navalny

'What would Alexei have done?'

People attend a protest march near the Russian emabssy in Berlin, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024.
People attend a protest march near the Russian emabssy in Berlin, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024.

As word first spread last week that Alexei Navalny had died inside a penal colony nicknamed 'Polar Wolf,' his widow made a bracing surprise appearance at a security conference in Germany, where she all but laid a curse on the Russian president.

“I would like Putin and all his staff, everybody around him, his government, his friends, I want them to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family and with my husband,"Navalnaya said, her face gaunt and her voice firm.

And she explained her emergence to the foreground of world events.  “I thought about it quite a while. I thought, should I stand here before you, or should I go back to my children?” Navalyana explained to the gathering of diplomats, bureaucrats, and elected officials. "And then I thought, ‘What would Alexei have done in my place?’”

“And I’m sure that he would have been standing here on this stage.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alexei Navalny's widow carries on his fight. But it won't be easy.