Despite Enormous Risks, Young Russians Flock to Aleksei Navalny, Putin’s Toughest Critic
He’s been beaten, jailed, doused with green dye and half blinded. His supporters suffer even more. But Aleksei Navalny continues to lead the charge against Kremlin corruption.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s loudest critic, Aleksei Navalny, lost a court dispute on Wednesday against one of Russia’s richest men, Alisher Usmanov Lyublinsky. A judge in Moscow ordered Navalny to take of the internet his dramatic investigation accusing Usmanov and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption. The YouTube video with English subtitles has been viewed more than 22 million times, and many who’ve watched it support the 40-year-old opposition leader. So Navalny said he was not going to obey the order and assured his followers that he would appeal and win.
Navalny’s plan is to challenge—and eventually end—Putin’s authoritarian policies, but in their struggle toward that goal both he and his supporters suffer every day. Also on Wednesday, a group of unknown thugs broke into the office of Navalny’s supporters in the Siberian city of Irkutsk; the attackers badly beat up a young man, who happened to be the landlord’s son. But even after he had six stitches on his face, the landlord said he would continue to rent the office to Navalny, so the opposition can prepare for next year’s presidential elections.
Tatiana Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, criticized Russian authorities for intensifying the crackdown on the opposition one year before the 2018 presidential vote, and said such measures could move counterproductive for Putin’s party. “They unwittingly create an aura of martyrdom around opposition activists, and particularly Navalny and his supporters,” she said
The risk itself appears to attract some of Navalny’s young partisans. Across the country, impressed by his constant displays of courage, young Russians follow the corruption fighter who seems not to fear a prison term, physical assaults, or worse. Another charismatic young opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin walls two years ago.
Recently, Navalny spent 15 days behind bars for organizing a massive revolt of Russian youth. In 2014 both Navalny and his brother were sentenced for allegedly embezzling money but Navalny got out on suspended sentence and his brother went to prison for three and a half years, “as a hostage,” many said back then.
As soon as police released Navalny from jail last month, he started his presidential campaign, although there is no guarantee that the Kremlin will allow him to run against Putin in 2018. It could use his supposed criminal conviction to bar him.
These days, young activists of the Progressive Party, led by Navalny and his Anti-corruption Foundation, have opened headquarters all across Russia.
“Look, Navalny is just one of us—any of our activists could replace him today,” Mikhail Besedin, one of Navalny’s party activists in the Far East told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “We all risk just as much as he does, except that when the Kremlin attacks Aleksei Anatolyevich [Navalny], the entire world talks about him, while regional attacks on us stay unnoticed.”
Earlier this month Besedin, a 25-year-old engineer, opened Navalny’s HQ in Khabarovsk, a city of 577,000 people some 8,300 kilometers away from Moscow.
In addition to the physical risks, there is often an emotional price to pay. Besedin’s girlfriend just moved out, he said. “Her father is a cop, so both of her parents received some threats and I guess told her to ditch me. She’s just radically changed. She avoids talking with me, without any explanation, after she’s been supporting our cause for more than a year and a half.”
Another young activist, pink-haired Olga Tochenaya from Dagestan, a republic in Russia’s south Caucasus, paid a different kind of price for supporting Navalny. On March, 26 police detained Tochenaya and dozens of other young Navalny supporters in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala.
“When I came out of jail after more than 24 hours, my employer in the fashion business, where I had worked in as a model, fired me,” Tochenaya told The Daily Beast. “My parents received threatening calls from Moscow’s FSB [the security service], but I am still going to participate in Navalny’s campaign, because if he becomes our next president, Russia will be a democratic and successful country.”
In his almost decade-long struggle, Navalny has led dozens of anti-Putin protests, investigated “Putin’s crooks and thieves”—the billion dollar corruption of the Kremlin’s politicians—and has been beaten by police on some occasions, unidentified thugs on others. During one of the biggest anti-Putin rallies in 2012, Navalny told The Daily Beast that a “sadistic cop” deliberately tried to break his arm.
Last month Navalny he was blinded in one eye after a pro-Kremlin gang splashed green dye all over his face. So Navalny put a black patch over his injured eye, called himself “Navalny the Pirate” and recorded a video blog viewed by more than 60,000 of his fans, who referred to him as “Our Captain.” But in a country where security services are alleged to use exotic poisons like dioxin and polonium to eliminate troublesome opponents, obviously this is no joke.
Last weekend, a group of Navalny’s party activists traveled to Warsaw to meet with leading politicians and to discuss the current political situation in Russia. A famous Russian satirist and journalists, Victor Shenderovich, addressed the young crowd.
“These kids impressed me a lot,” he said. “They come from different regions of Russia; they take terrible risks by supporting Navalny, who they all adore,” Shenderovich told The Daily Beast. “Navalny is the only active [opposition] politician in Russia, he uses all the scandals in his favor, and there is a growing part of Russia’s elite who have hopes that one day Navalny will make the difference.”