MOSCOW—Five months after surviving an assassination attempt, the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, returned to Russia on Sunday amid chaotic scenes as cops—some of who were dressed in riot gear—arrested supporters and tried to prevent people entering the airport where their returning hero was scheduled to land.
Upon arrival, he was promptly detained by authorities and is being held until a court hearing.
A German medical rescue plane had evacuated Navalny from Russia in August while he lay in a coma. He flew back on budget Russian airline, Pobeda, five months later. The flight finally landed after circling Moscow for an hour while authorities refused to allow it to touch down at Vnukovo airport as expected.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to dismiss Navalny as merely a “blogger,” but that is a hard claim to make with a straight face when law enforcement services have deployed dozens of police vehicles to greet you at an airport that descended into anarchy with cops trying to herd supporters and journalists back out of the building after many had forced their way inside.
Several thousand supporters were standing outside Vnukovo airport, chanting “Russia will be free!” Just ten minutes before Navalny’s plane was due to land, four riot police dragged a young woman away from the airport, her long hair was trailing along the ground and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.
As time ticked on, still there was no sign of Navalny’s flight at Vnukovo. Flight trackers showed the plane veering away from the besieged airport. Eventually, word filtered out that Navalny’s plane was being redirected to Sheremetyevo, a Moscow airport that was not surrounded by Navalny supporters.
Navalny’s supporters celebrated as he landed, mocking the authorities for forcing the flight to be diverted: “We scared them! They are afraid of us!”
On the way from the plane to the terminal at Sheremetyevo, Navalny was the first passenger to step off the bus. “I apologize—so many passengers, thousands of people suffered as a result of Vnukovo airport being closed, roads blocked,” he said. “It demonstrates what is happening in Russia, shows how much we need to fight... This is the power of the crooks, they endangered people in this huge city. This is the best day in months, I am happy I came back home. I am not afraid. I will go to passport control, I will walk out and go home. Because I know that the truth is on my side.”
As Navalny kissed his wife, Yulia, goodbye, uniformed men detained him at passport control. In a press release, Russian prison authorities said Navalny had been wanted since Dec. 29 for repeated violations of his probation. He will now remain in jail until a court hearing in the next 48 hours.
The prospect of another assassination attempt loomed over his return, but his supporters argued he was doing the right thing.
A politician can only win the trust of a nation on the ground, not in exile. Navalny’s friends and allies told The Daily Beast that nobody had tried to talk him out of the plan and they said his return marked a new phase of even more intense struggle in opposition to Putin.
Navalny’s top lieutenant, Lyubov Sobol, was snatched by Putin’s officials at Vnukovo on Sunday as she waited for his flight to land. She was arrested along with dozens of Navalny supporters. A group of policemen walked into the crowd. “Grab that one and take that blond one,” one of the policemen said. As they were briskly walked away from the arrival area and into a police vehicle parked outside, Sobol demanded: “What are you detaining me for?”
Earlier in the week, Sobol spoke to The Daily Beast: “The authorities seem hysterical about Navalny’s return, they release late-night statements about his unavoidable arrest,” she said. “[But] this is not going to interrupt our agenda, and Navalny and our team have huge plans.”
One of those plans is for Sobol to run in the parliamentary elections this year, and she played down talk of further efforts to kill her colleague.
“We see no reason to talk about one more attempt to murder Alexei; we saw that authorities sent agents to his room, put Novichok poison in his underwear to kill him; nevertheless, it would be meaningless to worry, to think when they might try to do that again,” she said.
The prospect of ending up in prison has never stopped Navalny—he spent months behind bars for his political activity in the past decade. Coming home, he continued to call on Russians to protest against “Putin, the thief.”
Speaking on the plane just before it took off from Berlin, he pointed out that there was nothing to arrest him for.
Ever since his release from a hospital in Germany in late September, Navalny has been accusing Putin of his attempted assassination with the notorious Novichok nerve agent. “I assert that Putin is behind this attack,” he said in his first interview in Der Spiegel soon after emerging from a 32-day coma.
Navalny has never considered exile as an option for his future, and he did not change his mind after German, French, and Swedish labs found traces of the Soviet chemical weapon early September tests. “No police raids, no pressure will make us stop or escape abroad. Let Putin and his cronies emigrate. This is our city, our country, we are patriots of Russia,” Navalny told The Daily Beast in February, soon after police confiscated the computers, photo, and video equipment from his studio in Moscow.
Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB agent now aligned with the opposition, said he respects Navalny’s brave decision to return to his country but did not believe the opposition leader would walk free for long. “The Kremlin is struggling to present him as a marginalized personality precisely because Navalny has consolidated huge public support. Millions of Russians know him, his popularity is rapidly growing,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “We expect messages, signals from Navalny to fulfill the opposition’s major goal, to change power.”
Russia’s state news outlets are struggling to work out how to portray Navalny. Since the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, state-controlled media have been attacking “liberal fascists” who block President Donald Trump and his supporters on social media, but Navalny confounded that narrative by speaking out against Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s decision to ban Trump.
Navalny has greatly increased his own following online after the attempt on his life. A few weeks ago, he managed to reach one of his suspected assassins on the phone and recorded the dramatic conversation. More than 22 million people viewed Navalny’s report, titled “I Called My Killer and He Confessed.” The opposition leader insists there are enough details in the report to arrest not only the killers but also those who helped to hide evidence of the crime.
But Russia is obviously not going to investigate the assassination attempt on Navalny, especially after Putin noted with a laugh at a recent press conference that if Russian special services had wanted to kill Navalny, “they would have finished it.”
Gudkov, the former KGB agent, said the authorities would do everything to isolate Navalny. “They will put him under home arrest or in jail, so he is left without internet. Do they plan to turn him into a Russian Nelson Mandela? I hope Russia is more developed than South Africa was half a century ago.”
Ilya Yashin has already lost one close friend, Boris Nemtsov, to an assassination. He was shot to death in Moscow in 2015. The opposition council official told The Daily Beast he feared for Navalny’s life.
“Putin hates Navalny, shakes with fury when he talks about him. Just recently nobody would think authorities could poison the opposition with a Novichok agent. Now we know they can,” he said. “Boris Nemtsov once said, ‘We should not underestimate their outrageous nature.’”
Yashin is still mourning Nemtsov. But he said, “I did not try to stop Alexei from coming back: Politics in Russia is his fate; he is a real patriot. No officials, no special services, protect him. He is coming to fight on his own.”