Navalny returns

Following his poisoning, Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia sparks nationwide protests that threaten Putin’s premiership

Photo by Reuters.

— 4 minute read — By Joe Clark

Alexei Navalny is a Russian anti-corruption campaigner and politician who has been the most prominent source of opposition to the nation’s president, Vladimir Putin, for the last decade. In a country where many would describe Putin’s style of rule as autocratic, Navalny has long stood up to him and been the voice for the thousands of Russians who oppose the incumbent’s corruption and immorality.

As a result of his work, Navalny has amassed a large number of supporters, evidenced by the millions of followers who subscribe to his YouTube channel. However, in a state renowned for its aggressive force in asserting control over its people, Navalny’s opposition has not gone unnoticed or occurred without consequences; he has been arrested several times by Russian authorities and had a few criminal cases brought against him too. The Russian government’s latest attempt to silence Navalny has brought him to the forefront of the collective attention of the Russian people again.

Navalny fell ill in August of last year in what is widely-believed to have been an attempted poisoning by the Russian Security Service. Although he has since been discharged from hospital, the repercussions of this attack on Russian politics and society at large have been monumental.

On August 20th 2020, Alexei Navalny was airlifted to Germany after losing consciousness in the Russian city of Omsk. In early September, a German official stated that there was unequivocal proof that Navalny was poisoned, which the Russian government adamantly denied. After waking from an artificial coma in late September, Navalny was discharged from the Berlin hospital where he was being treated, with doctors hopeful that he would make a full recovery. In the meantime, France and Sweden joined Germany in confirming the findings that Navalny was poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, the same substance that has been used in previous assassination attempts by the Russian government.

On January 12th of this year, it was revealed that a Russian judge has been asked to sentence Navalny to time in prison for breaking the terms of a suspended sentence he had been serving, though Navalny said he planned on returning to Russia anyway as it was never his decision to leave. Upon returning to Russia, Navalny was detained, with his arrest provoking international condemnation and calls for his immediate release. Navalny was ordered to serve a pre-trial detention for thirty days for violating the terms of his suspended sentence, a case that he claims was entirely fabricated against him. Although Putin had succeeded in detaining Navalny, he had increased the Russian people’s awareness of the arguably callous and criminal nature of the state – an awareness that was only intensified with Navalny’s demonstrations of wit and bravery that followed.

On January 19th 2021, the day after he was placed in a pre-trial detention, Alexei Navalny’s team released a film titled ‘A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe’. This documentary details Navalny and his team’s investigation into a residence at Cape Idokopas, which has an estimated cost of $1.35 billion. Navalny claims that it is owned by Putin. The film details how the estate includes an underground ice palace, a church and a tea house, and covers over 68 hectares (or the size of around 97 football pitches). If this evidence is true and Putin does own the Palace, this hedonistic lifestyle that he has crafted for himself at the expense of the Russian people would presumably have a significant impact on the Russian people’s perception of their president. To add to the potency of Navalny’s message in the film that is narrated by him, it opens with a statement telling Russian’s across the country to participate in the protests to release Navalny, and concludes with an appeal to the audience to remain impassive about the robbing of the country by its officials. The film has now been viewed over 100 million times, and judging by the scale of protests that shortly followed its release, it exacted just the reaction of shock and horror that Navalny had hoped to produce.

photos of protests in Russia for Alexei Navalny - The Washington Post
Photo by Anton Vaganov for Reuters.

Clearly, Navalny’s conceivably unlawful arrest and the release of his film had an effect on the people of Russia as one of the largest revolts against Putin’s leadership played out on streets across the nation on the weekend following his arrest. Tens of thousands of people protested, some calling for Navalny’s release, some calling for Putin to be removed from office, and many pleading for both. The Russian police clamped down hard on the protests, with around 3,500 people being detained. They also declared that they would prosecute anyone who was promoting the protests across any platform.

The Russian government accused America of meddling in their affairs, as the U.S. took a more aggressive approach than the previous Trump administration. The Biden administration condemned the violence against protestors and pledged that they will stand in defence of human rights. On January 28th, Navalny came out with a typically potent statement, condemning the criminal investigations against him, pronouncing that the officials can ‘keep [him] in handcuffs’ but ‘won’t succeed in scaring tens of millions of people who have been robbed by the government’. It is still unclear whether the recent protests will deter the government from sending Navalny to prison; the parole hearing is set to take place in the coming weeks, with rumours that the prison sentence could span more than a decade. 

Alexei Navalny has long been the main opponent of what many see as Putin’s autocratic regime, and the Russian government’s handling of the Navalny case over the last few weeks, as well as the release of Navalny’s film, has only served to extend the view that Putin’s regime is one of brutality and corruption. In contrast, Navalny’s displays of unrelenting bravery have led many Russian’s to adopt his view that now is the time for political change in the country, as evidenced by the scale of protests that he was the catalyst for. He may be handed a long prison sentence in the near future, but Navalny has stirred up doubt and fury regarding Putin’s leadership which stretches across the nation, and may well exacerbate in the coming months. Even from prison, though, given the recent antagonism he has shown towards Putin despite being in detention, many would doubt that Putin will attempt to find a way to silence Navalny entirely. 

3RD FEBRUARY UPDATE: Alexei Navalny has since been sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in prison.