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Poking the bear

Can opposition movements survive the violent oppression that extends far beyond Russia’s borders?


Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Alexei Navalny, speaks before the plenary chamber of the European Parliament. Philipp von Ditfurth / Picture-Alliance / DPA / AP

Poking the bear
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DURING THEIR 23 YEARS OF MARRIAGE, Yulia Navalnaya preferred to stay in the shadows of her husband’s fight against Russian corruption. Instead, she prioritized their children. It was only after Russian authorities threw her husband, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, into prison that she stepped into his shoes. Last year, for example, she was on hand in Los Angeles for the Oscars, where a film that investigated the Kremlin’s role in her husband’s 2020 poisoning won the award for best documentary. Navalny miraculously survived that attempt on his life. Then came an incident he did not survive.

On Feb. 16, 2024, the Russian dissident died in a high-security Russian penal colony above the Arctic Circle amid unexplained circumstances. Many Western leaders quickly blamed his death on the Kremlin. During a video address recorded four days later, Navalnaya labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates “murderers and cowards.”

“Putin killed the father of my children,” Navalnaya said during the nine-minute video. “Putin took away the most precious thing I had—the closest and most beloved person. But Putin also took Navalny from you.”

Reluctantly in the spotlight before her husband’s death, Navalnaya has now fully taken up his mantle. But can she reignite the dying embers of a resistance movement largely made up of exiles?

In Russia itself, business is proceeding as usual. President Putin in mid-March secured his fifth term in office and extended his iron grip on Russia until at least 2030. The 71-year-old leader, in power since 2000, faced no serious challengers in the election. Most of Putin’s legitimate opponents are either scattered in exile or dead. Now, Navalny’s death threatens to extinguish what remains of a fledgling opposition movement.

Uriel Epshtein is executive director of Renew Democracy Initiative—a New York–based organization launched in 2017 by Garry Kasparov, an exiled Russian dissident and former world chess champion.

Epshtein met Navalny in 2010 while studying at Yale. The son of Soviet dissidents, Epshtein had developed a passion for democratic reform and requested a meeting with Navalny, a Yale World Fellow at the time. Young and idealistic, Epshtein yearned for a summer internship with Navalny’s Moscow-based organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

“[Navalny] had this incredibly bemused expression on his face about how naïve I was to think that I could just go to Moscow for a few months and support the opposition,” Epshtein said with a chuckle. Still, he was impressed by the man’s youthful energy, charisma, and ability to communicate his message of democratic reform in Russia.

Challenging the Kremlin narrative is a dangerous endeavor. In 2004, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned while on her way to the Russian city of Beslan. She survived, but FSB operatives killed her two years later.

Vladimir Kara-Murza survived two suspected poisonings and has spent the past two years in a Russian prison. The Kremlin critic called the Russian government a “regime of murderers” during an April 2022 interview with CNN and emphasized the importance of saying the truth “out loud.” Police arrested him just hours after the interview aired.

Even fleeing Russia doesn’t guarantee safety. In 2006, a former Russian intelligence officer died from poisoning while on British soil. Twelve years later, a second poisoning in England nearly ended the life of Sergei Skripal, another Russian officer turned critic.

Personnel in protective gear work on a van in Winterslow, England, during investigations into the nerve-agent ­poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal.

Personnel in protective gear work on a van in Winterslow, England, during investigations into the nerve-agent ­poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal. Frank Augstein/AP

THIS IS THE DANGEROUS arena Yulia Navalnaya entered when she pledged to carry on her husband’s crusade.

She isn’t naïve to the dangers of her new position. Her experience as the “first lady of the opposition” exposed her to the risks she’ll face as an opposition leader. Police arrested her when she joined her husband at protests, and she was exposed to poison likely meant for him while on vacation in 2020.

Now, Navalnaya is reportedly living in Germany. The Kremlin has threatened arrest if she returns to Russia. She has made every effort to draw attention to her husband’s death and garner international support for a new wave of activism. In February, she addressed the European Parliament and called for large-scale protests in Russia during the March presidential elections.

But Navalnaya faces significant headwinds. First, she’ll need to find a way to unite a disparate dissident movement that is hundreds of thousands strong but scattered around the globe.

Epshtein said this includes Russians who decided not to return to a Putin-dominated Russia.

“These are folks who I think would be perfectly willing to sign a statement indicating their opposition to Vladimir Putin, who align with the values and principles that we in the free world believe in,” Epshtein said. “And I think Yulia Navalnaya could play a very big role.”

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits on a bench inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing in Moscow.

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits on a bench inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing in Moscow. Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via AP

Epshtein believes Navalnaya also will need to collaborate with those in exile already leading grassroots opposition movements, including Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian political prisoner and oil tycoon who now lives in London.

“The likelihood of any change coming just purely internally right now is zero,” Epshtein said. The Kremlin’s harsh crackdowns have nearly decimated political activism in Russia.

Epshtein said Lithuania has become a primary hub for Russian opposition movements while Germany serves as a significant satellite. Scattered movements are also taking root across Europe and the United States.

In early March, Russia’s financial watchdog agency added Kasparov to its list of “terrorists and extremists”—a sign the Kremlin may be growing concerned about opposition movements abroad generating unrest in Russia.

Putin’s latest war could provide another key component for an overhaul of Russia’s political system, according to Epshtein: “The only thing that I could see waking people from their stupor is a defeat in Ukraine.”

There is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation. It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying.

Historically, Russia hasn’t done well after military defeats, which often lead to domestic upheaval. A complete victory in Ukraine—including the return of the eastern Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula—could upend the messianic narrative in which Putin claims to be the protector of Christendom and a bulwark against what he describes as Western encroachment in Ukraine and beyond.

But Yury Sipko, a Russian Baptist pastor, says that’s a tough sell in today’s climate: “We, the people of Russia, including the religious part of them, are not teachable. We do not perceive the lessons of life. We hate those who try to help us.”

Sipko has little optimism Navalnaya will be able to reach the people of Russia. “The repressions are so total that Yulia will be blocked from all ways of establishing contacts within Russia,” he said.

More than three years ago, Navalny stood in a Moscow courtroom to offer closing remarks in the extremism trial that netted him a 19-year sentence in that Arctic prison. He used it as an opportunity to acknowledge his former militant atheist beliefs and proclaim his more recent faith in Christ.

Demonstrators gather behind the Embassy of Russia in Berlin, demanding that the street, Behrenstrasse, be named in honor of Alexei Navalny.

Demonstrators gather behind the Embassy of Russia in Berlin, demanding that the street, Behrenstrasse, be named in honor of Alexei Navalny. Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu via Getty Images

“Now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities, because everything becomes much, much easier,” Navalny noted in his testimony. “There is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation. It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying.”

But Sipko said even the evangelical Christian community has been blinded by Kremlin propaganda. “Even those rare people who respectfully accepted Navalny’s faith do not perceive his brave confession in the courtroom and in the dungeons of prison as an example of true Christianity, as an example of love that lays down its soul for its neighbor,” Sipko explained.

Many dissidents hope Navalny’s courage and tragic death will serve as a wake-up call to those in the West who have attempted to excuse or explain away Moscow’s bad behavior. And Epshtein believes the exiled dissident movement can play a key role as Navalnaya navigates the shifting sands of Western opinion about Russia and Ukraine.

“I hope that she’ll join in terms of finding ways to support these people and making them a political force in the free world against Putin,” Epshtein said. “These are people who can, I think, lift the wool from people’s eyes in the West who still believe that Putin can be reasoned with.”


Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.

@WorldNels

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