Yulia Navalnaya takes the fight to Putin

After two decades of shunning the limelight, Alexei Navalny’s widow could be the most prominent female opposition figure in Russia in at least two decades

For years, Yulia Navalnaya eschewed the political spotlight.

She often appeared by her husband Alexei Navalny’s side but left the anti-regime campaigning to him – even during the three years he spent in Russia behind bars.

Now, in the aftermath of his death in a remote Arctic prison colony, Navalnaya, a trained economist and mother of two, has vowed to take on his struggle, humanising the late Navalny and his cause.

“I was by Alexei’s side all these years: elections, protests, house arrest, searches, detention, prison, poisoning, protests again, arrest again and prison again,” Navalnaya said in a video address posted on Monday.


Dressed in a simple navy dress, her voice occasionally breaking, the 47-year-old widow asked Russians to “share her fury” and not give up the fight to overthrow president Vladimir Putin, who she accused of ordering her husband’s murder.

“By killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul. But I still have the other half, and it tells me that I have no right to give up,” she said.

Hours after learning of the sudden death of her husband, she spoke to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference last Friday and urged them to redouble their efforts against Putin. On Monday, she toured Brussels like a visiting foreign leader, meeting European Council president Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief.

“She isn’t just married to the man, she’s married to the cause,” said Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian MEP and former prime minister who also met her on Monday.

Navalnaya had played a crucial role in her husband’s work behind the scenes, friends say, particularly after he was jailed in 2021 when he returned to Russia after an attempt on his life with nerve agent.

“Alexei Navalny the politician is two people. Yulia and Alexei Navalny,” said Yevgenia Albats, an exiled Russian journalist and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“Alexei was such a strong leader that he inevitably suppressed the people around him. They might be strong, wonderful independent politicians, but none of them could ever hold a candle to Alexei. And Yulia can.”

The speed with which the spotlight fell on Navalnaya has evoked comparisons with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who emerged as the unlikely face of Belarusian opposition following her spouse’s detention in 2020 when he ran against the country’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko.

Tsikhanouskaya made it on to the ballot instead of Sergei Tikhanovsky and galvanised public support that culminated in widespread protests against Lukashenko’s re-election, prompting her to flee the country after a brutal crackdown.

The two women shared an embrace hours after Navalny’s death was announced. Tsikhanouskaya told the Financial Times they “understood each other” without a word. “I don’t think she even had the time to properly take it in and deal with her grief,” she said.

Navalnaya’s popularity could make her “the voice of her husband and the Russians who don’t support Putin,” Tsikhanouskaya added. “But that’s very tough and very risky.”

“First, she has to try to unite her supporters and all of the Russian opposition ... And then Yulia’s at risk herself, because Putin’s secret services will work directly against her. They will threaten her and try to break and demoralise her.”

“I don’t think she’ll give in,” the Belarusian added.

Natalia Arno, president of the Free Russia Foundation, said Navalnaya could potentially solve the squabbling that has long plagued Russia’s opposition.

“The main problem in the opposition camp ... was that was nobody had legitimacy,” she said. The elevation of Navalnaya “might remove some questions”, as the “iron lady” stood a good chance of being supported by the Russian pro-democracy community as well as western governments.

In the wake of Navalny’s death, some observers had questioned why he had chosen to go back to Russia at all, given the likely fate that awaited him. In her video, Navalnaya addressed that criticism: “Why did he come back? ... Why such a sacrifice? After all, he could live in peace and take care of himself and his family ... But he couldn’t.”

“Alexei loved Russia ... So deeply and sincerely that he was ready to give his life for it.”

Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, said the speed at which Russians had coalesced around previously unknown anti-war figures showed the demand for an alternative to Putin remained high.

“It strikes me that she’s more radical than he is ... That might put some people off, because a lot of them are scared of violence and chaos and sticking with Putin, not realising that he’s not the antidote to chaos but the source of it,” she said.

Navalny’s widow would be the most prominent female opposition figure in Russia in at least two decades – a noticeable gear shift for a patriarchal country where the Kremlin is trumpeting “traditional values” such as limiting abortion rights and pushing women to have more children.

Irina Khakamada, Putin’s most credible female challenger for president, faded into obscurity after winning 4 per cent of the vote in 2004. Reformist politician Galina Starovoitova was murdered in St Petersburg in 1998.

But Sergei Guriev, provost of Sciences Po university in France and a long-time friend of the family, said rampant sexism could work to Navalnaya’s advantage. “She has no ‘anti-rating’. There is no compromising material against her. Of course, Russian propaganda has already started to say that she is a puppet. But it will be very clear very soon that Yulia is a strong and independent leader.”

A few hours after her video was released, the “Feminist Anti-War Resistance” (Far), one of Russia’s fastest-growing protest initiatives, issued a statement saying it supported Navalnaya.

“The transformation of Yulia Navalnaya from the role of a wife, which she previously insisted on, to a political figure, will be very inspiring for many women in Russia,” said Daria Serenko, a Russian writer and a Far founder.

“If she has found the strength to act, we cannot afford to wallow and spread the idea through social media that they have killed our hope.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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