The future looks bleak. (Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)

February 16, 2024   5 mins

When Alexei Navalny chose to board a flight to Moscow in January 2021, the opposition leader must have known his death was all but inevitable. After surviving one assassination attempt, and staring down the barrel of a long jail sentence handed down by Russia’s corrupt judiciary, Navalny chose to martyr himself in the name of overthrowing Putin. Yet today, he leaves behind him no united opposition, no leader to occupy his place, and little hope that tomorrow will be any brighter for the Russian Federation.

In the three years since his return to Russia, the former lawyer and blogger made occasional appearances by fuzzy video link from remote Russian jails to respond to absurd charges. His emaciated body showed the signs of extreme suffering. Russia’s kolonii — penal colonies for hardened criminals — are brutal places at the best of times. But Navalny received a special diet of inhuman torture. Months spent alone in solitary confinement in freezing conditions and on meagre rations destroyed his health. The state even refused for long periods to turn his cell’s lights off, and blasted political propaganda into his room for hours on end.

Yet Navalny, astonishingly, seemed to remain in rude psychological health. In court the day before he died, the political prisoner was seen laughing and joking — he rarely took the regime’s show trials seriously, choosing to mock rather than participate in them — and he regularly wrote searing critiques of the Putin regime and its wars from his jail cell. When his lawyers were able to reach him, they shared these materials through Navalny’s popular social media feeds. Navalny’s body may have been broken, but he remained conscious of both Russia’s politics and, presumably, the terrible fate that awaited him.

When Navalny burst onto the political scene in the early 2010s, he used social media to bring hundreds of thousands of Russians to protest on the streets against the Russian state’s corruption and criminality. Writing on his personal blog, Navalny laid into the elites and gave voice to the opposition: “We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice and the strength to defend it.” This handsome and youthful lawyer spoke in the language of the young, using the communications platform of the young, to rile up opposition to Vladimir Putin’s criminal regime. And Navalny’s overarching message, broadcast at a time when mass oppression was only just beginning in post-Soviet Russia, was simple: anybody but Putin.

A skilled political operator, writer, and orator, Navalny appealed to Russians from across the spectrum to band together and give Putin the boot. In those early marches, which centred on opposition to the undemocratic presidential election of 2012, Navalny called on everyone from greens to communists, liberals, and nationalists to join his campaign. Showing little regard for who he worked with, Navalny soon found himself the leader of an informal grouping whose leaders are today, like Ilya Yashin, in jail — or, like Boris Nemtsov, long ago killed by the regime. Nobody at the time knew how to speak to or unite such a broad spectrum of Russia’s disparate opposition as Alexei Navalny.

Yet it was this very strategy of unity that provoked the greatest criticism of Navalny. The leader’s alignment with the far-Right and earlier support for nationalist policies — he would later apologise for alluding to Muslims as “cockroaches” in a 2007 video — has tarnished his reputation with Ukrainians in particular. Photographs of Navalny marching alongside the far-Right haunt any mention of the leader in online fora, and critics regularly accused him of equivocating over the fate of Crimea in 2014. Navalny was never the liberal white knight that some in the West may have hoped he would be.

Nonetheless, Navalny was the only opposition leader in the last 24 years of Putin’s increasingly totalitarian rule to offer a serious path out of dictatorship, oligarchy, and extreme nationalism. While Navalny’s poll ratings in the abortive electoral campaigns he was involved in never suggested that he had garnered mass support — indeed, his approval rating among the Russian public was actually falling fast in recent years — his publicity team reached a huge online audience and, through their campaign efforts abroad, built serious political links with policymakers around the world. For example, the team’s expose of Putin’s opulent palace on the Black Sea Coast, built with embezzled funds, has been watched over 100,000,000 times on YouTube.

Putin may have controlled the mass media, but Navalny’s team deftly skirted official restrictions to reach a huge audience. Almost everybody in Russia had heard of Alexei Navalny and knew he represented genuine opposition to Putin (whom Navalny christened “the old man in his bunker” — an out of touch, cranky grandpa bent on destroying Russia). In a country whose politics has been littered with fake opposition candidates, Navalny was, for better or worse, the most recognisable and the only alternative to Putin for the majority of Russians.

It may be a coincidence that Navalny’s tragic death in Russia’s far-flung Yamalo-Nenets region comes just a month before the country goes to vote in a presidential election — or, more accurately, participates in the latest coronation of Vladimir Putin. However, it also follows both last week’s news that Putin challenger and soft opposition candidate Boris Nadezhdin has been barred from the ballot paper. These stories only add to the countless reports of the arrests, beatings, and killings of opposition journalists and politicians all over Russia over the past two years. The 2010s generation of opposition leaders and supporters are broken, battered, and destroyed. Now their greatest hope has been killed.

The days when opposition candidates could be allowed to operate in Russia’s peripheries, or even to make a brief appearance in election campaigns, are long gone. Those “vegetarian times”, as Navalny’s former press secretary Anna Veduta once described them to me, have been replaced by oppression that harks back to the darkest days of the 20th century. Now the regime is using new media to turn the screw even tighter, constantly disrupting and diminishing any sparks of opposition before figures like Alexei Navalny are allowed to fan the flames of revolt. Whenever a new campaign is launched, it is instantly drowned out with the noise of bots, trolls, and Putinist true believers — and its proponents are tossed into Russia’s rotting jails. In these circumstances, how can a new, untarnished, and popular Navalny emerge?

“How can a new, untarnished, and popular Navalny emerge?”

Navalny’s greatest achievement was to unite the opposition under the “everyone but Putin” banner in the early 2010s. He built bridges between opposing, fragmented groups. Without Navalny, it would have been impossible to imagine communists marching alongside greens against Putin. The Russian opposition today desperately needs a figure with the psychological fortitude and self-sacrificial character of Alexei Navalny: somebody who is brave enough to stay in Russia, speak the truth without regard for the consequences, and to create new momentum for an “anybody but Putin” campaign. As of today, both analysts watching from abroad and the many Russians who knew Alexei Navalny’s name would agree that no such figure exists.

Perhaps that figure might be Navalny’s wife, Yuliia, who made an uncompromising and powerful public speech calling for revenge against her dead husband’s murderers shortly after hearing news of his passing. Perhaps it will be an unknown, a young Russian who will take TikTok or some other new technology by storm, as Alexei Navalny did in 2011. But in a world where Putin’s control of mainstream and social media looks stronger than ever, and where the regime is using ever more extreme means to oppress its population, Alexei Navalny’s death signals a newer, bleaker future for Russia.

Ian Garner is a historian and analyst of Russian culture and war propaganda. His latest book is Z Generation: Russia’s Fascist Youth (Hurst).