Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1: A Visit With Alexei Navalny

A year ago, he was leading the huge antigovernment demonstrations. This week, a judge may put him away for 10 years and bankrupt him as well

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny holds a poster reading "I Am Against Repressions and Torture" as he stands in front the headquarters of the FSB secret police in Lubyanka Square, in Moscow, on Oct. 27, 2012

Alexei Navalny could not sit still. In his office, a week before his trial for embezzlement, the Russian opposition leader paced around the room, stopping now and then to sketch diagrams of his case on a whiteboard, or to grab his head and tell me, “It’s mad. It’s absolutely mad.” He did not look well.

His right hand was wrapped in a bandage — “It’s nothing,” he said, “I fell” — and he wore the same brown leather sneakers he had on a year ago, when he was leading the biggest protests ever to challenge President Vladimir Putin. Now the shoes were looking loose at the seams. The protests have faded, and their leader may soon be bankrupt, convicted of a felony and banned from politics for life. That is if the trial goes well. If it goes badly, he will be sent to prison for up to 10 years. Navalny believes it could go either way. “That’s the message they’re sending,” he says. “‘If you don’t believe we’ll throw you in prison, you better f—ing believe it. If you think we’re [afraid] of the West or the press, f— you, here’s another set of charges.’ That’s Putin’s position.”

He says the point is to sow fear, but he insists it hasn’t worked, at least on him. His blog, which has a monthly readership of up to a million people, is still churning out evidence of state corruption with the same impudence and regularity. But his energy and finances have been drained — last year half his income went to his lawyers — and Russian authorities are already gloating over his defeat. On Friday, a representative of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI, admitted that the case against Navalny was hurried along because of his opposition politics. “Since the accused did everything he could to attract attention, even poking fun at the people in power … the interest in his past increased,” Vladimir Markin, the committee’s spokesman, told the Izvestia daily.

(MORE: Russia’s Opposition Gets Its Act Together Electronically — for Now)

Markin then suggested, without prompting from the interviewer, that Navalny is an American stooge, trained at Yale University (where he studied for six months in 2010) before being sent back to Russia to start a revolution. “I doubt his spymasters were unaware that a criminal trial could ensue,” Markin said. “We have opened cases against members of parliament. So why should some street protester be immune? Just because he has backers in the West? That may work in a weak country, but not in Russia. We are, after all, a global power.”

The criminal investigation against Navalny was first opened in December 2010, a few weeks after he published evidence of a $4 billion fraud at one of Russia’s state corporations. Instead of looking into the evidence he posted on his blog, police accused the accuser of corruption. They claimed that in 2009, when Navalny was serving as an adviser to the governor in the region of Kirov, he rigged a timber deal that earned him $40,000. (That’s roughly 100,000 times less than the fraud Navalny had exposed.) Over the next two years, regional investigators closed the case against him twice for lack of evidence, only to have their bosses in Moscow reopen it. As long as the probe was ongoing, police had the right to conduct surveillance on Navalny, tap his phones, read his e-mails and seize evidence from the homes of anyone even vaguely connected to the case. And so they apparently did.

According to Navalny, numerous raids have been conducted on his office and apartment, his brother’s apartment, his parent’s wicker factory and the homes of many of his friends and colleagues, including a former assistant whom he had not spoken to in years. “They burst into her place with masks and took her computer,” he says. “The girl was eight months pregnant.” Navalny says he found an audio transmitter and a hidden video camera last August, built into the molding of his office wall, that was pointing directly at his desk. He had the devices removed and then shifted his desk around, so he didn’t have to look at the hole where the camera had been. (In building their case, investigators used his private telephone conversations as evidence against him, according to court documents Navalny published on his blog.)

(MORE: Behind the Story: TIME’s Simon Shuster Discusses Putin’s Russia)

Sooner or later he realized the case could be taken to trial — “They needed to have this truncheon hanging over me,” he says — but he did not back away from his activism. In December 2011, when Putin’s political party was accused of rigging another election, Navalny led the ensuing wave of protests. They were the biggest Russia had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, with hundreds of thousands of people demanding Putin’s resignation in the streets. The standoff came to a head the following winter, when Navalny and the other opposition leaders demanded the right to march to Lubyanka Square, the home of the FSB secret police. This was holy ground for the authorities — Putin headed the FSB before becoming President — and the government refused to allow the protest. Navalny told his supporters to rally there anyway. That is when the timber case started moving toward a trial.

Kirill Kabanov, a member of the Kremlin’s council on civil rights, says Navalny is not being tried for his campaigns against corruption, which the state was prepared to tolerate, but for his insistence on marching that day. “This is an order: Know your place,” Kabanov explains. “You want to work on your anticorruption blog? Go for it. But politics is not your business.”

The rally at Lubyanka Square passed peacefully that day. A few thousand people, bundled up against the freezing cold, laid flowers at the monument to victims of the gulag prison camps. Navalny made a statement for the cameras, and the crowd dispersed. The following month, the Investigative Committee said it had completed its investigation of the timber case. Navalny now stood accused of embezzling half a million dollars worth of logs, not the $40,000 from the original investigation. That meant the charge was now a major felony.

(MORE: The Raids That Backfired: How the Russian Police Helped to Swell a Protest)

The only question that likely remains is Navalny’s sentence. Russian courts have a conviction rate of 99%, but the judge in the city of Kirov, which lies 1,000 km east of Moscow, will rule on whether to put Navalny on probation or send him to prison. In some sense, prison might be preferable. As the Izvestia journalist pointed out during the interview with investigator Markin, sending Navalny to a labor camp could turn him into Russia’s version of Nelson Mandela. “That may be what Navalny’s backers have been counting on,” Markin replied, referring again to the phantom Western spymasters.

But even without a prison term attached, a felony conviction will ban Navalny from running for office and revoke his license to practice law. He will have no livelihood, few prospects as a politician and little chance of running for President, as he one day hoped to do. He accepts this prospect with a shrug. “This is a war,” he says. “I also want to take away everything these guys have, and that is a lot more than I have to lose. So why be surprised that they want to take everything from me?”

Ever since he started his activism, he has slowly made his family accept the idea that he would one day be sent to prison for it, and he and his wife Yulia no longer bring the matter up at home. But lately it’s been unavoidable. His daughter Daria returned from school in a huff the other day and asked why she was always the last to find things out. “The girls at school say that you’re being put on trial,” he remembers her saying. By now the whiteboard in his office was covered in the strange calligraphy he uses to decipher the charges against him — a hopeless chore, he says, because they make no sense other than politics. On April 17, he will appear at a courthouse in Kirov to argue against these charges, and the judge could decide to place him into custody that day for the duration of the trial. The chances of that are slim, but he has still packed a bag for the jailhouse. It includes slippers, track pants and a pair of sneakers. They are new but have no shoelaces, because those would be confiscated by the guards.

MORE: Inside Putin’s Russia