Yulia Navalnaya, Russia’s new opposition leader

Yulia Navalnaya had said she always wanted to be a politician’s wife, not a politician herself. But in the days since her husband Alexei Navalny died in a remote Arctic penal colony, she has seized the stage like a world leader.

Hours after Russia announced the death of Navalny last Friday, she vowed to hold President Vladimir Putin responsible in a speech to world leaders at the Munich Security conference. This week, she lobbied the EU’s foreign affairs council for rounds of new sanctions against Russia in Brussels, then shared an embrace with US president Joe Biden in San Francisco alongside her daughter Darya.

“The old-timers there were saying nobody could remember such an emotional moment at Munich as that short speech she just gave,” says Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia. “She’s got the skills to do this job. She just never wanted to because she always thought that was Alexei’s role.”

In a video posted on Monday, Navalnaya asked Russians to “share her fury” and vowed to continue her husband’s fight against Putin. “The main thing we can do for Alexei and for ourselves is to keep on fighting,” she said. “To unite into one powerful fist and hit this insane regime. Putin, his friends, the bandits in uniform, the thieves and murderers that have crippled our country.”

The speed with which Navalnaya has taken on her husband’s mantle after two decades mostly avoiding the limelight points to the role she has always played as his most important confidante, friends of the couple say.

“She wasn’t just his wife, you understand? She was the only person Alexei could tell everything to, who was always by his side and his closest friend,” says Yevgenia Albats, an exiled Russian journalist and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “She said half of her has been killed . . . so the only person who can replace that other half is Yulia.”

Navalnaya, 47, met her future husband while on holiday in Turkey in 1998. She worked briefly in banking and trade, then sold baskets from her in-laws’ small weaving company, but eventually realised her husband’s growing popularity as a prominent voice online against Putin made holding a separate job impossible. “Wherever I could go, it’d be tough for the organisation and for me,” she said in a rare interview in 2014.

In 2011, Navalny was arrested for the first time after leading the largest-ever protests against Putin, prompting Yulia to confront what the Kremlin’s nascent crackdown on dissent meant for her family. The couple have two children. “Over 20 years”, says Albats, “I never saw once that Yulia was even annoyed or said he needed to put his family ahead of politics. Politics was Alexei Navalny’s job, and she was completely behind it and was everywhere with him, at every protest.”

Now, Navalnaya is the new face of a Russian opposition movement facing its darkest moment in Putin’s 24 years of rule. Since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the Kremlin has effectively criminalised all dissent and arrested almost 20,000 people for protesting against the war, according to independent rights monitor OVD-Info.

The Kremlin moved to crush Navalny’s movement, which combined viral exposés of staggering official corruption on YouTube with a grassroots attempt to elect democratic leaders, even earlier. He was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok in Siberia in 2020 and spent several days in a coma, forcing Yulia to take the next available flight to Omsk and publicly demand Putin release him for treatment in Germany.

Sergei Guriev, provost of Sciences Po university in Paris and a longtime friend of the family, says: “She played a crucial role in saving Alexei’s life — she fought until she got Alexei out of the country.”

In early 2021, Navalny and Yulia flew back to Moscow, where he was arrested on arrival and promptly sent to prison on the first of a number of charges he accepted would keep him there for at least as long as Putin remained in power.

As the judge read out his sentence, Navalny smiled at Yulia from the courtroom’s cage for defendants, outlining a heart on the glass. The Kremlin then banned his Anti-Corruption Foundation and arrested the few of his supporters who chose not to flee the country.

Even after his death, the Kremlin is still taking pains to stamp out public displays of support for Navalny ahead of next month’s presidential election, where Putin is assured of extending his rule until at least 2030.

The Kremlin also appears to have identified Navalnaya as a threat in her own right. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former stand-in president and the target of one of Navalny’s biggest anti-corruption investigations, said on Thursday that “the smiling, happy face of Navalny’s widow” made him think “she had been waiting for this to happen all these years to start her own political life”.

Russian officials have also refused to hand over his body to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, unless she agrees to hold a private funeral — and threatened her they would bury him on the prison grounds if she did not agree, Navalny’s spokeswoman said on Friday.

The “risks are enormous” for Yulia Navalnaya, Albats says — so much that she has avoided returning to Russia. “Alexei was worried . . . they would try some funny business,” she says.

“The only thing that might stop them is Putin and his chekists are total Russian chauvinists, and they’ll think it’s not worth going after a woman.”

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