By Nehru Odeh
People love to look at him through contrasting lenses. While some perceive him as the new face of opposition in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, others, especially those on Putin’s side of the political divide, see him as a trouble maker the West is using to destabilize Russia. Yet, while others regard him as a victim being persecuted for his anti-corruption crusade and the courage to look Putin straight in the face and call his bluff, others see him as a villain and a spook who wants to subvert social order and the status quo.
Still, no matter the lens through which many choose to look at him, the 44-year-old Russian lawyer, blogger, activist and politician has succeeded not only in turning the world’s radar on the large-scale corruption going on in Russia but has also beard Putin in his den and demystified him. He described Putin in court as “that little man in his bunker”.
He has struck a chord in the hearts of many youths in Russia, which speaks volumes about the unapologetic manner he has carried out his activism. While many who had criticised Putin for abuse of power in the past ended up making him stronger, Nalvany does something different. He makes Putin look small.
And it is because of these reasons and the courage of his convictions he was on Tuesday handed a three-and-a-half year prison term by a Moscow city court for breaching terms of parole relating to an old fraud conviction. That notwithstanding, he will spend only two years and eight months since he had spent some time under arrest. Yet he remains defiant and unbowed.
Who then is Alexei Nalvany? Who is this activist that the Wall Street Journal once described as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most”? Why has he been a pain in Putin’s neck and what have been his travail, his struggles. In his defence, Nalvany had said he could not have complied with previous court orders because he was in Berlin recuperating from a brush with the deadly nerve agent Novichok. Nalvany had accused the Russian government of being behind the plot to exterminate him, which it had denied.
Nalvany was indeed lucky to have escaped death. That wasn’t the first time there have been attempts on him. In 2019, he was diagnosed with contact dermatitis whilst in jail, with his doctor suggesting he might have been exposed to “some toxic agent”. He has also twice been targeted with antiseptic green dye known as zelyonka and suffered chemical burns to an eye.
And it wasn’t also the first time the Russian government tried to use Novichok to eliminate what it perceived as a threat and a political enemy. It was the same chemical weapon that nearly killed former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. An intriguing thing about this is that this sounds like déjà vu, as Nalvany’swife and Skripal’s daughter bear the same name, Yulia.
However, the spectacular thing about this man, which speaks to his courage and boldness, is that even though he knew he had been on Putin’s wanted list while recovering in Germany, and that they wanted him to remain in exile, he returned to Moscow to face trial.
“Someone did not want me to take a single step on my country’s territory as a free man. And we know who and we know why – the hatred and fear of one man, living in a bunker, whom I offended by surviving when he tried to have me killed,” he said of Putin in his speech at the court room.
“His only method is killing people. However much he pretends to be a great geopolitician, he’ll go into history as a poisoner… We all remember Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.
“Locking me up isn’t difficult,” Navalny told the court. “This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.
“This is what happens when lawlessness and tyranny become the essence of a political system, and it’s horrifying,” he said, calling the court case “a performance.”
However, the more he is arrested and detained, the more his popularity spikes and the more he accelerates his anti-corruption fights. At the moment he has millions of Russian followers – many in their 20s – on social media. He has more than six million YouTube subscribers and more than two million Twitter followers. Through these channels, he sensitizes the citizens about corruption in Russia, organizes political demonstrations and promotes his campaigns. In a 2011 radio interview, he described Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, as a “party of crooks and thieves”, which became a popular epithet
Still, Nalvany is a study in courage and steely determination. On 19 January 2021, two days after he was detained by Russian authorities upon his return to Russia, he and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, FBK released A Palace for Putin, a video on YouTube accusing him of using fraudulently obtained funds to build a massive estate for himself near the town of Gelendzhik in Krasnodar Krai.
The estate, 39 times the size of Monaco, with the Federal Security Service (FSB) owning 70 square kilometres of land around the palace, cost over 100 billion rubles ($1.35 billion) to construct. Navalny’s report claims the vast palace includes a casino, an ice rink and a vineyard. However the Kremlin has denied the report, describing it as a “pseudo investigation.” The denial notwithstanding, the video has been viewed by more than 100m people within days of its release and became a huge talking point on Russian social media.
Nalvany has suffered several persecutions in the hands of Putin and his cohorts as a result of his activism. Since his rise as a force in Russian politics in 2008 when he started blogging about alleged malpractice and corruption at some of Russia’s big state-controlled corporations, he has been arrested, detained and given suspended sentences many times. Many of his aides have also been jailed, while his brother was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years in 2014.
His first major trial involved 12-hour train rides to and from the court in Kirov. And he was jailed for days. He was then jailed briefly in July 2013 for embezzlement in the city of Kirov, the five-year sentence was widely seen as political. But that conviction was eventually overturned by the Russian Supreme Court, following a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that he was not given a fair hearing at the first trial.
Then, he was tried again in 2017, convicted a second time and handed a five-year suspended sentence. He called the judgment farcical, saying it was all an attempt to bar him from the 2018 election.
Ever since Nalvany has been arrested repeatedly. Yet the more he is arrested, the more thousands of his supporters take to the streets clamouring for his release. Indeed it is because of the massive support he enjoys that the Russian authorities stopped short of giving him a long prison sentence on Tuesday, apparently fearing a backlash.
But now that Putin has succeeded in putting him out of circulation, at least for the next 32 months, while thousands of his followers have been arrested for protesting, what next for Nalvany and his country, Russia? The world watches with keen interest, as global leaders continue to condemn his trial, sentence and clampdown on his supporters.