The Man Putin Fears
Alexei Navalny’s family made the cold trip to see him at Penal Colony No. 2. The drive from Moscow took about two hours, though parts of it felt like traveling backIt will take time. Coming off the highway from Russia’s high-tech capital, the roads became rutted. Blocks of apartments gave way to wooden houses, while old women shopped from their vegetable gardens near the highwayside.
At the prison gates, Navalny’s wife and parents carried a few bags of groceries into a waiting room, where an ancient telephone allowed them to announce their visit to the guards. Soon, the inmate was brought out to greet them. The inmate looked thin, with a shaved head and a wide smile, all framed by his prison-issue cap. Ten months had passed since Navalny’s incarceration, and more than a year since he was nearly poisoned to death with a chemical weapon. The effects of the chemical weapon on Navalny’s nervous system didn’t show; his hands were no longer trembling. “He looked good,” his wife Yulia Navalnaya later told me. “Unchanged.”
It had been Navalny’s decision to be there. Navalny said that he was not in the particular prison with its silent guards, its papered windows, and its feeling of being trapped inside a shoebox. Being fully aware of the possible consequences for him, he made the choice to travel to Russia. Nearly exactly one year ago, from his temporary exile he made the decision to surrender to the control of the regime accused of trying murder him. Navalny was not killed by the poison. It hadn’t even really changed him.
In his barracks, he runs an organization of dissidents dedicated to the ousting of President Vladimir Putin. Although its top leaders have fled Russian law, it was easy for me to locate them while I reported this story. Many of them met me as they were lobbying Washington or fundraising in New York City. Others showed me the TV studio they built in Eastern Europe, just outside Russia’s border, to air broadcasts for millions of followers inside.
These letters were my first introduction to a collection of handwritten correspondence from Penal Colony No. 2. “Please, not too many questions,” Navalny told me in the first one last October. “There’s no time for writing here, and the process of getting these pages out is exhausting.” You wouldn’t know it from the volume of his subsequent answers, about two dozen line-ruled pages covered in a hurried Russian script. As if the dissident were adding more emojis on the blog which started his political career, the first came with a smiling face.
The middle of January was a turbulent time in Europe, and our exchange lasted until the middle. Not long after Navalny’s family visited him, Putin began massing troops near Russia’s western border, enough to launch an invasion of Ukraine. Biden’s administration tried to calm the Russians but this resulted in an uneasy standoff that was soaked in Cold War revivalism. Envoys of the world’s two nuclear superpowers spent weeks trading threats and demands. Navalny was horrified by the spectacle. “Time and again the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps,” he wrote me, in a letter that arrived Jan. 14. “It just takes my breath away, watching how Putin pulls this on the American establishment again and again.”
In its talks with Putin, the U.S. strategy has been to offer Russia a “diplomatic offramp,” while also making clear that an invasion of Ukraine would be met with “severe and overwhelming costs,” a spokesman for the National Security Council told me, adding that the U.S. considers his imprisonment “to be politically motivated and a gross injustice.”
Navalny has been studying Putin for as long as anyone else. His letters attempt to clarify what Putin fears and what motivates him. He isn’t concerned about the U.S. deployment in Eastern Europe or whether Ukraine will one day become a member of the NATO alliance. “Instead of ignoring this nonsense,” Navalny writes, “the U.S. accepts Putin’s agenda and runs to organize some meetings. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upperclassman.”
What Putin truly fears is what Navalny’s movement seeks—a change of power in Russia, followed by cashiering its corrupt clan of oligarchs and spies. It isn’t NATO that keeps Putin up at night; it’s the space for democratic dissent that NATO opens up along his border. Navalny claims that this is why Russia engages in all of the West-Russian conflicts. “To consolidate the country and the elites,” he writes, “Putin constantly needs all these extreme measures, all these wars—real ones, virtual ones, hybrid ones or just confrontations at the edge of war, as we’re seeing now.”
Navalny doesn’t want to convene talks or make concessions. Instead, he wants the U.S. and its supporters to press the Kremlin directly from within. The combination, he believes, will split the elites around Putin, ushering in what Navalny’s followers like to call “the beautiful Russia of the future,” one that is free, democratic, at peace with its neighbors and the West.
This slogan doesn’t address the ugly truth of what dictatorships can do to people. Russians don’t have to look too far to find examples. In early January, protests swept through neighboring Kazakhstan, an oil-rich autocracy to Russia’s south. The flames set fire to government buildings. Hundreds of protesters and police officers were also killed. Kazakhstan’s President issued a shoot-to-kill order to his security forces and called for assistance from Russia and its allies. Putin quickly dispatched thousands to the scene of the revolt, and it was over within hours. It worked. Protests abated.
I asked Navalny, in our letter exchange, about Russia’s possibility of violence, and whether he considers this the cost of changing after 21 years living under one dictator. “Our path,” he wrote, “was never strewn with roses.”
Navalny, his father, was not a believer in the Soviet system and was brought up in garrison towns. Navalny, a teenager, saw the system fall apart. He studied law and joined the Yabloko party as a member. This group was made up of liberal milquetoasts who were supported by his mother, an economist. “We lived well,” she once told a Russian magazine about Navalny’s youth. “That is, we were poor. Like everybody else.”
Twelve years ago, I met Navalny for the first time in Moscow. Tall and stooped, with a slight paunch and ice blue eyes, he stood out as the only dissident organized and popular enough to pose even a distant threat to Putin’s rule. The office he used to call his headquarters was a Moscow apartment with low ceilings, a metal door and poorly furnished. Hunched over laptops in its dim rooms sat the staff of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny’s activist group. He founded it in 2011 to exploit the main weakness he saw in Putin’s system: the insatiable greed of its courtiers.
This foundation was well-known for publishing the scandalous wealth of elites via social media. Reports were often based upon bank and forensic accounts. Some used drone footage of Italian villas owned by Putin’s underlings. Some others used photos posted by relatives or officials online to prove their point. They also displayed luxury watches and yachts. One technocrat was known to take his dog show corgis on private aircraft. Navalny presented his findings with a humorous style that was reminiscent of a YouTube detective.
Navalny, who was perfectly placed to lead street protests calling for fair elections in late 2011, had a huge following. His blog was well-known and had gained a reputation for his incendiary speech in the streets. “I’ll chew through the throats of those animals,” he told one crowd in Moscow that winter, gesturing at what he called the “crooks and thieves” in the Kremlin.
People were put off by his rhetoric. Russian liberals were alarmed by Navalny’s early flirtation with the far right, including a pair of videos he released in 2007, one calling for the deportation of migrants, another comparing Islamist militants to cockroaches. The Yabloko party expelled him for such talk and other “nationalist activities.” Putin’s allies cast him as a right-wing radical, even a fascist.
In the early years of Navalny’s career, we spent hours discussing his views, issue by issue. On balance, his agenda struck me as center-right: he supported gun rights, strong borders, less government spending—nothing more radical than a typical Republican in Texas, or a Christian Democrat in Bavaria. But Navalny’s politics were not driven by ideology. Navalny wanted to see democratic change.
The state was aware. The state first attempted to place Navalny into a cell when he was accused of embezzling wood in 2012. Navalny called the case “strange and absurd,” but it gave police a pretext for searching his apartment, his office, even the workshop outside Moscow where his parents made wicker baskets. Navalny soon invited me to his office after one of the raids. The foundation’s staff had swept the place for bugs and found a camera hidden in the wall, pointed through a pinhole at Navalny’s desk. As he presented it to me, he shrugged. “This is a war,” he said. “I also want to take away everything these guys have. So why be surprised that they want to take everything from me?”
A few months later the prosecutors brought new charges against Navalny and Oleg for stealing from 2 companies. Both men were sentenced to three and a half years in a case that the European Court of Human Rights would later describe as “arbitrary and unfair.” Oleg served much of that term in solitary confinement, becoming what his brother called a hostage of the Russian state. The court lifted Alexei Navalny’s sentence. As one Kremlin-aligned newspaper noted, putting Navalny behind bars “could turn him into Russia’s version of Nelson Mandela.” Yet setting him free brought risks too. Navalny won nearly 30% of votes when he ran for the office of mayor of Moscow 2013.
Putin was reminded by the Ukrainian revolution a few months later just how fast a government can collapse. Viktor Yanukovych was his ally in Kyiv and he barely lasted for two months. Then, Putin fled Ukraine in a helicopter after a series of protests against corrupt leadership. Putin responded with troops, which occupied Crimea and started a separatist conflict in the eastern Ukraine. He continued to build defenses in the home against another revolt. A new force of police, which was a praetorian-guard trained to suppress popular unrest, saw the hiring of approximately 400,000 soldiers. Its commander, a longtime Putin bodyguard, later issued a personal warning to Navalny, announcing in a video message that he would pound the dissident “into a juicy slab of meat.”
Navalny did not give up. He announced his plans to run as President in 2016. However, he was barred by the authorities from being on the ballot. His campaign nevertheless set up national offices. Its members ran for office in the local elections. Navalny was often seen visiting the offices of regional governments throughout the country and drawing huge crowds.
He fell ill after a single trip to the provinces. Navalny traveled to Siberia in August 2020 to film a documentary about corruption. He was flying home from Siberia when he spoke to Kira Yarmysh his press secretary. She said that he felt odd and couldn’t focus. In a matter of minutes, the pilot found himself sprawled out on the plane’s floor, in pain and only barely conscious. Navalny was quickly taken to the hospital after an emergency landing by the pilot in Omsk. After two days of pressure from the public, Putin finally allowed German doctors and Navalny’s evacuation to Germany. There were blood tests that confirmed his diagnosis: Novichok poisoning. This chemical weapon was first created by Soviet scientists, and is now banned in international law.
Experts suspected the poison had been smeared on Navalny’s clothes, passing through his skin into the bloodstream. Putin made fun of the incident when he was asked by journalists about it. “Who needs him?” the President said of Navalny with a laugh. If Russia had wanted to poison him, Putin added, “we would probably have finished the job.”
Navalny struggled to recognize his children and wife after he was released from a coma. He suffered from a nervous system attack that affected his memory, motor function and ability to remember. I was later informed by his wife of the delirium, hallucinations, and the fact that he ripped the IV tubes from the veins. He also sprayed the bedding with blood. He was unable to learn how to use a spoon or write.
Navalny was able to return his activism several months later, feeling well after being poisoned. He and his team arrived in Germany to investigate this attack. They used leaked travel and phone records to work with many news outlets and Bellingcat (a London-based investigative station) in order to find the attackers, which were mostly Russian security officials. Navalny called one of the assailants, pretending to represent a high-ranking Kremlin official and asked why it failed to kill his target. The would-be assassin, apparently believing he was on the phone with his superior, discussed the crime in detail, explaining that agents had sneaked into Navalny’s hotel room in Siberia and smeared the toxin on his underwear.
Russian authorities advised Navalny they would arrest him if he returned to Russia. This was because Navalny had not checked in with his parole agent while in Germany. But he flew home with his wife on the 17th of January 2021. Navalny claims that the decision was not difficult. “There were no discussions with my friends, no emotional talks with my wife,” he wrote me. “From the moment I opened my eyes, I knew I had to return.”
At Moscow’s passport control, officers approached Navalny to take him from his wife. The instructions given to him by his associates were clear. They released another investigation they had done in Germany within two days of Putin’s arrest. This investigation was directed directly at Putin and linked him to the secret Black Sea Palace. Navalny’s team had used a drone to film the property, which features an underground ice rink, two helipads, an arboretum, an amphitheater and a casino. Within days of the film’s release, it had been viewed over 100,000,000 times on YouTube. Putin denies that the mansion is his. A friend of his from St. Petersburg who’s now a billionaire claimed that it was his. Still, the film inspired tens of thousands of Russians to protest in the streets, chanting, “Putin is a thief!” as they marched through Moscow. Over 100 anti-corruption protests were held in Russia over the weekend.
The Kremlin’s response was fierce. Thousands of protesters were arrested, and dozens of independent journalists and news outlets were later put on a state blacklist of “foreign agents.” Anyone associated with Navalny, including his lawyers, found themselves in legal jeopardy. One of Navalny’s allies, the elderly father, was taken to prison above the Arctic Circle. One spring morning in 2021, a military counterintelligence unit raided the home and office of Ivan Pavlov, a member of Navalny’s legal team, seizing case files and electronics. “Everything linked to Navalny is now irradiated with risk,” Pavlov told me by phone from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he fled with his family. “We’re talking about Putin’s public enemy No. 1.”
Last June, a court in Moscow designated Navalny’s foundation an extremist group. Russian law made it illegal to support or work with the group, similar to ISIS and al-Qaeda. The foundation’s regional branches shut down. The foundation’s staff was pursued by security forces, who charged some of them with extremism. Fearing arrest, many others fled Russia.
Soon after, Navalny was summoned to the warden’s office at Penal Colony No. 2. He discovered a number of government officials, sat at a table at the conference table. The wall was covered with a portrait of Putin as he was a young man. In a robotic patter, a guard read a proposal to change Navalny’s status at the prison. The prison would not consider him an inmate who is prone to escape. Instead, he will be treated as an extremist, aggressive, and likely to indoctrinate others. This change was unanimously approved.
Since then, a little plastic tile, resembling a cheap Christmas ornament, has been affixed to the foot of Navalny’s bed with tape. It’s inscribed with the words prone to crimes of a terrorist nature, a label that infuriates Navalny. Putin is the one “who ordered an act of terrorism—to kill a political opponent,” he writes in his letters. “But it’s my bed that has the label terrorist.”
The U.S. sanctioned Russian security officials for trying kill Navalny by using chemical weapons last August. Most of those identified in Navalny’s investigation were on the list. But he was dissatisfied by America’s response. “These are just the agents of Putin’s will,” he wrote me. “We’re all tired of rolling our eyes, watching the U.S. impose sanctions on some colonels and generals, who don’t even have any money abroad.” It would be far more effective, he says, to go after Putin’s own fortune and the bagmen who keep it for him in Western banks. “It’s really simple,” Navalny writes. “You want to influence Putin, then influence his personal wealth. It’s right under your backside.”
Navalny’s foundation sent a similar message to the White House early last year, asking for sanctions against 35 of Russia’s most senior officials and oligarchs close to Putin. Bipartisan support was found in Congress for the proposal, which has been referred to as the Navalny 35. U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a Democrat from New Jersey and a former diplomat in Obama’s Administration has been the most vocal proponent. Navalny’s “central insight,” Malinowski told me, “is that corruption is both the Putin regime’s reason for being and its greatest political vulnerability.”
The Biden Administration has been vocal in condemning the Kremlin’s attacks against Navalny and his movement. It has not supported his wish for political change in Russia and hasn’t imposed the sanctions that he has proposed. One Kremlin insider, who is close to some of the people on Navalny’s blacklist, told me that going after them would be ineffective, because none of the targets could change Putin’s mind about Navalny, NATO or Ukraine. “Can you even imagine such a conversation? ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, maybe we should ease up. We’ve got a lot of money on the line.’ Nobody would come to him with something like that,” says the source. “You’d have to be an idiot.” But the aim of the sanctions, Navalny told me, would not be to convince Russian billionaires to reason with Putin. The goal is to force them to oppose him.
Navalny was careful not to accept foreign sponsors in pursuit of that goal. He did this to avoid being seen as an agent for the West by Russia. That policy became moot once the state designated his organization a “foreign agent” last year. “It untied our hands,” says Leonid Volkov, a longtime ally of Navalny, who now helps run the movement from exile.
This group is now calling for foreign political backing and seeking money from private donor. When we met over dinner in November, Volkov was in Washington to speak before Congress on Navalny’s behalf and drum up support. A few days later, he held the movement’s first official fundraiser in New York City, inviting wealthy Russian expats to back their cause. Hundreds showed up, snapping selfies with Navalny’s surrogates like they were celebrities.
These donors have provided the funds to pay for their Eastern European bases. In January their Vilnius office, which is the capital of Lithuania was more like a media start-up than a revolutionary lair. But, exiled activists may use its bathroom and sit on the beanbags leaning against the wall. Technicians were busy setting up a new TV studio, where Navalny’s allies film video investigations that are broadcast into Russia, routinely finding an audience of millions. The kitchenette is decorated with a poster showing a red X over two surveillance cameras, alongside a caption: They can’t see everything.
The nation of Lithuania, a member of NATO and the E.U., has been happy to host the exiles, including numerous fugitives from Russia and at least two designated by Putin’s regime as “terrorists.” The Lithuanians have dismissed Moscow’s demands to arrest members of the group. “Our history obliges us to welcome such people,” Vytautas Landsbergis, the founding father of modern Lithuania, told me recently in his Vilnius apartment. “The question for us is whether they can liberate Russia from Putin the way we liberated ourselves from the KGB.”
Lithuania, the Soviet Republic that was first to proclaim its independence from Moscow, became independent in 1990. Landsbergis, who signed the declaration, faced off against the Soviet tanks that were sent to crush rebellion the year after. Over a dozen protestors were murdered before the Kremlin gave up and allowed the country’s independence. Landsbergis (89) retired many years ago. His grandson Gabrielius Landsbergis is now the nation’s Foreign Minister. Between talks with NATO allies in January, he told me Lithuania is honored to offer a “safe space” for Navalny’s organization to envision a Russia beyond Putin.
Russia’s future could still be years away. Putin is allowed to stay at the helm of Russia until 2036 according to Russian law. This was thanks in part, however, for a Constitution Amendment that was passed in 2017. But if the West wants political change in Russia, Navalny writes, “We do not by any means have to wait for Putin’s physical death.” State repression could spark an uprising. The possibility of a coup d’état could result from sanctions. At times his letters seem almost impatient for Putin’s Russia to degrade into an absolute dictatorship, because that would raise the risk of regime collapse, Navalny writes, “when the pendulum swings in the other direction.”
You don’t know when it could happen or how many lives would be lost. Yet here was Russia’s most famous dissident, once poisoned and now imprisoned, daring the state to do its worst. Navalny made the right decision to go back because of this paradox. He would have been a mere gadfly in exile, which Putin could not ignore. He is both a reminder and symbol of Russia’s past, as well as a prisoner.
Navalny was expressing his regrets at the conclusion of our correspondence. Isn’t Putin better off with him in prison and his movement in exile? “He made things worse for himself,” Navalny replied. “It’s clear that this was a personal, emotional decision on Putin’s part. First I didn’t die from the poison. Then I didn’t turn into a vegetable as the doctors had feared. Then I had the gall not only to return but, once in Russia, to release an investigation about Putin’s own corruption.”
Navalny doesn’t think Russia has evolved. The same irreverent humor is evident in his comments. His foundation is determined to shame the Kremlin as well as uncover its secrets. “He’s the same,” his wife told me after visiting him in prison last November. “What he’s been through in the last year, it would be enough to break a normal person. He is not like that. He’s not giving up. Not for a second.”
—By reporting Leslie DicksteinAndSimmone Shah/New York And Nik Popli/Washington