To oppose an authoritarian regime is dangerous but to be the de facto leader is a danger on a completely new level. The threat of being silenced, murdered or imprisoned are ever present. Alexei Navalny represents this struggle; as an opposition leader in Russia he is currently in prison, where it has been reported he has been tortured, has gone on hunger strike and has recently been transferred to a hospital. This article will delve into Navalny’s life as a political figure in Russia previous to his imprisonment, and will look at his journey to becoming the figure he is today. 

Protest signs demanding Navalny’s release, January 2021 (Photo by: Liza Pooor, Flickr)

Post-Soviet Russia’s lapse back to authoritarianism has long been under scrutiny by the West. In the last couple of months, this scrutiny has intensified, as there have been widespread protests all across Russia  – which has seen over 5000 arrests as a consequence – and new sanctions have been placed on Putin. These events can be seen as a reaction to one person, Alexei Navalny, who has in the past decade personified political opposition in Russia. In January 2021, after spending 32 days at a German hospital recovering from assassination attempt, Navalny returned to Russia where he was arrested and later jailed. The official reason for his imprisonment was that Navalny missed a parole hearing while in a coma due to complications following the assassination attempt. 

Even in his current state Navalny is the de facto opposition leader and the voice against Putin, but his journey to this spot has been long and complex.

From liberalism to nationalism: A ideological transformation  

Navalny’s political journey arguably began in the year 2000 when he joined the liberal party of Russia called Yabloko. Here he promoted a world view that consisted of low public spending, small government, big privatisation efforts and a more deregulated market force. He quickly rose through the ranks and in 2002, he joined the leadership of the biggest local chapter of Yabloko in Moscow.

In 2006, he became a member of the federal council, the highest body within the party. However, his rise within the party did not last long as he was eventually ousted from Yabloko in 2007, for nationalistic activities. This transformation to nationalism came during the time when Navalny realised that having liberal views would not allow him to connect with everyday Russians as it reminded them of the extreme poverty and humiliation Russia felt after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. 

Following Navalny’s ousting from the party, he released a 42-second-long video on YouTube announcing his nationalistic views. In this video, which is primarily about gun rights, he talked about how he wants to get rid of flies and cockroaches while showing clips of bearded Muslim men. He also acts out a shooting of a man wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabian headwear, who is depicted to attack him. This clearly xenophobic video was followed by another, in which he discusses the need for Russia to expel all immigrants to save the country from Fascism. 

From here on forward, Alexei Navalny was openly vocal about fighting illegal immigration, and has attended the annual Russian march which unites different far right and neo-Nazi groups. In 2011, Navalny supported a campaign called stop feeding the Caucasus which was an attempt to end state subsidies given to these autonomous regions, which are populated mainly by ethnic minorities. All this was part of a drastic shift further to the right; just a few years earlier, he had been a prominent liberal and had several leading roles within the Yabloko party. 

Alexei Navalny, Anna Veduta and Ilya Yashin at Moscow rally in 2013 (Photo by: Bogomolov.PL, Wikimedia Commons)

A new focus?

Even though it seemed like Navalny was heading down a xenophobic path, he found another political issue to focus on that would eventually define his political career to this day, namely corruption. This fight saw him gain popularity far outside the far-right circles he had been associated with, especially within the more liberal middle class who believed that corruption was the cause behind the ineffectiveness of the Russian state. 

However,  his views were still locked into a nationalistic world view which could be seen in his foreign policy. During the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Navalny called all Georgians rodents and urged Russia to bombard the entire country with cruise missiles. He also expressed the desire to expel all Georgians from the country, recognise and militarise the regions of south Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as to blockade and sever relations with Georgia. During public appearances, Navalny has further implied that immigrants are  criminals who pose a terrorist threat, which was one of his major talking points during his run for mayor in Moscow in 2013

In 2014, while being interviewed by a Ukrainian journalist and activist, Navalny was asked about the annexation of Crimea. He stated that even though the annexation broke all international norms, Crimea would remain a part of Russia and won’t be returned to Ukraine in the foreseeable future. He elaborated further by saying that the Ukrainians should stop fooling themselves about getting the territory back. Navalny seemed to argue that Ukranians  were better off without a conservative pro-Russian population that would undermine the fight against corruption in the country. 

Oppositionist Alexei Navalny looks up into the sky on a march in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov (Photo by: Michał Siergiejevicz, Flickr)

A sign of change?

In 2015, Navalny’s position on immigration seemed to change. During a series of conversations with the Polish journalist Volkov, he said that one needs to educate nationalists and that it isn’t the immigrants that is the problem but the thieves and crooks that profit from illegal immigration. According to Volkov, his views became more refined; he advocated the need to protect the rights of migrant workers and admitted that Russia needs immigrants

Although, in 2017, on the eve of the presidential election that he was running in, he was asked why he wanted to impose a visa system for Kazak citizens while he called for Germany to allow for a visa waiver for Russians. His reply to this was that he saw no value in central Asian people coming to Russia. So even if his views on immigration are considered more refined by some, following his interview with Volkov, it’s still unclear how much he has changed. 

Even though Navalny has positioned himself as a fighter for democracy, his past shows a complex and sometimes troubling picture of him.  From 2018 onwards, he has proposed the increase of the minimum wage and pensions for workers, social benefits for the poor and disabled, as well as increasing the budget for healthcare and education. In 2020, during the democratic race for the American presidency, he publicly backed Bernie Sanders and changed his talking points on corruption to a more leftist standpoint. One can see this by how he argued more about corruption being the cause behind social inequality rather than it being the cause for state ineffectiveness. Additionally, his robust policies surrounding corruption are nothing short of unprecedented; to adopt the entire UN convention on corruption and change the Russian legislation to be able to accommodate this convention. 

The robust policies surrounding corruption are nothing short of revolutionary, and all these policies shows us a Navalny that has become more progressive in recent years. Navalny has a mixed political history; his road to a more “progressive” worldview has been shaped by a very troubled past. His current political leaning however has not meant that people have forgotten his heavily nationalistic and xenophobic past. Even from prison he remains a complex political figure on the Russian, and world scene. 

Christopher Fletcher Sandersjöö