From prison, dissident Alexei Navalny plots Vladimir Putin's demise

Alexei Navalny, shown behind bars, is seen on screens positioned on tables in a courtroom.
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WASHINGTON — “He’s not doing well.”

That is how Leonid Volkov describes the health of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian dissident for whom he serves as chief of staff. Navalny is President Vladimir Putin’s top political nemesis, and most other Putin foes are dead or in exile. Navalny lives; he even tweets (via his attorney). His survival has become a matter of international concern and fascination. From a remote penal colony, where he has little control over his own fate, Navalny has tried to steer the fate of Russia.

Those efforts have come at great cost. On the day that Volkov met in Washington with State Department Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and members of Congress, Navalny announced (via tweets conveyed by his attorney to aides in the West) that he had been placed in a solitary confinement cell where he may be held without respite for six months.

“He normally never complains about his health. He’s not that type,” Volkov said. But “this solitary cell is the most severe punishment that exists within the Russian punishment system.”

Leonid Volkov.
Leonid Volkov, Alexei Navalny's chief of staff. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

Once described as the “IT Whiz in Charge of Bringing Down Putin” by the Jewish affairs magazine Tablet, Volkov comes from central Russia. In 2009 he was elected to a municipal position in Yekaterinburg, the city where Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. He has been working with Navalny since 2016. Both men are irascible and loquacious, though Navalny is impulsive where Volkov is analytical.

An attorney by training, Navalny rose to prominence by blogging about corruption among Putin’s inner circle of Kremlin advisers. In 2010, Time called him “Russia’s Erin Brockovich,” a reference to the American environmental muckraker. He was arrested the following year for holding an anti-Putin rally in Moscow, a typically heavy-handed official response that the Washington Post correctly predicted would “catapult him out of the online world and onto a national stage.”

When Navalny ran for the Moscow mayoralty in 2013, Volkov joined his campaign. It was a quixotic bid, but Navalny waged the contest with determination, eventually earning 27% of the vote, an astonishing result in an election whose outcome was never in doubt.

Five years later, with Volkov now his chief of staff, Navalny challenged Putin directly for the presidency. This was a more risky enterprise, considering that Soviet injunctions against challenging official power are effectively intact. That mattered little to Navalny, who sought to marshal his fellow Russians’ outrage over just how much of the Soviet power structure — its venality, secrecy and myopia, its militarism and corruption, its lack of concern — remained in place.

Alexei Navalny delivers a speech.
Navalny delivers a speech in Moscow during a meeting to uphold his bid to be a 2018 presidential candidate. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

The risks of taking on Putin have always been obvious — as Putin has always intended. Navalny does not seem to care; at least, the risk of dying has not dissuaded him from treating the Russia forged under Putin’s rule as an aberration that must be destroyed.

“I want to live in a normal country, and I refuse to accept any talk about Russia being doomed to being a bad, poor or servile country. I want to live here, and I can't tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine,” he told NPR a month before the presidential election.

In a sign of how serious a threat he had become, Russian authorities decreed that he would be kept off the ballot.

Still, a kind of moral victory had been won.

Navalny and Volkov persist in holding to the belief in a Russian future that the Russian present does not seem to warrant. Encountering Volkov in 2019 at a conference in Estonia, the New Yorker writer Masha Gessen, a Moscow native who writes frequently about her homeland, was struck by this very quality. “I was not optimistic; he was full of hope,” Gessen wrote. “He said that it was a tremendously exciting moment to be living in Russia.”

Arrested back in Moscow after the Estonia conference, Volkov decided it was too risky to remain in Russia. He left for Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and has lived there with his family ever since.

Navalny made a different calculation. Even though his bid for the presidency fell short, his charisma and social media savvy made him a danger to Putin and his Kremlin functionaries, who knew how to use force and propaganda but lacked any ability to appeal forthrightly to ordinary Russians.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, attend a rally in Moscow.
Navalny and his wife, Yulia, at a rally in Moscow in 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Recognizing that Navalny’s movement was the first serious threat to his rule in years, Putin tried to poison him in 2020. The attempt failed, a rarity for a ruler accustomed to having enemies ruthlessly and efficiently dispatched. Even more unusual was that after recuperating in Germany, Navalny decided to return to Russia in January 2021, forcing a confrontation with the Kremlin that could end only one way.

Last week, when Volkov met with U.S. lawmakers from both parties and staffers from both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, he presented them with a paper fold-out miniature model of Navalny’s cell, an 80-square-foot concrete box containing a sink, a small chair and, as Volkov puts it, “well, that’s it.”

From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., his bed is folded against the concrete wall, meaning that the 6-foot-2-inch-tall Navalny has no means to alleviate his persistent back pain.

Recently, his Anti-Corruption Foundation installed a full-scale, concrete model of his cell outside the Russian Embassy in Berlin, a macabre work of protest art that seeks to keep Navalny's plight at the fore of media coverage.

Navalny endured 11 separate stays in solitary confinement throughout the last several months, each lasting the legal maximum of 15 days. He would be returned to his cell, then quickly penalized for some minor infraction and sent into solitary confinement again.

Now even that pretense will be gone. In response to the new six-month penalty, the U.S. charged that “the Kremlin’s efforts to silence Navalny are part of a broader effort to limit the ability of the people of Russia to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Oleg Navalny, the brother of Alexei Navalny, stands inside a replica, constructed in Berlin, of his brother's punishment cell in a Russian penal colony.
Oleg Navalny, the brother of Alexei Navalny, stands inside a replica, constructed in Berlin, of his brother's cell in a Russian penal colony. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

If such calls exert little influence on Russian authorities, they nevertheless serve as a reminder that the way Navalny is treated matters to Washington and London, Brussels and Paris. Volkov and other Navalny supporters believe the Kremlin won’t kill him if it believes that the West would exact a price for his murder, such as more stringent sanctions.

Russian state-sponsored media never mention Navalny. Silencing media outlets abroad is, of course, much harder, but the legacy of the Soviet Union’s notorious propaganda efforts lives on in the digital age. A study from last summer by computer scientist Iuliia Alieva and two Carnegie Mellon colleagues found that Russia had launched a disinformation campaign using “anti-Navalny bots that spark conspiracy discussions and distorted information and facts.”

Navalny has been accused of being both a far-right Russian nationalist and a puppet of the United States. Neither charge is true, but both have found some traction among both an American far right that harbors affection for Putin’s authoritarianism and a far left inherently suspicious of U.S. intentions in Eastern Europe.

The effort to keep Navalny in the headlines was helped last month when the Canadian documentary “Navalny” was nominated for an Academy Award. Directed by Daniel Roher, the film captures Navalny’s months-long recovery from 2020’s attempted poisoning attempt.

Once his health improved, Navalny decided to head home. “Russia is my country,” he said by way of explanation.

When his plane from Berlin touched down in Moscow, he was greeted by throngs of supporters — and police officers who arrested him for violating a probation sentence that was the outcome of a 2014 fraud case. Two separate show trials followed, with Navalny convicted on fictitious charges of corruption that could keep him in prison for more than 11 years.

Alexei Navalny at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Navalny at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 17, 2021, before being detained by Russian police. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet the fact that Putin has not ordered him killed is significant, Volkov argues: a little bit of hope in a hopeless country. “I believe whoever comes next will consider him as an asset, as a bargaining chip,” he says.

At a time when many Russia experts refuse to entertain the notion of a Kremlin not helmed by Putin, the question of succession is very much on Volkov’s mind. In his conversations with diplomats, foreign affairs experts and lawmakers in Washington, he tied Navalny’s fate to the war in Ukraine — and to the future of Russia as the stable democracy that many in the West envisioned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Volkov’s core conviction — the conviction that gives both him and Navalny hope — is that support for the year-old invasion of Ukraine is vastly overstated. And that as support continues to erode, Putin’s grip on Russia will collapse. The collapse will be messy and perhaps violent. But a better Russia will emerge.

“Things in Russia are changing in a very interesting and, I believe, in a truly very optimistic way,” Volkov says.

Others once harbored similar hopes, only to give them up as the Ukrainian invasion ground on and the Kremlin hunkered down, embattled but resourceful enough to withstand the blows to its ramparts.

Westerners were encouraged by the protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow when Putin first invaded Ukraine in late February 2022. When those protests subsided and life seemed to return to normal in Russia — minus Apple and American Express, not to mention a host of other consequences of a harsh new international sanctions regime — many concluded that a cowed, truth-deprived populace had simply come to accept war as a fact of life.

Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a meeting via video conference. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“Sure, Russians are becoming divided, and their opinions polarized, as people grow tired of war,” Russia expert Andrei Kolesnikov recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “But far from weakening Putin’s hold on power, the ‘special military operation’ has only strengthened it.”

Volkov disagrees, pointing to polling conducted by the Anti-Corruption Foundation that suggests exasperation with the war in Ukraine is reaching an unsustainable level (because it is illegal to describe the invasion of Ukraine as anything but a “special military operation,” it is exceptionally difficult to ask Russians about the war, let alone to ask them for honest assessments). He and others have argued that protests against last fall’s partial mobilization ordered by Putin were notable precisely because they did not take place in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but rather in the vast hinterlands where the Kremlin generally expects near-unilateral support, or at least resigned, fatalistic compliance.

More waves of mobilization are expected as Russia continues to suffer heavy losses and tanks from Germany and the United States arrive on the battlefield. With each wave, popular discontent could grow.

“The silence is getting so loud in Russia,” Volkov says.

His argument to Washington lawmakers and diplomats has been that continuing to support Ukraine — as President Biden and most congressional leaders have vowed to do — is the easiest way to hasten Putin’s demise. That, in turn — at least according to Volkov — is the surest way to expedite the freeing of Navalny and other political prisoners, like fellow dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza.

President Biden.
President Biden speaks about the war in Ukraine at the White House in January. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Optimism is not regarded as a signature trait of the mythic Russian soul (“War and prison are the two most important words in the Russian language,” the Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian oral historian Svetlana Alexievich once observed), but Volkov is not alone in evincing hope for a country he has not seen.

“The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is living on borrowed time,” Navalny’s fellow dissidents Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Garry Kasparov, both now living in the West, recently wrote. If support for Ukraine “holds firm, Putin’s regime will likely collapse in the near future,” they predicted.

Volkov believes that “mounting pressure from inside, mounting economic pressure, and further military successes of Ukrainian armed forces will lead to a political crisis within Russia” that will lead to the toppling of Putin.

Skeptics may point to Putin’s approval ratings, which remain remarkably high. No less remarkable has been the resilience of the Russian economy, which the West’s sanctions have not managed to collapse. And while Twitter memes may sometimes make it seem as if Ukrainian forces are daily on the cusp of a historic rout, the war has been a grinding affair for both sides. Ukraine has to labor consistently to keep the Western coalition from crumbling. Russia, which has no coalition of its own, simply has to wait.

Still, it has been years since Kremlinologists have enjoyed such fertile grounds for their speculation. Recent rumors have suggested that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur and founder of the Wagner Group mercenary army, may be positioning himself to succeed (or supplant) Putin, who has been hounded by rumors about his health for years.

Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, who died during a special operation in Ukraine. (AP)

Then there’s Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, an unlikely pretender to the throne whose ambition and volatility make him an unpredictable player on the Kremlin’s political chessboard. He recently promised not to run for the Russian presidency, which only had the discomfiting effect of serving as a reminder that he could, in fact, seek the title.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev — who served in the position during a four-year interregnum during which Putin was constitutionally required to relinquish the office he has otherwise held without interruption for more than two decades — has tried to reclaim some of his influence with the kind of fire-and-brimstone fulminations that seem more fitting for the early Cold War days. But his legacy of corruption (uncovered by Navalny in 2017), along with rumors about his private life, all but ensure that Medvedev won’t have the top job again.

The more likely candidate, Volkov believes, is Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a quiet operator whose fingerprints are not on the disastrous Ukraine war. In its analysis of potential future leaders of Russia, Politico gave Mishustin a relatively encouraging two out of five nuclear mushroom clouds on its “scariness” scale, making him a less frightening alternative than security chief Nikolai Patrushev.

“He’s a businessman. He’s no criminal. And he’s quite smart,” Volkov says of Mishustin. All that, he believes, will make him eager to deal with the West.

Whoever the Kremlin’s new leader will be, Volkov argues, his primary asset will be that his name is not Vladimir Putin.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. (Dmitry Astakhov/Pool Photo via AP)

He explains that Putin has managed to carefully apportion political, military and economic power among Russia’s elites — the oligarchs, the siloviki (officials who rose with Putin through the security services), the generals for whom the humiliations of the Ukraine war have been especially acute — in a way that gives no single figure obvious advantage over others.

The power equilibrium has sustained Putin’s rule for two decades, Volkov explains, but it also means that a successor is likely to have so little legitimacy at home that he will be forced to look for validation abroad, from the West.

“As part of this deal, they will just return everything just in order to stay in power,” Volkov believes. The Ukrainian flag will once more fly over Crimea, as well as the Donbas, and Russian dissidents Navalny and Kara-Murza will once more be free.

Some say this is fantasy, and that Putin’s careful negotiation of the Kremlin’s power currents will keep him from drowning. “He has survived economic depression, international isolation, mismanagement of a deadly pandemic, botched terrorist responses, and an intelligence fiasco that led Russia into a bungled war — and he’s still here,” Russia historian Mark Lawrence Schrad recently wrote.

The sentiment is classic fatalism, the product of centuries of life under despotic rulers — czars, revolutionaries, oligarchs — who treated ordinary people as an inconvenience, one that could be resolved in the vast frozen wastelands of Siberia, littered with the bones of so many dead. Resignation has become a form of survival, a kind of political self-care.

Navalny is asking Russians to put aside their cynicism, difficult as that may be today. For years he has asked Russians to imagine a country other than the authoritarian petro-state Putin has fashioned from the wreckage of the Soviet Union.

“It requires a lot of patience. It’s really slow,” Volkov says of the work he and the Anti-Corruption Foundation are doing. But, he later adds, “it’s important that we don’t lose faith.”