On February 16, not long after news of the death of Alexey Navalny became public, television cameras caught Russian president Vladimir Putin on a visit to the industrial city of Chelyabinsk. He appeared relaxed, businesslike, at times ebullient. No one asked him about the opposition leader’s passing, and he offered no comment on it. There was no sign of the somber mien Putin assumed in 2015 when asked about the death of Boris Nemtsov, another prominent critic, who had been gunned down just a few hundred feet from the gates of the Kremlin. Back then Putin vowed a thorough investigation to hunt down Nemtsov’s killers, even claiming in an aside that he and Nemtsov had maintained “friendly relations.”

Today there is evidently no need for such pretense. For Putin, the timing of Navalny’s death couldn’t be more convenient. From March 15 through March 17, Russians will cast their votes in what is still referred to as a “presidential election,” although it bears little resemblance to what is usually understood by the term. Putin’s genuine opponents—unlike the fake candidates the Kremlin allows onto ballots to create an illusion of competition—never stood a chance of challenging him. But their presence could have resulted in some awkward moments for the president.1 Now the possibility of such disruptions has been eliminated. Navalny’s death represents the culmination of the Kremlin’s efforts to push the country into a political deep freeze. Russians find themselves inhabiting a kingdom of fear reminiscent of the reigns of Nicholas I, Stalin, or Brezhnev.

Since Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he has used the war as an excuse to crack down on his critics on a scale previously unseen during his presidency. He has imprisoned an entire catalog of prominent liberal politicians, including Vladimir Kara-Murza (currently serving a twenty-five-year-sentence for treason in a Siberian prison) and Ilya Yashin (sentenced to eight and a half years, under new censorship laws, for allegedly disseminating fake news about the Russian military). The human rights organization OVD-Info says that 19,855 activists have been detained for protesting against the war. Thousands of others—including those members of Navalny’s team who were able to escape—now live in exile abroad. They are part of a much larger group of Russians, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who have left the country to avoid conscription or complicity with the war. Many of these emigrants, even if not active supporters of Putin’s critics, are members of the younger generation working in knowledge-intensive industries—the kind of educated, urban voters who helped Navalny make an impressively strong showing against the officially approved candidate for mayor of Moscow in 2013.

Nor has Putin restricted his attacks to prodemocracy activists. Oligarchs and business leaders have either been cowed into silence or driven out of the country. The authorities have also been arresting and silencing the ultranationalists and pro-war bloggers who have dared to criticize the conduct of the war from the right, a reverberation from the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive mutiny last summer. Just in case anyone didn’t get the message, when a hitherto little-known liberal named Boris Nadezhdin recently announced that he had collected enough signatures to get himself on the presidential ballot, the Kremlin swiftly quashed his effort.

Yet no other figure in the liberal opposition has managed to inspire hope quite as powerfully as Navalny. Charismatic, fit, and young (in telling contrast to the gerontocratic leadership), he demonstrated remarkable physical courage, political acumen, and organizational skills. Most important of all, he created a distinct public voice—I shudder to use the word “brand”—that avoided many of the weaknesses of previous opposition leaders and offered the promise of genuine generational change.

Navalny deployed that voice to punch a gigantic hole through the official myth that Russians are unified in worshipful obeisance to their supreme leader. In the process he effectively succeeded in breaking the regime’s monopoly on public life. During the 2018 presidential campaign he created a political organization that encompassed thousands of enthusiastic activists and dozens of cities, an achievement that shocked the Kremlin and may well have precipitated its attempt to poison him with a nerve agent in 2020. His well-crafted videos investigating corruption among elites have reached tens of millions of viewers inside Russia and out. Recent surveys suggest that his name recognition in recent years reached around 75 percent, in a country where he was almost entirely excluded from state media and the president notoriously refused to say his name.

After his death those who wish for change in Russia face a daunting challenge. Navalny is irreplaceable, and trying to find a substitute would be a pointless exercise. Yet it is a poor politician who fails to create a legacy capable of surviving him. In Navalny’s case, he bequeaths a great deal to those who follow in his footsteps.


Above all else, Navalny—underappreciated as a political innovator—succeeded in finding an approach to democratic politics that would appeal to a new generation of Russians whose lives have been shaped by Putin and who now yearn to imagine alternatives. The Dissident, David Herszenhorn’s thoroughly reported biography, does a good job of capturing Navalny’s style. Its title is a calculated provocation: Navalny, Herszenhorn argues, made a conscious effort to contrast himself with the prodemocracy activists of the late Soviet and early post-Soviet periods, and he rejected the “dissident” label because it evoked a class of intellectuals and idealists who could be depicted all too easily as remote from the concerns of everyday life. Many of those activists, Herzsenhorn notes, also happened to be Jewish. That didn’t necessarily help them build support among a populace permeated by antisemitism. “He, his wife, Yulia, and their children, Darya and Zakhar, look like they could be models in an advertisement depicting the stereotypical ideal of a Slavic, Russian family,” Herszenhorn writes, noting that this made it harder to portray them as outsiders. Some may find such considerations repellent, but it’s hard to deny that they are influential in public discourse.

Like any other Russian prodemocracy activist, moreover, Navalny had to contend with the legacy of the 1990s, when the country’s brief experiment with liberalism coincided with hyperinflation, crass inequality, high unemployment, open gang warfare, and political chaos. While the country did indeed enjoy many vital freedoms during the 1990s, very few Russians who lived through the period are likely to look back on it with fondness. Navalny explicitly distanced himself from this legacy by criticizing some of its most obvious injustices. “I fiercely, madly hate all those who sold, drank away, wasted the historic chance our nation had in the early 1990s,” he wrote from prison last year. I have no doubt that he was sincere in these beliefs, but they also happened to be shrewd positioning.

It was striking how consistently Navalny avoided lofty appeals to abstract principles when making his case for democracy. He liked to stress that the world’s most developed countries were wealthy precisely because they were free; even though he sharply criticized the war in Ukraine, he usually cast his opposition in the language of economic scandal rather than pacifist principle. (Daniel Roher’s 2022 documentary Navalny shows him doing a call-and-response at a rally: “Do you want to pay for war?” “No!” yells the crowd.) Such pragmatism resonated with a population steeped in the profoundly cynical world of modern-day Russia, where any appeal to exalted values is likely to be dismissed as a scam. Even when Navalny sang the praises of democracy, he rarely sounded like Václav Havel or Nelson Mandela.

Neatly dovetailing with this practical approach was his persistent campaign against corruption, an issue with a visceral impact on every Russian. Navalny, who began his career as a shareholder activist, gradually came to see the brazen venality of the regime as its greatest weakness. He combined this insight with a knack for leveraging the power of the Internet, and soon his team was producing a steady stream of incendiary videos for YouTube (the one major social media platform that remains uncensored in the country today, probably because so many people remain dependent on it for commerce and entertainment).

The videos are beautifully produced, cleverly scripted, and great fun to watch, which helps explain why they have found such an astonishing audience. Navalny’s team flew drones over the immense estate of Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Putin’s placeholder in the presidency from 2008 to 2012, and caught a deputy prime minister cavorting with prostitutes on an oligarch’s yacht. They released their most devastating exposé of all, on Putin’s alleged billion-dollar vacation home on the Black Sea, in January 2021, just days after Navalny’s last arrest. According to YouTube, “Putin’s Palace” has been viewed 130 million times; it is likely that a quarter of the Russian population has watched it.

If Russians find the excesses of their leaders infuriating, that is precisely the point. Anger was a Navalny trademark. He inhabited, Herszenhorn says, a black-and-white world in which Putin and his minions stood clearly on the side of evil: “He is driven by outrage, and what he has described as ‘hate’—a personal, visceral animus toward his opponents. He hates being lied to, hates feeling like he is being ripped off, hates being taken for a fool.” Herszenhorn’s book evokes this quality well. Probably because of the inaccessibility of his subject, Herszenhorn seems to have made an effort to compile just about every public statement made by Navalny over the past decade and a half, and he quotes from these sources obsessively—to an extent that sometimes makes it hard to follow the narrative.


Yet Herszenhorn’s approach does convey a vivid sense of Navalny’s public persona: smart, obstreperous, contemptuous of those in power, unbelievably brave but also funny in a way that contrasts with the joylessness of earlier generations of human rights defenders. His self-deprecating sense of humor was a huge asset, and his love of American pop culture conveyed a sense of approachability. (It’s hard to imagine Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov proclaiming their love of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rick and Morty.) Yet there is also something authentically Russian about his earthy rancor. He once described Putin as a “naked, thieving king” who “doesn’t give a damn about the country.” Another time he took aim at one of Putin’s friends, Vladimir Yakunin (then the notoriously sleazy head of Russian Railways), by launching a website called “The Adventures of Piglet Yakunin.” In a 2011 interview he famously coined a new label for the widely despised ruling party, United Russia: “the Party of Crooks and Thieves.” The name has stuck.

In 2012, in a typical polemic, Navalny took on an archconservative lawmaker named Sergei Zheleznyak, who despite his screeds against the West was revealed to be sending his children to expensive private schools in Switzerland and the UK, paying fees far beyond the reach of his official salary. “I’m sure you hate this lying, hypocritical scoundrel as much as I do,” Navalny wrote. His team has specialized in exposing this kind of hypocrisy among Russia’s elite, who proclaim their “patriotism” and rail against the West even as they fund their children’s glamorous lives in London (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) or Paris (Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov). Nor has Putin been exempt. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published evidence that one of the president’s daughters owns a villa in Biarritz, while his ex-wife Lyudmila acquired properties in Spain.

This sort of frontal attack on the highest levels of the Russian state required extraordinary courage. Navalny was unabashed. “Of course, we understand that the more crooked, thieving and criminal an official is, the more stable his position in Putin’s system of power is,” he wrote. “I personally understand that the more I piss on this or that swindler, the dearer he is to Putin.”

In his court appearances, Navalny frequently lashed out not only at the president and senior officials, but also at his judges, prosecutors, and jailers. He couldn’t resist taunting his captors in the most personal terms. This may have helped to hasten his death, though his guards certainly didn’t need an additional reason to abuse him. During the last month of his life, in the Arctic prison to which he was transferred in December, he was severely punished, again and again, for various minor infractions. He ended up spending much of his last three years in solitary confinement.

Righteous rage at the powers that be is a prominent ingredient in many populist movements, and I doubt that Navalny would have shied away from the label. Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble, in their otherwise skillful analysis of his politics, Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?, are keen to defend him against those who would define him as a populist, but their efforts are misdirected. Since the US presidential election in 2016, “populism” has often been identified with the authoritarian, far-right tendencies Trump and many other contemporary leaders embody. The term refers more generally, though, to any politician or movement that professes to defend the interests of the “people” (however broadly or narrowly defined) against the machinations of an entrenched elite. In the US the People’s Party (aka the Populist Party) at the end of the nineteenth century embraced this position to great effect; so, too, did Theodore Roosevelt (who learned a great deal from the Populists) and his cousin Franklin.

By stirring up powerful collective emotions, however, populism always runs the danger of smothering rational debate and vilifying opponents as less than human. Navalny was not immune to these dangers. In 2006, in the early stages of his political career, he began taking part in the Russian March, an annual procession of various ultranationalists, including skinheads and Nazis. (This resulted in his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party.) One of his 2007 videos depicts him gunning down a hijab-clad terrorist, who is equated with cockroaches and flies. In 2008, when Russia launched an invasion of Georgia, Navalny tacitly approved, infamously equating Georgians with “rodents.” And when the Kremlin sent troops into eastern Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea, he didn’t clearly side with the principle of Kyiv’s sovereignty over its own territory. While acknowledging that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “a flagrant violation of all international norms,” he also urged Ukrainians to accept its loss. “Crimea will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine again in the foreseeable future,” he said, and added that he would be unlikely to return it if he became president. “Is Crimea a sandwich, or something, to be passed back and forth? I don’t think so.”

The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, in a thoughtful account of Navalny’s political evolution, notes that this “realist” position angered both Ukrainians incensed by the seizure of their land and chauvinist Russians who objected to his emphasis on the illegality of the annexation.2 He publicly apologized for his comments on Georgia, and Ukrainians were somewhat mollified by his subsequent criticisms of Putin’s war. But a certain mistrust has lingered. The Kremlin has seized the opportunity to run disinformation campaigns casting Navalny as an unrepentant ultranationalist (reminiscent of its efforts to depict Ukrainian leaders as “Nazis”). This is rather rich, coming from a government that looks more fascist in its actions and rhetoric every day.

In his film Roher asks Navalny point-blank about this issue. “If I want to be a leader of a country,” he responded, “I cannot just ignore [a] huge part of it,” noting that many Russians were “nationalists” and that he intended to build a coalition that included them. Prominent liberal oppositionists have spoken up for Navalny over the years, arguing that he had evolved away from his more blinkered views and that his commitment to genuine democracy couldn’t be doubted. Gessen credits him, a bit more cautiously, with trying to imagine “a post-imperial Russian national identity.” There is no question that such an effort is urgently needed. When Putin leaves the stage—hopefully sooner rather than later—prodemocracy activists will succeed only if they can fill the void with a new brand of Russian patriotism founded on healthy civic institutions rather than destructive chauvinist myths. But finding the right balance will be a challenge.

Navalny’s loss is a shattering blow to the dream of a free Russia. But those who continue to pursue that dream can take valuable lessons from his example. His successors should emulate his pragmatism, and they should embrace his model of democratic populism, channeling his sense of outrage and his intense yearning for justice into political positions that resonate with ordinary people, not only the intelligentsia.

For anyone who wants a sense of the possible path forward, I suggest watching the heartrending video released a few days after Navalny’s passing by his wife, Yulia, who vowed to continue the struggle:

We must use every opportunity: fight against war, against corruption, against injustice. Fight for fair elections and freedom of expression, fight to take back our country. I know what I’m fighting for. I’m fighting for a new future for my family and my children.

She may well prove adept at filling his shoes. But she confronts a harsh reality. Her husband’s remarkable political organization, which we see him boasting about in Roher’s documentary, has been almost entirely smashed, its members arrested or driven into exile. A number of his lawyers are now imprisoned.

Navalny embodied hope. That hope cannot be allowed to die with him. The situation is grim, but if the past two years have shown us anything, it is that Russia’s war on Ukraine has introduced a new element of unpredictability into the Eurasian political landscape. Throughout Russian history, military disasters have triggered coup attempts, shake-ups, and revolutions—a pattern well known to the president and his minions. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group forces were hailed as heroes by the citizens of Rostov-on-Don before they set off on their ill-fated march to Moscow last June, offering yet another reminder of the volatility of seemingly quiescent public opinion. Ukraine’s military effort may be running into trouble at the moment, but it is worth remembering that two years ago very few outside observers anticipated that Kyiv was capable of thwarting a full-scale Russian invasion, much less retaking large swaths of territory, inflicting debilitating losses on the Russian military, or effectively driving most of the Black Sea Fleet out of its home port in Sevastopol. The Russian economy may have recovered from its initial difficulties in the early phases of the war, but its foundations remain shaky.

I have no doubt that Putin is congratulating himself over the demise of his hated enemy. He is now cruising into the March election without a single notable rival. Never has he looked so impregnable. Yet he shouldn’t get too comfortable. Time and time again we have witnessed the fragility inherent in autocratic systems. Today Russia has reached a point where everything depends on the whim of a man who has repeatedly demonstrated that he is trapped in a bubble of self-delusion, reliant on information supplied by servile courtiers, and flattered by his entourage even as disasters multiply. Navalny got under Putin’s skin precisely because he was so blunt about revealing this fundamental vulnerability. And there is something that Putin doesn’t understand: Navalny may be gone, but his followers are many. And they will not forget.

March 7, 2024