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Can Yulia Navalnaya unite the Russian opposition?

Alexey Strelnikov
February 22, 2024

The widow of Alexei Navalny, who died last week in a Russian penal colony, has said she will carry on her husband's work. Observers think she can be a unifying figure both in and out of Russia.

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Yulia Navalnaya
Yulia Navalnaya has said she will continue her late husband's fightImage: Yves Herman/AP/picture alliance

Three days after her husband's death, Yulia Navalnaya announced publicly that she would continue his work and take over the management of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). She also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of killing Alexei Navalny, and announced that an investigation into the exact details was underway.

"We know exactly why Putin killed Alexei three days ago," she said in a video address. "We will tell you about it soon. We will definitely find out who exactly and how exactly committed this crime. We will tell you their names and show you their faces."

Observers interpreted Navalnaya's address as a means of declaring that she was entering politics. Some believe that the image of a strong woman could unite the opposition both in and outside of Russia.

Yulia Navalnaya and Alexei Navalny
The Navalnys met in Turkey and later joined Russia's Yabloko partyImage: Sefa Karacan/AA/picture alliance

An invisible helper

Yulia Abrosimova and Alexei Navalny met in 1998 while on vacation in Turkey. They married in 2000 and their daughter Daria was born a year later. Their son Zakhar was born in 2008. The couple joined the Yabloko party in the 2000s.

Though Navalnaya graduated from the Faculty of International Economic Relations at Plekhanov University in Moscow, and completed an internship at a business school in Denmark, she did not pursue her own career. Instead, she chose to support her husband's political career, helping him with translations and business plans the more important he became.

"I was an invisible helper," Navalnaya told the magazine Afisha in 2014 in a cover article entitled "The stronger sex."

In December 2011, one year after founding his donation-funded anti-corruption project RosPil, Navalny was arrested after participating in a rally for fair elections. His wife and other members of the opposition searched for him in detention centers across the Russian capital Moscow. He was released after two weeks in detention.

Navalnaya later said that the "most dramatic day" had been in 2013 when her husband was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of embezzlement. He was accused of defrauding the a state-owned lumber company called KirovLes and ordered to pay damages equivalent of $35,000 (€32,000). Pictures of the courtroom showed Navalnaya with her head bowed. She had been prepared for the worst. In the end, the sentence was suspended after a public outcry. 

Navalnaya told Afisha that she had come to terms with the risks of her husband's political work: "People believe in him, their eyes light up and they take to the streets, even if they are intimidated and at risk of being arrested. That's great."

Navalnaya earned the nickname "First Lady" of the opposition in 2013 when Alexei Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow and came second after garnering around 27% of the vote. He campaigned for more transparency in politics, including with regard to his own income, property and also his family. The Navalnys came across differently from other politicians.

The doctor Aleksandr Polupan told DW that Navalnaya had been composed, strong-willed and self-confident despite the stress after her husband was poisoned in Omsk in the summer of 2020. He said that it was her perseverance that had ensured Navalny was transported to Germany, and that she was also responsible for the case receiving a great deal of public attention. Navalnaya had appealed to Putin to allow her husband to be treated in Germany; the president later said that he had personally asked the public prosecutor's office to allow Navalny to leave the country.

A regime that kills its opponents is weak: Dmitry Gudkov

'Moral symbol of resistance'

Now that Navalny is dead, his wife wants to succeed him. Political scientist Dmitri Oreshkin said that Navalnaya could be an important symbol in the fight against "male" tyranny in Russia. He added that while a majority of Russia's male population believed that NATO wanted to attack Russia, the female population meanwhile had to solve problems: "Their husbands have been killed, brothers have had to join the army and sons have been sent to die in Ukraine. Navalnaya's image could prove to be a unifying force for the opposition at home and abroad."

Andrey Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, agreed that Navalnaya could become a "moral symbol of resistance." He said that if a democratic presidential candidate were ever nominated she would be considered best in the view of millions.

The Navalnys in a plane wearing face masks
The Navalnys flew back to Russia after Alexei received treatment in Germany for poisoningImage: Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo/picture alliance

'Keep fighting and do not give up'

Navalnaya told Afisha that she had been interested in society, politics and the media since childhood. "I have voted in every election since I turned 18," she said, describing Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev as the ideal couple, who went for "a walk together almost evening after work." She said that her bond with Alexei had given them both strength despite the risks. He relied on her to improve his speeches, while she could depend on him.

"By killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul," she said in her video address. "But I still have the other half, and it tells me that I have no right to give up."

She asked those she was addressing to share her "anger, rage, hatred for those who have dared to destroy our future," and to help build a new Russia. "Exactly as Alexei Navalny envisioned it. Full of dignity, justice and love. There is no other way. The unthinkable sacrifice he had made cannot be in vain.

Keep fighting and do not give up. I am not afraid, and I urge you not to be afraid of anything as well."

This article was originally published in Russian.