The Story Behind TIME's Interview with Alexei Navalny
From alexander koryagin@2:5075/128.130 to All on Sun Feb 20 13:19:16 2022
The Man Putin Fears
BY SIMON SHUSTER
On a cold morning in November, the family of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, made the trip out to visit him at Penal Colony No. 2.
The drive from Moscow took about two hours, though parts of it felt
like? traveling back in time. Coming off the highway from Russia's
high-tech capital, the roads became rutted. Apartment blocks gave way to wooden huts, and old ladies appeared near the roadside in heavy coats,
selling vegetables from their gardens.
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. Before long, the inmate was led
out to meet them. He looked skinny, his head shorn, a broad smile framed
by a prison-issue hat. Ten months had passed since Navalny's
incarceration, and more than a year since he was nearly poisoned to
death with a chemical weapon. Its effects on his nervous system no
longer showed; his hands had stopped trembling. "He looked good," his
wife Yulia Navalnaya later told me. "Unchanged."
It had been Navalny's decision to be there. Not in this specific prison,
with its silent guards and its windows papered over to create the
feeling, Navalny says, of living inside a shoebox. But he did make a
choice to return to Russia, fully aware of what the state would likely
do to him. From his temporary exile, he decided almost exactly a year
ago to submit to the custody of the regime that stood accused of trying
to murder him. The poison had failed to kill Navalny. It hadn't even
really changed him.
<Photo Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME>
From the confines of his barracks, he still runs a network of
dissidents devoted to ousting President Vladimir Putin. Its top leaders
are fugitives from Russian law, though they were not hard for me to find
while reporting this story. Some met me while they were fundraising in
New York City or lobbying in Washington. Others showed me the TV studio
they built in Eastern Europe, just outside Russia's border, to air
broadcasts for millions of followers inside.
Through them, I began to receive a series of handwritten letters 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. The first one came punctuated
with a smiley face, as though the dissident were still adding emojis to
the blog that started his political career.
Our exchange, which lasted through the middle of January, coincided with
a tense time in Europe. Not long after Navalny's family visited him,
Putin began massing troops near Russia's western border, enough to
launch an invasion of Ukraine. The Biden Administration tried to talk
the Russians down, resulting in a standoff drenched in Cold War
revivalism. Envoys of the world's two nuclear superpowers spent weeks
trading threats and demands. The spectacle made Navalny cringe. "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 in response to Navalny's
criticism, adding that the U.S. considers his imprisonment "to be
politically motivated and a gross injustice."
Few people have studied Putin as long or as obsessively as Navalny. In
his letters, he tries to explain what motivates the Russian President,
and what Putin fears. It is not what he claims to be concerned about:
the deployment of U.S. forces in Eastern Europe, or the chance that
Ukraine might one day join 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. This fear,
Navalny argues, is what drives all the conflicts Russia wages with the
West. "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."
Rather than convening talks or offering concessions, Navalny wants the
U.S. to pressure the Kremlin from without while Navalny and his
supporters pressure it 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.
But that slogan elides the ugliness of how dictatorships often fall.
Russians need not look far for examples. In early January, protests
swept through neighboring Kazakhstan, an oil-rich autocracy to Russia's
south. Government buildings were set ablaze. Scores of police and
protesters were killed. Kazakhstan's President issued a shoot-to-kill
order to his security forces and called for assistance from Russia and
its allies. Within hours, Putin dispatched thousands of troops to help
put down the uprising. The crackdown worked. The protests subsided.
In our exchange of letters, I asked Navalny about the prospect of such violence in Russia, and whether he sees it as the price of change after
21 years under the rule of one man. "Our path," he wrote, "was never
strewn with roses."
Navalny was born and raised in garrison towns, moving from one to
another with his father, a Soviet officer who did not have much faith in
the system he served. That system fell apart when Navalny was a
teenager. After studying law, he got his first taste of politics as a
member of the Yabloko party, a group of milquetoast liberals that his
mother, an economist, supported. "We lived well," she once told a
Russian magazine about Navalny's youth. "That is, we were poor. Like
I first met Navalny in Moscow 12 years ago. 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. His headquarters back then were a cheaply furnished office in
Moscow with low ceilings and a heavy metal door. 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.
On social media, the foundation became famous for exposing the garish
wealth of these elites. Its reports were often based on forensic
accounting and bank records. Some used drone footage of Italian villas
owned by Putin's underlings. Others plucked evidence from photos that
these officials or their relatives posted online, flaunting a yacht or
luxury watches. One technocrat had a habit of flying his pet corgis to
dog shows on a private jet. In his videos, Navalny delivered these
findings in an irreverent style, like a wisecracking detective for the
In late 2011, when a massive wave of street protests broke out to call
for fair elections, Navalny was well-positioned to lead them. His blog
had a massive following, and he had earned a reputation for incendiary speeches 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.
His rhetoric turned many people off. 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. Above all, he wanted democratic change.
The state took notice. It first tried to put Navalny in a cell in 2012,
when prosecutors charged him with embezzling timber. 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. Soon after one of these raids, Navalny
invited me to his office. 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. He shrugged as he showed it to me. "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, prosecutors filed new charges, accusing Navalny and
his brother Oleg of stealing from two 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. Alexei Navalny got off easier; the court suspended his 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. When Navalny ran for
mayor of Moscow in 2013, the official tally gave him nearly 30% of the vote.
A few months later, the revolution in Ukraine reminded Putin just how
quickly a regime can fall. Then President Viktor Yanukovych, his ally in
Kyiv, barely held out for two months before fleeing the country in a helicopter, unable to quell a wave of demonstrations against rampant corruption. Putin responded by sending troops to occupy Crimea and start
a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. At home, he continued building
defenses against a similar revolt. Roughly 400,000 troops were hired
into a new police force, a praetorian guard trained to put down popular unrest. 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 was not deterred. In 2016, he announced plans to run for
President. Authorities kept him off the ballot. But his campaign still
set up offices nationwide. Its activists then ran in local elections,
exposed corruption among the regional elites and spread the promise of a democratic Russia. Navalny spent much of his time visiting his regional offices around the country, often drawing massive crowds.
It was during one trip to the provinces that he fell violently ill. In
August 2020, Navalny went to Siberia to shoot a video about corruption.
On the flight home to Moscow, he turned to his press secretary, Kira
Yarmysh, and said he felt strange, unable to focus. Within minutes, he
was sprawled on the floor of the plane, groaning in agony and barely conscious. The pilot made an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny
was rushed to a hospital. It took two days of public pressure before
Putin allowed German doctors to evacuate Navalny to Germany. Blood tests
there confirmed the cause of his illness: he had been poisoned with
Novichok, a chemical weapon first synthesized by Soviet scientists and
banned under international law.
Experts suspected the poison had been smeared on Navalny's clothes,
passing through his skin into the bloodstream. When Putin was asked
about the crime at a press conference, he made a joke of 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."
When he came out of a coma, Navalny had trouble recognizing his wife and children. The poison had attacked his nervous system, affecting his
memory and motor functions. His wife later told me about the delirium
and hallucinations that caused him to rip the IV tubes from his veins, spraying the bedsheets with blood. Weeks passed before he relearned how
to use a spoon, to write, to walk and to wash himself.
Several months after the poisoning, Navalny felt well enough to resume
his activism. His team gathered in Germany to investigate the attack.
Using leaked phone and travel records, they worked with several news organizations and with Bellingcat, a London-based investigative outlet,
to identify the assailants, mostly Russian security officers. Navalny
himself called one of them, pretending to be a senior Kremlin official,
and demanded to know why the attack had failed to kill its 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
Russian authorities had warned Navalny that he would be arrested upon
his return to Russia, because he had failed to check in with his parole officer while he was in Germany. Yet on Jan. 17, 2021, he and his wife
flew back to Moscow. Navalny insists the choice was easy. "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 passport control in Moscow, several officers approached Navalny and
led him away from his wife. His allies had clear instructions of what to
do next. Within two days of his arrest, they released a second
investigation their team had prepared while in Germany. It took aim
directly at Putin, linking him to a secret palace on the Black Sea
coast. 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. The film racked up 100 million views on
YouTube in a matter of days. Putin denied owning the mansion; his
childhood friend from St. Petersburg, now a billionaire, claimed it
belongs to him. Still, the film inspired tens of thousands of Russians
to protest in the streets, chanting, "Putin is a thief!" as they marched through Moscow. Anti-corruption rallies broke out in more than 100
cities and towns across Russia that 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.
The elderly father of one of his allies was sent to jail 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. Under Russian law, the ruling made it a crime to work
with or support the organization, a legal status similar to that of ISIS
or al-Qaeda. The foundation's regional branches shut down. Security
forces pursued its staff, charging some with extremism. Many others fled Russia for fear of arrest.
Soon after, Navalny was summoned to the warden's office at Penal Colony
No. 2. Inside he found a group of officials seated at a conference
table. A portrait of a youthful Putin hung on the wall behind them. In a robotic patter, a guard read a proposal to change Navalny's status at
the prison. He would no longer be treated as an inmate prone to
attempting escape. Instead he would be deemed an extremist, aggressive
and liable to indoctrinate his peers. The change was approved by
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."
Last August, on the first anniversary of the poisoning, the U.S.
sanctioned a group of Russian security officers for trying to kill
Navalny with a chemical weapon. Most of those identified in Navalny's investigation were on the list. Yet he was disappointed in the American 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. The proposal has bipartisan
support in Congress, where the blacklist was dubbed the Navalny 35. Its
most vocal advocate has been U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski, a New
Jersey Democrat and former diplomat in the Obama Administration.
Navalny's "central insight," Malinowski told me, "is that corruption is
both the Putin regime's reason for being and its greatest political vulnerability."
At their TV studio in Vilnius, Navalny's allies film investigations that
are broadcast into Russia Rafal Milach-Magnum Photos for TIME The Biden Administration has been vocal in condemning the Kremlin's attacks
against Navalny and his movement. But it has avoided expressing support
for his dream of political change in Russia, and it has not imposed the sanctions he proposes. 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. It is to pressure them to turn
In pursuing that goal, Navalny had long been careful to avoid foreign sponsors, not wanting to be perceived inside Russia as an agent of the
West. 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.
The group now openly calls for political backing from foreign
governments and solicits money from private donors. 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.
The resulting windfall from such donors has helped pay for their new
bases of operation in Eastern Europe. When I visited in January, their
office in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, looked more like a media
startup than a revolutionary lair, though freshly exiled activists are
welcome to use its shower and rest on the beanbags that lean against the walls. 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. In the kitchenette, a poster
shows 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."
In the spring of 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to
declare its independence from Moscow. Landsbergis signed that
declaration, then faced down the Soviet tanks sent to crush the
rebellion the following year. More than a dozen demonstrators wound up
dead before the Kremlin backed off and let the country break away. Landsbergis, 89, retired long 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.
That Russia could be many years away. Under Russian law, Putin can stay
in power at least until 2036, thanks to a constitutional amendment
enacted last year. 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. Sanctions
could instigate a palace coup. 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."
There is no telling when that could happen, or how much blood would be
spilled in the process. Yet here was Russia's most famous dissident,
once poisoned and now imprisoned, daring the state to do its worst. The paradox helps explain why Navalny decided to return. In exile he would
be just another gadfly, too easy for Putin to ignore. In prison he is a reminder of what Russia has become, and a symbol of the freedoms that it
Near the end of our correspondence, I asked Navalny about his regrets.
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."
If Russia has changed, Navalny has not. His statements still crackle
with the same irreverent humor. His foundation remains determined to
embarrass the Kremlin and investigate 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.
But not him. He's not giving up. Not for a second."
- With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Simmone Shah/New York; and Nik Popli/Washington