Yulia Navalnaïa, the widow of Alexeï Navalny, takes center stage

Yulia Navalnaïa, the widow of Alexeï Navalny, takes center stage

It was August 2020, and Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Russia’s most famous opposition leader, was wandering the dark, dilapidated corridors of a Russian provincial hospital, searching for the room where her husband lay in a coma.

Aleksei A. Navalny had collapsed after receiving what German medical investigators would later say was a near-lethal dose of the nerve agent Novichok, and his wife, prevented from moving around the hospital by threatening police officers, s is turned towards the camera of a cell phone held by one of them. of its collaborators.

“We demand the immediate release of Aleksei, because at the moment in this hospital there are more police and government agents than doctors,” she said calmly in a fascinating moment included more late in an Oscar-winning documentary, “Navalny.”

There was another similar moment on Monday, when in even more tragic circumstances, Ms. Navalnaya faced a camera three days after the Russian government announced that her husband had died in a maximum security penal colony in the Arctic. His widow blamed President Vladimir V. Putin for the death and announced she supported her husband’s cause, calling on Russians to join her.

“By killing Aleksei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul,” Ms Navalnaya said in a short pre-recorded speech posted on social media. “But I still have half left – and that tells me I’m not allowed to give up.”

For more than two decades, Ms. Navalnaya avoided any overt political roles, saying her goal in life was to support her husband and protect their two children. “I see that my task is that nothing changes in our family: children were children and the house is a house,” she said in a rare 2021 interview with the Russian edition of Harper’s Bazaar.

That changed on Monday.

Ms. Navalnaya faces a daunting challenge as she tries to rally a dispirited opposition movement abroad, hundreds of thousands of whose supporters are being driven into exile by an increasingly repressive Kremlin that has responded any criticism of his invasion of Ukraine two years ago with heavy prison sentences. sentences. Her husband’s political movement and foundation, which exposed corruption at the highest levels, were declared extremist organizations in 2021 and banned from operating in Russia.

While ignoring the difficulties, her friends and associates believe that Ms. Navalnaya, 47, has a chance to succeed thanks to what they call her combination of intelligence, poise, steely determination, resilience, pragmatism and star power.

She is also – unusually – a leading female figure in a country where well-known female politicians are rare, despite their many achievements in other areas. In addition to the broad moral authority she gained thanks to her husband’s death, analysts say, she could benefit from a generation gap in Russia, where young Russians from the former Soviet Union are more accepting of gender equality. .

As soon as Ms. Navalnaya made her statement on Monday, the Russian state propaganda machine kicked into action, trying to portray her as a tool of Western intelligence agencies and as someone who frequented resorts and parties. of celebrities.

Ms. Navalnaya was born in Moscow into a middle-class family: her mother worked for a ministry while her father worked at a research institute. Her parents divorced early, and her father died when she was 18. She earned a degree in international relations, then worked briefly in a bank before meeting Aleksei in 1998 and marrying him in 2000. Both were Russian Orthodox Christians.

A daughter, Daria, now a student in California, was born in 2001 and a son, Zakhar, in 2008. He attends school in Germany, where Ms. Navalnaya lives.

Although she is not overtly political, Ms. Navalnaya has always appeared alongside her husband. She was with him during the protests and during his numerous trials and prison sentences. She was with him again during his Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013, and in 2017, when an attack with green chemical dye nearly blinded him in one eye.

In 2020, when Mr. Navalny was poisoned, she publicly asked Mr. Putin that her husband be evacuated by air ambulance to Germany, and during his 18 days in a coma, she stayed by his side, talking to him and playing her favorite songs. like “Perfect Day” by Duran Duran. “Yulia, you saved me,” he wrote on social media after regaining consciousness.

Ms. Navalnaya herself suffered an attempted poisoning in Kaliningrad a few months earlier, which was surely aimed at her, friends said, but she did not press the issue.

Although she had many opportunities to cry, Ms. Navalnaya said in an interview with a popular YouTube channel in 2021 that she had always struggled to maintain her composure in public, particularly to avoid pleasing people. Russian government officials. “This shouldn’t bring us down,” she said. “They want it to depress us.”

Her friends and associates described her as Mr. Navalny’s protector, his sounding board, the shoulder he cried on and his closest adviser.

“Politician Alexei Navalny has always been two people: Yulia and Aleksei,” said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent Russian journalist now at Harvard University. Tall, attractive and whose close bond was clearly evident in public, “they always looked like a Hollywood couple,” said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and historian.

Mr. Navalny was famous for his public spats with politicians, journalists and others, and his wife is known for harshly reprimanding those who attacked him. But overall, she has much less political baggage and therefore has a better chance of getting Russia’s infamous opposition to work together, Mr. Zygar said.

Ms. Navalnaya has been compared to other women who picked up political battle flags from their murdered or imprisoned husbands. They include Corazon Aquino, whose husband was shot dead while getting off the plane after his exile in the Philippines in 1983; she then defeated the despotic and entrenched President Ferdinand Marcos. There’s also Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who led the opposition in the 2020 presidential election in Russia’s neighbor Belarus after her husband was imprisoned. She herself was forced into exile.

Ultimately, analysts suggest that a “normal person” with moral authority could succeed where a professional politician could not.

“She wants to accomplish the task that Alexei tragically left incomplete: to make Russia a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous country,” said Sergei Guriev, a family friend and prominent Russian economist, dean of the Institute of political studies of Paris. . “It will also show Putin that ousting Alexei will not destroy his cause. »

Milana Mazaiva And Alina Lobzina reports contributed.

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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