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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wife, protector and now political heir: Yulia Navalnaya rallies Russians



The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Nov. 30, 2012. The sudden death of Alexei Navalny left a vacuum in Russia’s opposition. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, signaled that she would try to fill the void. (James Hill/The New York Times)

By Neil MacFarquhar


It was August 2020, and Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Russia’s most famous opposition leader, was striding through the battered, gloomy hallways of a provincial Russian hospital, looking for the room where her husband lay in a coma.


Alexei Navalny had collapsed after being given what German medical investigators would later declare was a near-fatal dose of the nerve agent Novichok, and his wife, blocked by menacing policemen from moving around the hospital, turned to a cellphone camera held by one of his aides.


“We demand the immediate release of Alexei, because right now in this hospital there are more police and government agents than doctors,” she said calmly in a riveting moment later included in an Oscar-winning documentary, “Navalny.”


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


“In killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul,” Navalnaya said in a short, prerecorded speech posted on social media. “But I have another half left — and it is telling me I have no right to give up.”


For more than two decades, Navalnaya has shunned any open political role for herself, saying that her purpose in life was to support her husband and to protect their two children. “I see my task is that nothing changes in our family: The children were children, and the home is a home,” she said in a rare interview in 2021 with the Russian edition of Harper’s Bazaar.


That changed Monday.


Navalnaya faces a distinct challenge in trying to rally a disheartened opposition movement from abroad, with hundreds of thousands of its adherents driven into exile by an increasingly repressive Kremlin that has responded to any criticism of its invasion of Ukraine two years ago with harsh jail sentences. Her husband’s political movement and his foundation, which exposed corruption in high places, were declared extremist organizations in 2021 and barred from operating in Russia.


While not dismissing the difficulties, friends and associates believe that Navalnaya, 47, has a shot at succeeding through what they call her combination of intelligence, poise, steely determination, resilience, pragmatism and star power.


She is also — unusually — a prominent female figure in a country where well-known women in politics are a rarity, despite their many accomplishments in other fields. Aside from the broad moral authority she has attained through her husband’s death, analysts said, she may benefit from a generational gap in Russia, where younger, post-Soviet Russians are more accepting of gender equality.


As soon as Navalnaya made her declaration Monday, the Russian state propaganda machine cranked into action, trying to portray her as a tool of Western intelligence agencies and someone who frequented resorts and celebrity parties.


Navalnaya was born in Moscow into a middle-class family — her mother worked for a government ministry while her father was employed in a research institute. Her parents divorced early, and her father died when she was 18. She received a degree in international relations, then worked in a bank briefly before meeting Navalny 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 Navalnaya lives.


Even if not openly political, Navalnaya always appeared at her husband’s side. She was with him at demonstrations and during his many court cases and jail sentences. She was with him again during his 2013 campaign for mayor of Moscow, and in 2017, when an attack with a green, chemical dye nearly blinded him in one eye.


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


Navalnaya endured a poisoning attempt in Kaliningrad a couple of months earlier that was surely meant for him, friends said, but she did not dwell on it.


Although she had many occasions to cry, Navalnaya said in an interview with a popular YouTube channel in 2021 that she always wrestled to maintain her composure in public, not least to avoid giving Russian government officials the satisfaction. “It should not get us down, she said. “They want it to get us down.”


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


“The politician Alexei Navalny was always really two people: Yulia and Alexei,” said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent Russian journalist now at Harvard University. Tall, attractive and with their strong connection clearly evident in public, “they always looked like a Hollywood couple,” said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and historian.


Navalny was famous for his public spats with politicians, journalists and others, and his wife has been known to sharply rebuke those who attacked him. But overall, she comes with much less political baggage and thus has a better chance of getting the infamously fractious Russian opposition to work together, Zygar said.


Navalnaya has been compared to other women who have picked up political battle flags from slain or imprisoned husbands. They include Corazon Aquino, whose husband was gunned down as he stepped off the plane from exile in the Philippines in 1983; she went on to defeat the entrenched, despotic President Ferdinand Marcos. There is 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 suggested that a “normal person” with moral authority might succeed where a professional politician could not.


“She wants to accomplish the task that Alexei has tragically left incomplete: make Russia a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous country,” said Sergei Guriev, a family friend and a prominent Russian economist who is the provost at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “She is also going to show to Putin that removing Alexei will not destroy his cause.”

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