Before the shock death of her husband Alexei in a grim Arctic prison last week, Yulia Navalnaya had always played down the idea she would one day take over as leader of Russia’s opposition. But on Monday, she vowed to continue his fight.
In a video released three days after his death and less than a month before Russia’s next presidential election, the 47-year-old mother-of-two alternated between rage and grief as she signalled she would try to help lead a shell-shocked opposition.
“In killing Alexei, (President Vladimir) Putin has killed half of me. Half of my heart and half of my soul. But there is another half of me, and it tells me that I have no right to give in. I will continue Alexei Navalny’s work, I will continue the struggle for our country,” she said.
Should she take her husband’s mantle, Navalnaya would follow a path trodden by activist widows in other parts of the world, from US civil rights campaigner Coretta Scott King to Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. Closer to home, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stood for president reluctantly after her husband Syarhei was jailed in 2020.
In a sign that some forces see Navalnaya as a possible threat, several pro-Kremlin social media accounts have begun to try to undermine her by publishing what allies say is falsified information about her life.
Recording her video in a dimly-lit room, Navalnaya accused Putin of murdering her husband and made clear she wanted revenge. The Kremlin says the authorities played no role in Navalny’s death.
“I call on you to share my fury. My fury, my anger, my hatred of those who dared to murder our future,” she said.
Any successor of Navalny would inherit a battered opposition movement whose key figures are either dead, jailed or in exile.
Many of Navalny’s supporters fled abroad after the movement was branded extremist, and those that remain inside Russia have little room for manoeuvre in a tightly-controlled political system where unauthorised protests are banned.
But her statement, which included a call to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine, garnered over 1.5mn views in three hours and nearly 50,000 comments. A social media account opened in her name on X on Monday which featured her video statement was watched 1.4mn times in the same time period, while her new account quickly gained tens of thousands of users.
Unlike her husband — who always said he would not be an exile and was arrested on arrival in Russia in 2021 after returning from treatment in Germany for poisoning — she has not announced plans to go home.
But if she stays abroad she risks being cast by Moscow as a foreign puppet and will find it harder to be politically relevant.
‘Supporting role’
Before Monday, Navalnaya had largely steered clear of public politics, stressing her role as supporting her husband and holding their family unit together despite Navalny’s bruising battle with the Russian state.
While always making clear she shared his anti-Putin views, she had limited her public appearances and statements to key turning points in his life, advocating for his release and humane treatment, before retreating from public view again.
Their strong feelings for one another were often on display.
When in August 2023, Navalny was sentenced to an extra 19 years on top of 11-1/2 years he was already serving, he used his hands to form the shape of a heart as she looked on at him in a glass courtroom cage.
An economist by education and a former bank employee, Navalnaya stood by his side for years at protests, attended court hearings, was herself detained several times, and helped Navalny survive and recover from what Western doctors said was a nerve agent poisoning attempt on his life in 2020.
A graduate of the prestigious Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, she was born in Moscow. Her father Boris Ambrosimov was a notable scientist.
She met her future husband while on holiday in Turkiye in 1998 and they married two years later, going on to have a daughter, Daria, and a son, Zakhar. She and Navalny were both once members of the liberal Yabloko party.
Within hours of reports of Navalny’s death on Friday, she made a surprise appearance at a security conference in Germany where she told the audience Putin would be held responsible.
She met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the same Munich event and also held talks with Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarus opposition leader.
On Monday, she was in Brussels at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.
Moscow is watching closely.
Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov accused Western intelligence services on Monday of trying to turn Navalnaya into a “Joan of Arc” figure, predicted she would be forgotten in time, and advised her to stay “in a quiet place”.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik analysis firm, said Navalnaya’s statement was “an unambiguous bid for an independent political role” but pointed out various potential pitfalls and said it was too early to predict how she would fare.
“A great deal will depend on what she has to offer. Not as the widow of a remarkable politician tortured to death, but as an independent figure,” said Stanovaya.
“Will she be able to find her own political style, her content, and a team that will not alienate people? Time will tell.” — Reuters