Editor’s Note: The CNN Film “Navalny” follows Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny through his political rise, poisoning and search for the truth. You can watch now on HBO Max.
Russian opposition leader. Anti-corruption campaigner. Assassination attempt survivor. Prisoner.
Alexey Navalny’s crusade against the Kremlin has brought many labels.
And with the eyes of the world now trained on Russian President Vladimir Putin amid his brutal invasion of Ukraine, Navalny’s message of resistance is finding new weight inside and outside of Russia, even as he remains behind bars.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing,” he says, echoing the famous phrase, in the new CNN film “Navalny.” “So don’t be inactive.”
Here’s what you need to know about Navalny’s political rise, attempted assassination and future in Russia.
Rise to prominence
Navalny first gained visibility in 2008, when he started blogging about alleged corruption within Russian state-run companies. By 2011, he had emerged as one of the leaders of the massive protests that had broken out after allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections.
“Those who have gathered here can kick these thieved ass***** out of the Kremlin tomorrow,” Navalny said at one 2011 protest.
He posted his first YouTube video, a step-by-step instruction guide showing how to build an “agitation cube,” a boxlike tent structure with his image emblazoned on the side, in July 2013. The clip marked the start of the Russian dissident’s campaign to be elected Moscow mayor, and the humble beginning of his YouTube revolution.
But his movement was blunted when he was convicted on embezzlement charges, just as he was preparing to run for mayor. Navalny has denied the charges and called them politically motivated. A retrial in 2017 barred him from running for public office – this time for president against Putin.
While Navalny is most well known as an activist, it’s his investigations that have been the biggest thorn in the side of some of Russia’s powerful people. His videos about the apparent unexplained wealth of top government officials have particularly raised the ire of the Kremlin.
One video about former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drew more than 35 million views on YouTube.
But with increased results came increased risks. In March 2017, that video lit a spark under the biggest anti-government protests Russia had seen in years. Thousands joined rallies in almost 100 cities across Russia. Navalny himself was arrested, and jailed for 15 days.
The following month, he was splashed with an antiseptic green dye, damaging his vision in one eye.
“Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you. You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong,” Navalny said to his supporters in the CNN film.
“We need to utilize this power, to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we actually are.”
Poisoning and recovery
By 2020, there were signs that the ground was shifting beneath Navalny’s opposition movement.
The Kremlin had taken on a more publicly confrontational posture toward its chief critic, culminating in accusations of a poisoning attempt in August of that year.
Navalny had started feeling unwell on a return flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. Loud groaning can be heard in video footage apparently recorded on the flight he took. More video apparently recorded through the airplane window showed an immobile man being taken by wheeled stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
Navalny was treated at a Berlin hospital, and the German government later concluded he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.
A joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning, piecing together how an elite unit at the agency had followed Navalny’s team throughout a trip to Siberia, when Navalny fell ill from exposure to Novichok.
The investigation also found that this unit, which included chemical weapons experts, had followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017. Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Putin himself said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.
Nevertheless, several Western officials and Navalny himself have openly blamed the Kremlin.
“It’s impossible to believe it. It’s kind of stupid that the whole idea of poisoning with a chemical weapon, what the f**k?” Navalny says in the new CNN film. “This is why this is so smart, because even reasonable people they refuse to believe like, what? Come on … poisoned? Seriously?”
News that Navalny had fallen gravely ill sent a fresh shock wave through Russian society, raising worrying parallels with some of the more brazen political killings in Russia’s recent past.
Western governments, independent researchers and Russia watchers have noted a consistent pattern of Russian state involvement in assassinations both inside Russia and abroad.
Opposition behind bars
After a five-month stay in Germany recovering from the Novichok poisoning, Navalny was immediately arrested when he returned to Moscow last year, for violating probation terms imposed from a 2014 case.
He was sent to a penal colony, where he went on a hunger strike – protesting against prison officials’ refusal to grant him access to medical care, while keeping his scrutiny of Putin’s rule front and center.
In one hearing last year, a visibly gaunt Navalny used the platform to launch a broadside against the Russian leader and his government, likening him to the foolish “naked king” from the children’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and calling the judge and prosecutors “traitors.”
“I would like to say that your king is naked, and more than one little boy is shouting about it – it is now millions of people who are already shouting about it. It is quite obvious. Twenty years of incompetent rule have come to this: There is a crown sliding from his ears,” Navalny said of Putin, referring also to the mass anti-government protests in Russia following the activist’s imprisonment and during his hunger strike.
“Your naked king wants to rule until the end. He doesn’t care about the country; he is clung to power and wants to rule indefinitely,” Navalny said.
Days after he ended his hunger strike, Navalny’s network of regional offices for his political movement was “officially disbanded,” according to his chief of staff, Leonid Volkov.
The offices had been initially set up in February 2017 with the aim of organizing activities for volunteers during the Russian presidential election campaign. After the elections, the regional offices took on other local political work.
But perhaps the biggest blow to his movement came last month, when Navalny was convicted by Moscow’s Lefortovo court over allegations that he stole from his Anti-Corruption Foundation. He was sentenced to another nine years in a maximum-security prison.
After the sentence was announced, Navalny wrote on Twitter: “9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series ‘The Wire’ used to say: ‘You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out.’” He added: “I even had a T-shirt with this slogan, but the prison authorities confiscated it, considering the print extremist.”
Still, his convictions haven’t wavered.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Navalny took to social media to denounce the attack, advocating anti-war protests across the country as “the backbone of the movement against war and death,” according to Reuters.
In another tweet, Navalny said: “I am very grateful to everyone for their support. And, guys, I want to say: the best support for me and other political prisoners is not sympathy and kind words, but actions. Any activity against the deceitful and thievish Putin’s regime. Any opposition to these war criminals.”
Thousands in Russia have been detained for anti-war demonstrations in the weeks since, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
One young woman CNN met on the margins of the first night of protest last month was near tears explaining that she loves Russia but not her leader, and so has concluded she must leave the country.
There is real frustration in that generation, but they are a minority – less than 10% of the nation.
Indeed, the latest polling by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), a state-owned but nevertheless internationally respected organization, found that 68% of people say they support the decision to carry out the “Special Military Operation,” which Putin had announced alongside false accusations of Nazism and genocide in Ukraine; 22% oppose it and 10% had difficulty answering.
It is a sobering assessment that when Putin puts his finger in the wind of public opinion, he can be reasonably sure it is blowing in the direction he instructed his state organs to set it.