Yulia Navalnaya, Aleksei Navalny’s widow, takes center stage

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

Aleksei A. Navalny had collapsed after being administered what German medical investigators would later declare to be a near-fatal dose of the nerve agent Novichok, and his wife, prevented from moving around the hospital by menacing police officers, turned toward the camera from a mobile phone that one of them was holding. of his assistants.

“We demand Aleksei’s immediate release, because right now in this hospital there are more police and government agents than doctors,” he said calmly in a fascinating moment later included in an Oscar-winning documentary, “Navalny.”

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

“By killing Aleksei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul,” Navalnaya said in a short pre-recorded speech posted on social media. “But I have another half left, and that tells me I have no right to give up.”

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

That changed on Monday.

Navalnaya faces a clear challenge as she tries to mobilize a dispirited opposition movement from abroad, with hundreds of thousands of her followers driven into exile by an increasingly repressive Kremlin that has responded to any criticism of its invasion of Ukraine two years ago. with harsh prisons. prayers. Her husband’s political movement and her foundation, which exposed corruption in high places, were declared extremist organizations in 2021 and banned from operating in Russia.

Although they do not rule out difficulties, friends and associates believe that 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 prominent female figure in a country where recognized women in politics are a rarity, despite her many achievements in other fields. Aside from the broad moral authority she has acquired following the death of her husband, analysts said, she could benefit from a generation gap in Russia, where younger, post-Soviet Russians are more accepting of gender equality.

As soon as Navalnaya made her statement on Monday, the Russian state propaganda machine sprang 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 worked at a research institute. Her parents divorced early and her father died when she was 18. She graduated in international relations, then worked briefly in a bank before meeting Aleksei in 1998 and marrying him in 2000. They were both 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 was not overtly political, Mrs. Navalnaya always appeared at her husband’s side. She was with him at demonstrations and during his numerous court trials and prison sentences. She was with him again during his campaign for Moscow mayor in 2013, and in 2017, when a green chemical dye attack nearly blinded him in one eye.

In 2020, when Navalny was poisoned, she publicly demanded from 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 his favorite songs. like “Perfect Day” by Duran Duran. “Yulia, you saved me,” she wrote on social media after regaining consciousness.

Ms. Navalnaya herself suffered a poisoning attempt in Kaliningrad a couple of months earlier that was surely intended 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 struggled to maintain her composure in public, especially to avoid giving that satisfaction to Russian government officials. “This should not discourage us,” she said. “They want it to bring us down.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He wants to fulfill 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 who is rector of the Paris Institute of Political Studies. . “She will also demonstrate to Putin that removing Aleksei will not destroy his cause.”

Milana Mazaeva and Alina Lobzina contributed reports.