Last year Russian lawyer-turned-anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who is considered by many to be the face of the resistance to Putin’s regime, found himself lying in a Berlin hospital bed. He had been poisoned and it is claimed that the poisoning was carried out by Kremlin sponsored agents. He was in hospital for over a month and his subsequent recovery was deemed a miracle. One that Navalny credits to the steadfast support and presence of his wife Yulia Navalnaya who herself has since emerged as a resistance figurehead in Russia. She fought to have her husband flown to Germany for treatment, an action that almost certainly saved his life, and such actions have earnt her a large following in Russia, especially amongst women, who make up a large number of her Instagram supporters.
Navalny himself was back in court on the 12th of February facing defamation charges having been arrested upon his return to Russia earlier this year. In court Navalny’s wife stood, surrounded by supporters looking on steadily as her husband was sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in a corrective labor colony for having violated his probation whilst under a previous charge. He and his team have long argued that this charge is politically motivated and therefore, for many, its legality is questionable especially in light of recent European Court of Human Rights comments on the case.
Navalnaya’s influence since November last year has been growing and she faces increasing calls to take up Navalny’s mantle and continue to focus political opposition during his incarceration. She is particularly popular among women, who on the 14th February formed a solidarity chain in support of Navalny and all political prisoners. Navalnaya herself has been both detained and fined in an attempt to prevent her becoming a rallying point on the streets but still many defied threats of arrest to stand together “as women, unified against Putin’s ‘corrupt’ administration.” Thousands stood outside their homes and used cell phones and candles to form a chain, or the shape of a heart. The heart echoing the one Navalny drew for his wife in the courtroom. Such demonstrations, Navalnaya’s supporters say, are inspired by the anti-Lukashenko movement in Belarus, and as such are targeted actions rather than widespread protests. There were also online protests with bloggers such as Katya Fyodorova urging people to wear red in support of Navalnaya, who wore red in the courtroom. Such online protests have had the effect of bringing Navalnaya and her husband’s plight to a wider international audience.
Aware of this increasing support and international awareness, the Kremlin has cracked down hard on these protests. According to Russian officials, thousands have been detained since they began in January, and arrest warrants have been issued for many Navalny supporters, such as Leonid Volkov, who was Navalny’s chief of staff during his 2018 presidential campaign, and is currently in exile in Lithuania. He has been accused of encouraging minors to join the protests against Navalny’s imprisonment.
A History of Female Resistance
Historically, the power of women has been feared by the Russian political elite. They have proven the importance of their influence among the population as a whole time and time. To see the political power they can wield one needs to look no further than Vera Figner, the revolutionary political activist who, as a leader of People’s Will in the late 1800’s, advocated for the use of terror to kill the Tsar and overthrow the government. Aware of both the threat she posed and the unique position she held in many minds as a female member of the resistance, the then government was careful to keep her confined and images of her suppressed.
Likewise, the Narodnik-inspired Russian revolutionary Maria Spiridonova was feared by the political regime as a figure who could unite and influence the wider female population. Following her assassination of a security guard, as a member of the Tambov Socialist Revolutionaries, her notoriety grew until, according to Alexander Rabinovitch, a leading expert on the Bolshevik and revolutionary Russia, she was revered by the people almost as a saint.
More recently Anna Politkovskaya, a writer and human rights activist, who hounded Putin’s regime relentlessly with the aim of bringing to light alleged human rights abuses, was shot dead in 2007. It is alleged that Kremlin-sponsored agents who feared her influence were responsible.
Yulia Navalnaya is far from being the only woman today who finds herself subject to more public and political attention. Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and member of the Navalny team who have attempted to bring alleged corruption to public notice, is currently under house arrest. In parallel with last year’s events her husband also suffered a positioning attack, which left him fighting for his life.
Another popular female figure and Navalny ally is Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, Head of the Alliance of Doctors, a medical trade union allied with Navalny. She is also an outspoken Putin critic whose house has been recently raided. She is also currently under house arrest. Likewise, Olga Mikhailova, Navalny’s lawyer has also drawn recent political attention and she has sworn that she will continue to fight for justice for Navalny. Once again, she plans to take his case back to the European Court of Human Rights.
Many of these high-profile women have expressed hopes that Navalnaya will now take a more political role. Women such as Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot and with huge popular appeal, who has openly stated that she hopes Navalnaya will run for president.
Being surrounded by such women, many of whom have an active social media presence, has clearly helped both increase support for Navalny and draw attention to events in Russia, but with Navalny incarcerated, at least for now, does Yulia Navalnaya want to take up her husband’s mantle?
Who fears Yulia, really?
This increased attention on the female aspect of Navalny’s opposition has not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin. Last fall, with Navalny incapacitated, there were rumors that Navalnaya was planning to run for office. A rumor that was very quickly picked up upon by the Kremlin, but further investigation by Die Zeit revealed that the origins of the report was the state-funded broadcaster RT. It appears that the report was an example of so-called disinformation laundering in which a story was planted on an obscure website, then reported by sources loyal to the Kremlin, whose majority of readers would take as fact without any further investigation.
The question of why the Kremlin would want to encourage these rumors has quite a simple response. They hope that they will move the focus away from Navalny himself, and lead to the fragmentation of his support base. It appears that the Kremlin hopes that by diverting media attention toward Yulia, Navalnaya’s campaign may waver as loyalties are split.
To this end, Russian media earlier this year ran with the story that Navalnaya intended to become the Russian equivalent of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader who assumed leadership of the Levchenko opposition upon her husband’s imprisonment.
Yulia Navalnaya strenuously denies that she has any such political ambitions, yet there is no doubt that such a scenario worries the Kremlin. In February, businesses loyal to Putin asked that the law be changed in order to prevent the ‘spouses and relatives’ of ‘foreign agents’ from running for office. Navalny’s foundation was declared a foreign agent in 2019, under a controversial law that looks at the source of an agency’s funding. This was seen by many as a clear preemptive strike by those in the Kremlin who both recognize the possibility of and seek to prevent a similar Belarusian scenario with Navalnaya and Russia.
The Kremlin appears to fear that Navalnaya might have the power to unite Navalny supporters behind her, enabling those who have doubts about Navalny himself to rally behind his ‘good wife.’ Navalny has found himself accused of sexism and anti-feminist prejudice, charges he insists were the result of a simple misunderstanding regarding a pet name. However, any of those who failed to believe him, have so far found nothing to worry them in his wife. As Russian Wonderzine writes: “The political career of Yulia Navalnaya is a well-calculated canard. Forget about ‘bad Navalny’ and focus on his ‘good wife’” and by encouraging this, the Kremlin hopes to undermine support for their most dangerous foe. The general feeling is that the Kremlin anticipates that by tightening the media focus on Navalnaya, they will help blunt the increasingly loud calls for her husband’s release.
This media focus is exemplified by Navalnaya’s vilification in the state-sponsored Russia press who have for years now sought to characterize her as a blindly loyal and overbearing wife in an attempt to damage her credibility. Putin has, as Valerie Sterling writes, “long used the politics of “sexualization and sexuality as tools of political legitimization.”
From the beginning, his regime has used traditional masculinity as an aspect of its identity. However, this has, Sparling argues, opened the door “to the use of gender rhetoric as a means to challenge the regime’s authority” and there are those who feel that Navalnaya is up to the task.
Up to the task
Certainly, many of her supporters believe that she has all the credentials to make a good politician. She is educated, trained in economics, and has proven herself to be unflappable under intense pressure. She has also refused to be silenced, declaring to a crowd after her husband’s arrest in January that she “was not afraid, and I urge you all not be afraid either.”
Commentator Anna Narinskaya has recently drawn attention to the fact that Navalnaya’s support base is growing, largely because she has managed to combine both “the position of a wife of an accomplished man and that of a woman who controls her own fate.” She is also perhaps the only political opposition wife who has anything like the credentials to assume a political role.
Women have been sidelined in Russian politics for a long time now; they make up just 16% of the parliament with their roles limited largely to those of a feminine sphere, such as education, housing or health, and there are those who feel it is time for change.
Navalnaya is offering hope to many women feeling marginalized under Putin’s regime such and Alena Popova, one of the founders of a women’s rights organization in Moscow, certainly believes so. She has called upon Navalnaya to take a more active role arguing that as a mother and the wife of an imprisoned husband she is in a unique position. She argues that Navalnaya’s story of a woman who does not want to be a politician, but feels bound to attack a rotten system – gives her both a popular and powerful position in Russia.
Navalnaya herself has previously denied that she has any desire to take up a more central political position although she did acknowledge that “what I’m doing in my place is politics to some extent,’ in a recent interview. Her Instagram account carefully portrays herself as a family woman, but she does not shy away from the political, writing on the 31st January that “two honest young men (in her family photo) are demonstrably arrested without any visibility of law.” Such posts attract hundreds of thousands of likes and fuel rumors of her political engagement.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has also stated that Navalnaya does not place to run for office. However, some suspect that this may change should her husband’s incarceration continue.
Many of those who have not previously been supporters of Navalny have been disgusted by the Kremlin crackdown on this year’s, mostly female, protestors, with many viewing the police attitude as overly violent and unnecessarily harsh. State-perpetrated violence, many say, is no longer acceptable on the streets of Russia. As the political spectrum looks set to become more fragmented, the populist central appeal will become ever more important as both Putin and his opposition seek to engage the loyalty of the large proportion of Russians who remain disengaged with politics. This central body of moderate, working class voters will hold the key to Russia’s future, and it is this previously disengaged body of voters that the Kremlin fears Navalnaya could reach.
Recent reports coming out of Russia suggest that there is a widespread desire for political change and Putin himself addressed the need for such change in a speech last January 15th. Thirty-nine new political groupings have recently come into existence, testament to the increasing fragmentation of the political spectrum. In this climate, Russia also must address the deterioration of its relations with the European Union. There is a general feeling both at home and abroad that the stage is set for someone to seize the political initiative in Russia with a view to affect wholesale change. Whether or not Yulia Navalnaya proves to be this unifying figure and what political role she may yet assume, if any, remains to be seen.
Cover Photo: Yulia Navalnaya outside Omsk Emergency Hospital, last August 21, 2020 (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP).
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