Alexei Navalny: ‘Why don’t they come and sit in jail with me?’

© James Ferguson

As we leave Alexei Navalny’s office for our lunch, I realise we are to be joined by an uninvited guest. A young man in a baggy white T-shirt yells “Alexei, where do you buy cocaine?”, follows us across the street and begins filming us on his phone.

For Vladimir Putin’s biggest opponent, these intimidation tactics come with the turf. The man is “one of the worst” of several people Navalny says have harassed him and his family throughout the day for the past six months. “Usually they come in pairs. One tries to drive you nuts and the other films it. If you scream or push them, you’ll make their day and they’ll get it on film,” Navalny says. “It teaches you zen, but it’s still infuriating when they come up close.”

We are eating at StrEAT, a hipster food court offering 40 different cuisines. It is a new addition to Moscow’s rapidly gentrifying Avtozavodskaya district, an area named for the now-shuttered ZiL factory that produced the Soviet limousines. “This place shows you that Russia would be f***ing amazing, if it weren’t for the 20 years we’ve lost under Putin,” Navalny says as we wander past stalls selling everything from burgers, pasta and sushi to Dagestani dumplings and Uzbek pilaf.

Navalny, 43, is close-cropped and trim in a grey sweater underneath a hooded puffy jacket. Despite the attentions of the man two yards behind him, he appears relaxed: he uses the informal second-person singular ty with me (though I doggedly stick to the more appropriate vy) and liberally peppers his speech with mat, Russian’s infinitely variable swearing language. In an interview, it jars, though perhaps it also speaks to the political style that has helped him break through a media blackout. Against Russia’s staid bureaucrats, he stands out as an internet-savvy politician who can mobilise teenagers with memes while flirting with the far right.

Eventually, Navalny settles on a stall called Chiho, whose billboard insists, “This is really China!” Navalny orders glass noodles with chicken and prawns. I opt for “Harbin-style pork”, as well as a bowl of smashed cucumbers and styrofoam cups of rosehip-infused tea for each of us. The troll declines my joking offer to buy him lunch — “Don’t give him any ideas,” Navalny says — then follows us upstairs and sits across from us.

In 2011, Navalny rose to fame through viral posts exposing corruption on his blog, which he expanded into the Anti-Corruption Foundation. That winter, he led a campaign to vote against the “crooks and thieves” of Putin’s party in parliamentary elections that sparked mass protests over the result. Since then, he has extended his reach on YouTube with ever-more lurid exposés and set up a nationwide network to challenge Putin for the presidency.

In that time, however, Putin has only strengthened his rule at home — even now, Moscow is full of talk about how he will extend it after his term expires in 2024 — while shrewdly expanding the Kremlin’s influence abroad everywhere from Syria and Africa to key counties in US swing states. Navalny, who boasted he had “enough of us here to seize the Kremlin right now” at the 2011 protests, has since lowered his sights to Moscow’s city council, while several of his top allies have fled the country.

I ask Navalny if Putin’s longevity has forced him to scale back his ambitions. Navalny retorts by claiming he has chances to hit the Kremlin where he never could before, thanks to Putin’s falling popularity which hit record lows this year. “Nobody ever tried these elections before, because government support on the smallest practical issues was so strong that they always won. Now it’s completely changed,” he says. “Why? Nobody wants to vote for them.”

Our buzzer from Chiho goes off. Navalny excuses himself and quickly returns with our food on a tray. We begin picking at the vinegary, sesame-coated cucumbers. The troll is watching videos on his phone.

This summer, Moscow saw the largest protests against Putin in years after authorities banned independent candidates from running for city council. Navalny launched an app to inform voters which Kremlin-sanctioned opposition parties had the best chance of beating Putin’s party, United Russia. He credits the drive with slashing the number of seats held by United Russia’s from 40 to 25 in the 45-seat chamber. The Kremlin responded quickly. A few days after the elections, masked policemen searched 250 addresses across the country simultaneously in a money-laundering proceeding against Navalny’s foundation.

As well as Navalny’s offices in 45 cities, investigators also targeted several employees’ homes and relatives. In Voronezh, a Navalny staffer’s 79-year-old grandmother died of a heart attack days after police ransacked her apartment and seized her iPad. The head of Navalny’s office in Kazan, then battling late-stage cancer, was hauled off for interrogation weeks before she died.

Russia’s justice ministry dubbed the foundation a “foreign agent” — a Soviet term with strong connotations of spying — on the basis of a mysterious donation from a Spanish kick-boxer Navalny suspects was a front for the Kremlin. “They can’t allow any opposition in any form to exist because they just lose.”

Navalny grew up in a series of military towns in Moscow’s outer regions, where his parents own a basket-weaving factory. His father Anatoly, a former soldier, was born near Chernobyl, in Ukraine. As a boy, Navalny spent every summer there until the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion. Party bosses forced residents of the village where his relatives lived to dig up potatoes to show there was no danger while radioactive dust continued to fall.

Then, shortly after Navalny’s uncle was hit by a train, his uncle’s family were evicted from their home in the exclusion zone and relocated to a Komsomol pioneers’ camp housing refugees from the nuclear blast. Navalny and his parents came for his uncle’s funeral near Chernobyl. “It was completely f***ed up,” he says. The Ukrainian residents were forced to leave their property behind, but knew full well that the authorities were selling the cars for scrap.

In later years, the Navalny family would pay their respects to his uncle’s grave every May and visit his grandmother’s old house, where even the floor and wall tiling had been hauled off. “These useless Soviet tiles — they hauled them off in huge convoys and sold all this radioactive bullshit at building supplies markets, while [locals] were banned from taking anything out except their clothes,” he says.

Navalny periodically shoos away customers, some of whom look slightly star-struck, from the six-seater table we have occupied. He makes short work of his noodles, which are in various shades of beige. My pork is tangy enough to provoke pangs for the sublime dongbei guo bao rou I ate in an industrial park in Vladivostok a year ago, though the skin is slightly soggy rather than crunchy.

Chiho at Streat

Leninskaya Sloboda 26, Moscow

Glass noodles with chicken and prawns Rbs350

Smashed cucumbers x2 Rbs360

Harbin-style pork Rbs390

Chinese tea with rosehips x2 Rbs300

Chelovek I Parokhod at Streat

Americano Rbs150

‘Captain Darjeeling’ tea cocktail Rbs200

Total Rbs1,750 (£21)

Navalny talked back to teachers throughout his school years, then missed the passing grade for Moscow State University’s law faculty by one mark. He took degrees in law and finance from two less prestigious universities as he dabbled in real estate and stock trading.

When Putin came to power in 1999, he joined Yabloko, then Russia’s most prominent liberal opposition party. Though he initially lacked the conviction to be an activist, the awakening came when he worked on Yabloko’s legal team. “You think you can’t lose, and you do,” he says. “Of course, you become an opposition activist.”

Navalny’s first major tussles were within Yabloko itself as, with Putin’s popularity at a peak, it dwindled into irrelevance. Party elders were alarmed by his push for a more nationalist message. Defiantly, he recorded a pro-gun rights video in which he compared people from Russia’s mostly Muslim North Caucasus to “cockroaches” and mimicked shooting one with a pistol.

After Yabloko then lost its four remaining seats in parliament, Navalny called for its leader to resign. Instead, he was himself expelled for his nationalist views. For several years afterwards he attended and spoke at the “Russian March”, an annual anti-Putin nationalist rally dominated by far-right figures chanting “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”

Navalny has no regrets. “There was an absolutely huge gap between living standards in Uzbekistan and Russia, and they were coming here in huge numbers. I was talking about it because it was the number one issue of the day.” With real incomes in their sixth year of decline, Navalny has switched to more leftwing rhetoric, including a push for state workers to form trade unions and a call to raise the minimum wage.

The crackdown on this year’s protests has followed a familiar pattern: organisers such as Navalny have spent short stints in jail aimed at stopping them from speaking, while rank-and-file activists were hauled into court to face real prison time.

“Their tactic is to leave the leaders alone, but just randomly take ordinary people and jail them for nothing, to undermine trust in the leaders and the movement,” Navalny says. “It’s like they’re saying, this one set it all up, and here he is sitting eating chicken noodles with this suspicious foreigner while the ordinary people are in jail.”

We have long finished our meal, and the troll’s table at the window is empty. I wonder if he has lost interest, but he soon returns with a bottle of apple juice.

According to Navalny, the constant doorstepping started after his Anti-Corruption Foundation began investigating a catering company owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, the St Petersburg businessman allegedly behind the infamous “troll farm” accused of meddling in the US elections. Navalny says the men usually introduce themselves as correspondents for RIA FAN or one of the other pro-Kremlin websites in the Patriot media group, which regularly accuse him of working for the CIA to fund a drug habit. A spokesman for Prigozhin, who was this year named as chairman of the board of trustees at Patriot, said that he “does not run or comment on FAN’s editorial activity”.

Navalny argues that the Kremlin’s success was less in manipulating the west than creating the perception it was able to do so. “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and for several years the whole establishment of a huge western country will go nuts about interference, even though its real effect is risible. The investments are minimal but they give you front pages and power.”

After he came a respectable second in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, Navalny spent the next year under house arrest during another fraud case. Unable to leave his flat or communicate with the outside world, he spent countless hours studying memes and viral videos. Navalny received a suspended sentence in the case in late 2014, but his younger brother Oleg was sentenced to three and a half years in prison — a move he thought amounted to “hostage-taking”.

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Undeterred, Navalny began experimenting with YouTube and eventually struck viral gold with a 2017 video exposé into a secret $1bn empire of palaces allegedly owned by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. The video racked up more than 32m views on YouTube and sparked protests in many Russian cities.

Navalny spent the next year touring the country as he challenged Putin for the presidency. Though in the end he was barred from standing, Navalny says the aim was less to win than to show Russians another type of politics was possible. “No Russian politician has met as many people as I have, and none of them have spoken to as many people while in prison as I have. I know everything about drug addicts, migrants, taxi drivers, construction workers. Officials just talk to their driver and say: ‘Here’s what the masses told me.’ ”

He claims his prison experience means he knows more about Russian-speaking Muslims than the liberals who criticise him for demonising them. (Navalny says he only wants a visa regime for migrants from ex-Soviet countries in Central Asia.) “Usually I’m the only Russian in the cell. It’s hard to understand what Chechens really think and feel if you haven’t spent days on end with them in one space and shared meals with them.”

Navalny’s abrasiveness has put him at odds with much of Russia’s opposition. Ksenia Sobchak, a TV presenter and former friend who ran a presidential campaign Navalny claims was a spoiler to his, likens him to the hero of Soviet playwright Evgeny Schwartz’s fable The Dragon, who fights to overthrow a draconian tyrant only to turn into one himself. “This is some made-up bullshit,” Navalny says. He points to his record of holding open opposition primaries and his support for people “who built political careers on talking shit about me”.

“The thing is, leaders show their true colours under pressure.” Those stints in jail — 13 at last count — have incubated a furious reaction to criticism from the rest of Russia’s opposition. “Why don’t they come and sit in jail with me? They’ll be opposition leaders too. But they won’t go anywhere near it because they’re cowards.” He says he tries not to hold others to that standard, but quickly slips again. “I’m the main opposition leader not because I banned everyone else from being one, but because it’s scary to be one.” Navalny grabs an empty chair. “This seat is free, please, take a seat. But it comes with Prigozhin’s pidorasy,” he says, using a homophobic mat insult. He gestures at the troll, who is now eating a souvlaki. “Are you ready to live with them?”

Navalny says he is relieved his daughter began undergraduate studies on a scholarship to Stanford and “won’t be going to university at 18 with these pidorasy following her and filming her”.

The biggest blow to his family was his brother Oleg’s prison sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “We’re talking about people who were jailed because of a protest I told people to go to, and here’s my brother, who was jailed just because he’s my brother, he didn’t even go to any protests. I’ll always have to carry that with me.”

Since his release, Oleg has split up with his wife and struggled to find a job. Banks are reluctant to serve him on the grounds that his brother’s activism makes him a politically exposed person. “They’ll do it for Kremlin bandits. The great irony is this anti-money laundering regulation is working against me.”

Two hours later, Navalny is keen to return to work, where he is preparing a new investigation into a Kremlin official he refuses to name. We stop off on the way out at a coffee stand. Navalny grins as he poses for a selfie with a fan, then glares at the troll, who has followed us all the while.

Max Seddon is the FT’s Moscow correspondent

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