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Navalny's legacy: His ceaseless crusade against Putin and corruption

Alexei Navalny rose to fame in Russia with headline-grabbing investigations into corruption in the highest levels of President Vladimir Putin's regime. Navalny (right) is seen here at a court hearing in Moscow in March 2017.
Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP via Getty Images
Alexei Navalny rose to fame in Russia with headline-grabbing investigations into corruption in the highest levels of President Vladimir Putin's regime. Navalny (right) is seen here at a court hearing in Moscow in March 2017.

Updated February 16, 2024 at 11:37 AM ET

Alexei Navalny, a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin's side, was repeatedly attacked and jailed. When he tried to enter politics, Navalny was threatened, thwarted and poisoned. Finally, on Friday, he was reported dead in a Russian prison at age 47.

For years, Navalny was Russia's most outspoken critic of Putin and his inner circle, publishing embarrassing details about corruption and excess as Russia's household income per capita plunged in an era of cheap gas prices and international sanctions.

"I want to live in a normal country and refuse to accept any talk about Russia being doomed to being a bad, poor or servile country," Navalny told NPR in 2018. "I want to live here, and I can't tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine."

Launching attacks against the status quo, and Putin

Navalny told Russians they deserved better — from their leaders and in their own lives. His message of change resonated particularly strongly in Russia's younger generation, many of whom have lived only under Putin's influence: Since 1999, Putin has been either Russia's president or its prime minister.

Navalny rose to fame by publishing investigations that exposed corruption, using videos on YouTube and other platforms as he sought to get around officials' efforts to limit the size of his audience. He organized mass street demonstrations, calling for political mobilization against Putin's regime.

Many of the excesses he exposed were hiding in plain sight: luxury homes that he called the spoils of profiteering by Putin and his allies.

In 2021, Navalny released a bombshell video accusing Putin of using a slush fund to build a palace on the Black Sea. That report has now been viewed nearly 130 million times on YouTube. The Kremlin denied Navalny's claims, calling the investigation "pure nonsense."

In the opening lines of that video, Navalny called Putin "a petty KGB officer who now masquerades as a great spy."

In 2016, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation published a story on a luxurious summer-vacation estate frequently visited by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — including a special house just for ducks. The story included aerial footage of the property and its three helipads, along with an explanation of its ownership by a foundation with links to Medvedev's family.

Yellow ducks soon became a symbol of anti-regime protest — and in 2017, a huge inflatable yellow duck was among those detained by police, as security forces cracked down on large demonstrations.

A cornerstone of that protest took place in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown. In a sign of Navalny's ability to inspire the public, his followers took his message to the city's streets, chanting words that are among the most dangerous to utter in their country: "Russia without Putin."

Navalny was frequently detained in connection to the demonstrations he organized. Russian authorities also accused him of fraud in 2014, securing a criminal conviction that Navalny called retribution for his activism. Election officials also cited the fraud conviction on Navalny's record as justification to reject his attempt to run against Putin for the presidency.

Prosecutors repeatedly brought criminal charges against Navalny over the years; even in cases where he was able to go free, courts often attached conditions that served as leverage, threatening to limit his activities.

Last August, Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison over charges related to extremism.

In recent years, Putin's regime has tightened its grip on speech and other rights even more, in attempts to quell dissent over its invasion and war against Ukraine.

In the face of those controls, Navalny's family, his attorneys and supporters in Russia and in exile have helped get his message out — including last summer, when he used a court statement to condemn Putin's vision of Russia.

"It is now floundering in a pool of mud and blood, with broken bones, and an impoverished, robbed population; and with tens of thousands of people who have died in the most stupid and senseless war of the 21st century," Navalny said, according to a message his team shared online.

2 experiences shaped Navalny's outspoken advocacy

Navalny was born in a rural area west of Moscow in 1976. After becoming a lawyer in 1998, he earned an economics degree. And while Navalny's political activism saw him pushing for a market economy and liberal democracy, his ideological leanings were difficult to parse. Early in his public life, he was also seen as being sympathetic to far-right parties.

Navalny once told NPR that under an authoritarian regime, political nuances didn't matter: The overarching goal — people should agree, he said — is to call for open and fair elections, an independent judiciary and other aspects of a free society.

He also identified two experiences that set him on a collision course with Putin. One was his work as an attorney, where he concluded that Russia's court systems wouldn't be free to dispense justice unless the country reformed its government. Another was an eight-month fellowship at Yale University in 2010, which he said revealed "the bigger picture" of how other political systems operate.

When Navalny decided to share his ideas for a new Russia, he didn't rely on traditional print and broadcast media. "Probably you can call me a person of the internet," he said. "It was a lifesaver not just for me but everyone else who suddenly found themselves under censorship."

Navalny also rejected the label of "dissident," saying it suggested he was someone who stood alone. "If you take any of my anti-corruption investigations or any points from my political platform, I'm sure the majority of Russian citizens would support me," Navalny told NPRin 2018. And that, he added, was why the government would not allow him to run against Putin for the presidency.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.