The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic serving time in a Russian penal colony?

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Berlin's Charite hospital on Sept. 19, in a photo posted to his Instagram account. (AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Alexei Navalny, 45, is Russia’s best-known opposition leader. He has become the international figurehead of dissent against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny was jailed in January 2021 when he flew back to Russia after recovering in Germany from a poison attack in August 2020 with the nerve agent Novichok. He has blamed Russian security forces for the poisoning, as have U.S. and European authorities. Russian officials have denied any role. He was sentenced to more than 2½ years in prison in part for breaching probation rules by going to Germany for the treatment, a ruling his supporters say is entirely political.

On Tuesday, a court found him guilty of fraud and contempt and sentenced him to an additional nine years in prison. It is not clear yet whether the two sentences will be combined. Navalny and his team argue that the charges are fabricated and that he’s being persecuted.

Last year while in prison, Navalny went on a hunger strike that captured international attention to protest the conditions of his imprisonment. He ended it after 24 days on April 23, 2021, after his doctors expressed alarm that he was close to death. On June 9, a Russian court declared Navalny’s political network an “extremist” organization, outlawing its work in Russia and effectively placing it in the same category as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Here is what you need to know about Navalny and his imprisonment.

Russian court sentences Kremlin critic Navalny to nine more years in prison on fraud conviction

Who is Navalny?

Navalny was born June 4, 1976, in Obninsk, about 60 miles southwest of Moscow.

After earning degrees in law and finance from Russian universities, Navalny entered politics in 1999, just as Putin first took up national leadership. He joined the liberal opposition party Yabloko and pushed it toward a more nationalist message that put him in conflict with party leadership.

He was expelled from Yabloko in 2007, in part because of controversial comments about immigration and his decision to attend the annual Russian March, which is anti-Putin but includes members of the far right.

While running a small corporate law firm in Moscow, Navalny developed a strategy of buying stocks in state-linked oil companies and banks so that he could become a minority shareholder and question the companies’ leadership. He later formed a group known as the Anti-Corruption Foundation to expand this work and open investigations that increasingly struck at the heart of the Kremlin elite. A 2017 exposé alleged that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had a vast, $1 billion network of palaces. The YouTube video accompanying the investigation has received more than 35 million views.

Navalny has played a key role in several political movements.

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny moved to prison sick ward as health worsens

Has he run for office?

Navalny was barred from running for president in the 2018 election, with the Central Election Commission arguing that his campaign was ineligible because of a conviction in a 2014 embezzlement case that his supporters viewed as political retribution.

When he has been allowed to run, there have been indications of political support. In 2013, he won 27 percent of the vote against a key Kremlin ally in the Moscow mayoral election, a result that surprised some analysts, as Navalny did not have the backing of state media and was forced to travel away from Moscow during the campaign because of legal problems.

Election monitors consistently report violations during Russian elections that compromise their integrity.

Why poison is the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia

What led to his imprisonment and what has happened since?

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent while on a flight from Siberia. The pilot made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where Navalny was taken to a hospital and placed on a ventilator.

“This is Putin,” Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh wrote on Twitter. “Whether he personally gave the order or not, the blame is entirely with him.”

Putin foe Navalny once described prison life with dark humor. Now his messages are just dark.

Navalny was treated in Germany and arrested immediately upon his return to Russia on the basis that he had violated the terms of an earlier parole.

By spring 2021, his health had deteriorated significantly. His attorneys said he was experiencing excruciating pain from herniated discs in his back. In late March 2021, Navalny started a hunger strike to demand medical treatment. In mid-April, his spokeswoman said he could have only days to live if he did not receive treatment. Soon afterward, he was moved to a prison hospital.

Navalny announced the end of his hunger strike on April 23 of that year via Instagram. (He does not have access to the account, but his attorneys have said it is run by his allies.)

“Thanks to the tremendous support of good people all over the country and all over the world, we have made tremendous progress,” the Instagram post said. It said he had achieved his goal: access to civilian doctors.

Has he been targeted politically?

In addition to the poisoning, Navalny and his supporters point to numerous instances of harassment for his activism, including legal and physical threats.

In 2014, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on allegations that he embezzled $500,000 worth of lumber from a state-owned company. The prison sentence was later suspended. Though the case was declared unfair by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2016, a Russian court reaffirmed it the next year.

In a Russian court, Alexei Navalny loses again but still has the last word

Further legal cases have kept Navalny in court or under house arrest. In late 2014, both he and his brother, Oleg Navalny, were sentenced to prison time for allegedly embezzling money from French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher.

Although Navalny’s sentence was suspended, and the ECHR again said the case was unfair, his brother spent 3½ years in prison before being released in 2018.

Last year, Russian authorities seized Navalny’s bank accounts and those of his wife, son and daughter. After a lawsuit from Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Putin and the target of an investigation, Navalny was forced to close his Anti-Corruption Foundation in July 2021, but he pledged to continue its work under a different name.

Navalny has also faced physical harassment and threats. In 2017, he was doused with an antiseptic green dye several times. Although he made light of the incident, posing for photographs on his social media accounts, after one incident in April of that year he was hospitalized after the dye went into his eye.

In 2019, Navalny was hospitalized with an “acute allergic reaction” after again being detained. His personal physician said he may have been affected by an unknown chemical substance.

Navalny’s main political network and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which conducted several investigations on Putin and Russian oligarchs, were declared “extremist” by a Moscow court in June 2021, which in practical terms equated them to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State.

How Navalny combined protests and anti-corruption campaigns to take on the Kremlin

Have other opposition figures been targeted?

Throughout Putin’s long rule of Russia, his political opponents have been jailed. For example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch who was initially supportive of Putin, spent 10 years in prison after running afoul of the Kremlin.

Some have been killed. Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician once considered a potential successor to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was fatally shot just steps from the Kremlin in 2015. Putin suggested it was a contract killing designed to embarrass the Kremlin.

There have been several high-profile cases of poisonings or alleged poisonings. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), died after being poisoned in London.

Litvinenko had written a book that alleged a deadly false-flag conspiracy to help Putin get elected in 1999. British authorities later said that he had been poisoned after drinking tea laced with polonium-210 and that Putin himself may have ordered the killing.

This report has been updated.

Loading...