Well-known opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin have been suddenly stricken by poison before. But Alexei Navalny, who is in critical condition in Germany after a suspected poisoning in Russia on Thursday, is more than just Russia’s leading Putin critic — he challenges the entire Kremlin oligarchy.

For years, the 44-year-old has led protests in the streets and exposed corruption among Russia’s leaders online. This hybrid approach enabled him to both build an opposition movement in an authoritarian climate and to chip away at the Kremlin’s credibility through anti-corruption campaigns.

Navalny’s innovative challenges to both the electoral and financial status quo ultimately didn’t win him any elections. But it has led to many enemies.

What’s unique about Navalny’s political tactics?

After studying law and finance, Navalny first formally entered Russian politics in 1999 — the same year Putin became Russia’s acting president. Navalny joined the liberal opposition party Yabloko. His support for a more nationalist agenda, however, at times aligned him with right-wing politics and put him in conflict with his own party’s leadership. Yabloko expelled him in 2007.

Still, Navalny never strayed far from politics: He instead started to challenge those with power from alternative avenues. While next working at a small law firm in Moscow, Navalny developed a penchant of buying up stocks in state-linked energy companies so he could attend shareholder meetings, challenge corporate leadership, and access paperwork documenting wrongdoing.

That led him in 2011 to establish the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which produced written and online video reports exposing high-level misconduct. In the following years, a related YouTube channel gained millions of followers.

In 2017, Navalny was arrested after helping to lead a massive wave of anti-government protests, where people chanted against political corruption and stagnation. Last year, Navalny and his team launched the “Smart Vote” system, which helps voters to identify which candidates have the best chance of beating out those aligned with Putin’s United Russia party.

“When he came onto the national stage [in] 2010, Navalny brought a new type of opposition to Russian politics,” Regina Smyth, a Russian scholar at the University of Indiana, wrote recently in The Conversation. “He is in tune with popular concerns and able to find common ground across nationalist and liberal activists . . . while articulating a new vision for Russia.”

Prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny arrived in Berlin on Aug. 22. There he was in a critical condition, undergoing tests at a German hospital. (William Glucroft/The Washington Post)

What impact have his anti-corruption and online campaigns had?

Over the years, Navalny honed his brand of social media and anti-corruption activism, which in turn helped to foster new ways for Russians to express themselves politically, organize, and share information.

Navalny first started a popular live blog and LiveJournal in 2006, which the Kremlin shut down six years later. A few years after that, the Anti-Corruption Foundation began producing short investigative films broadcast on YouTube and viewed by tens of millions inside and outside Russia. The high-quality production, easy to understand content, and sprinklings of disarming humor added to their appeal.

The most viewed segment, “Don’t Call Him Dimon,” aired in 2017 and opened with an investigation into a receipt for expensive sneakers purchased by former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. That led into an expose of the Russian leader’s vast and secretive real estate empire, highlighted in contrast to his public persona as honest and modest.

Subsequent segments reported on electoral fraud in Russia, U.S. elections and Russian interventions, misinformation campaigns, and covid-19. Along with the video evidence, the foundation published text versions of its reports replete with documentation.

These videos both challenged state media narratives and brought to the forefront vital investigative work that’s difficult to conduct in authoritarian Russia. As activists, however, Navalny’s team did not adhere to certain journalist principles, such as seeking out comment from a government or individual in response to allegations.

Has Navalny run for office before?

Unlike some other key voices opposing Putin, Navalny never successfully won a formal seat in politics. Electoral politics in Russia is inherently stacked against anyone who poses a challenge to the status quo. Through bureaucratic tactics, Navalny has repeatedly been denied a space on the ballot. He recently disbanded the Anti-Corruption Foundation because it was burdened with fines and blacklisted.

Navalny, nonetheless, has tried to run. He lost a race to become Moscow’s mayor in 2013, though he fared better than expected. The Kremlin was worried enough by his presence to bar him from running in a 2018 election as leader of the opposition party, Russia of the Future.

Navalny was officially disqualified from the race due to his criminal record: He has overall spent hundreds of days in jail, and in 2014 was convicted in a corruption case. He has denied any wrongdoing, and his supporters dismissed the charges as the Kremlin extracting revenge.

What support does Navalny have in Russia?

Navalny derives most of his support from people in large cities, who in part are more likely to be active online, and is lesser known in rural areas.

Polling by the Moscow-based Levada Center in 2017 found that 83 percent of people would probably not or definitely not vote for Navalny. Less than 4 percent of those polled felt respect or sympathy for him, while 16 percent were indifferent and 53 percent did not know who he was. Another Levada Center poll in 2019 reported that a quarter of respondents negatively viewed his actions, 31 percent were indifferent, and another 31 percent said they did not know enough about his work to answer. Nearly a quarter of those polled were in favor of the government’s crackdown on his anti-corruption foundation. A further 18 percent said the government was trying to shift attention away from its own wrongdoing.

Still, part of Navalny’s power is in the alternative organizing and political structures he’s helped to build.

“Navalny’s importance is not about popularity,” Smyth wrote, adding later: “By demonstrating that Russian elections are little more than performances of the state’s capacity to manufacture votes, the Navalny team reveals the lack of choice and accountability in the system.”

Navalny’s alleged poisoning happened en route back from Siberia, where he had traveled to campaign for independent candidates running in city council elections next month, as well as to conduct investigations into the area’s United Russia party picks.