The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Russia, opposition leader Navalny's anti-corruption fight falls to his followers

In a blue shirt, Alexei Navalny stands with Ksenia Fadeyeva in Tomsk, Russia, in August 2020. Fadeyeva runs Navalny’s regional headquarters in the Siberian city. (Andrei Fateyev/AP)
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MOSCOW — Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is comatose in a Berlin hospital, but he is racking up millions of YouTube views on two investigative videos filmed in Siberia just before he was poisoned by a Novichok-type nerve agent.

The videos, edited and released in recent days, were part of a series Navalny planned about municipal corruption by President Vladimir Putin’s political allies. The videos are aimed at swaying voters against Putin’s United Russia party in dozens of city elections Sept. 13.

They also now showcase how Navalny’s opposition network rallied to carry on his signature strikes — exposing alleged corruption and excesses — while prospects for his recovery remain unclear.

Navalny only managed to film the first two in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. Sections had to be voiced by aides. His team is working on more videos without Navalny.

In Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, Navalny could not hide his relish for the task just days before he was stricken on Aug. 20.

He chatted with an elderly woman and a young father about shoddy public housing. He peered, shocked, down an open elevator shaft in one apartment building and poked his finger into a drafty hole in a newly built wall. He wandered through the desolate construction sites around residential blocks.

Navalny reported that almost half Novosibirsk’s city council deputies were owners or associates in big construction firms, using their positions to boost their businesses.

After a German military lab found traces of a Novichok group nerve agent in Navalny’s body, Russian authorities demanded proof and said Germany and its allies should not rush to judgment blaming Russia. But Russia has not opened a criminal case on his attempted murder, claiming there was no evidence of a crime.

The Washington Post analyzed videos and photos to retrace prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's steps in the days before he was poisoned. (Video: The Washington Post)

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, himself a past target of Navalny’s probes, said Thursday: “We're interested in establishing the cause of what has happened to the Berlin patient,” invoking the Kremlin tradition of avoiding his name to convey official contempt. He said, “There are no grounds whatsoever to accuse the Russian state.”

“Novichok is a state weapon,” said Georgy Alburov, an investigator with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “Using a chemical weapon against the opposition tells us that Russia is now lawless and Putin wants to remain in power forever. And Alexei is a real threat to Putin. Of course Putin wants to get rid of him.”

A new video

Determined to stay strong — believing this is what Navalny would want — Alburov was filming a third video this week in Tatarstan, about 500 miles east of Moscow. He is keeping the details under wraps. 

Navalny, Putin’s most effective rival, was under constant surveillance in Russia. He faced repeated jail terms, crippling fines, searches and seizures of equipment and the emptying of all his family members’ accounts.

His scathing exposés of what he called mafia-style corruption by United Russia city deputies in Novosibirsk and Tomsk had all the elements that attract millions of viewers to his YouTube channel. In less than 24 hours, the Tomsk video had nearly 2.1 million views. His Novosibirsk video had 4.5 million in a few days.

The allegations of malfeasance are microcosms of the corruption Navalny and others say infests Russia: politicians who grabbed hold of privatized government assets; who registered assets and companies in relatives’ names; and who used their official positions to reap more money to spend on palatial mansions and luxuries.

The range of Navalny’s videos contain his trademark forensic examinations of city finances and politicians’ financial interests using open-source data and on-the-ground reporting. But what really piques people’s interest are his compelling, nosy-neighbor drone flights soaring over the high fences of the elite to expose how they live — exciting both curious envy and burning outrage.

Then there are his price lists of politicians’ trinkets and luxuries, toting up each item with a ka-ching, like an old-fashioned cash register, including the fancy watch collection valued at tens of thousands of dollars apiece that is a vanity of one Novosibirsk deputy.

One target in the video was a Novosibirsk official who benefited from the privatization of a municipal funeral business.

“Our city deputy privatized the dead. Those who vote for United Russia will be voting for the funeral mafia that rips off poor, weeping people,” Navalny said outside a Novosibirsk funeral parlor. “I could tell you a story like that about every deputy, but there are 50 of them and believe me, they’re all the same.”

Since Navalny’s medical evacuation to Germany, Russian authorities — and other Navalny enemies — have ramped up pressure on his associates.

Daniil Markelov, Navalny’s candidate running in the Novosibirsk election, was barred from the ballot by a court Aug. 31.

New threats

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a powerful Kremlin-linked businessman, another target for past Navalny investigations, said late last month he would ruin Navalny if he survived. The U.S. government accused Prigozhin of financing the Wagner Group mercenaries and the Internet Research Agency that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

“Of course, if Comrade Navalny gives his soul to God, then personally I do not intend to persecute him in this world,” he said Aug. 26. But, if not, he would “strip these unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes.”

Navalny’s films not only canvass voters and attract donations for more investigations, but they inspire activists like Alburov and Markelov to join the Navalny team, enabling him to set up headquarters in 45 regions in a mounting challenge to United Russia.

Markelov, the candidate barred from running for office, said Novosibirsk-style corruption was everywhere.

“Because people want to get into power, not to improve things for people but to make their own business prosper, because corruption is everywhere,” he said.

Working with Navalny was “dangerous enough,” he added.

“But I was born in this country and I live in this country, and I don’t want to give up this country to corrupt officials,” he continued.

In Tomsk, Navalny leafed through city utility bills, reporting that “a villainous club” of city deputies or their relatives and friends had privatized electricity, water and a municipal housing management company, reaping big profits.

“Everything here is entwined with corruption, and it affects the life of every person,” Navalny said, urging people to use his “smart voting” app to back the strongest candidate against each United Russia deputy.

“A local mafia has taken over the city so that all Tomsk residents are forced to pay tribute to it many times every day,” he said on the video.

'Not going to give up'

Navalny’s investigative team fights on.

Alburov was sitting in a car in Tatarstan on Aug. 31, flying a drone over an official’s country house — or dacha — and filming it for the series when men on quad bikes burst out of the gate, giving chase.

“I had to grab the steering wheel and drive off, and the drone flew away. We lost it,” he said. The chase was “like a blockbuster.”

Private guards blocked the road with a black Mercedes SUV. Dozens of police arrived, mounting an eight-hour search, seizing computers, cameras, phones, hard drives and flash drives from Alburov and others.

“Drone footage is very important for our audience because you can show people what the owners of these palaces and mansions do not want them to see,” he said. “When you see behind their fences, there are these 2,000-square-meter [21,500-square-foot] palaces and swimming pools and other riches. And of course, our audience gets mad.”

“We’re not going to give up,” he added. “We will carry out this investigation and Tatarstan’s authorities will not stop us.”

Political analyst Yulia Latynina, writing in Novaya Gazeta, said Navalny’s poisoning was an ominous message from the Kremlin, a nod that would see the number of beatings, poisonings and assassinations of opposition figures increase. Anyone could be targeted.

“It is a signal that political killing and violence are acceptable at any level,” she wrote. “A new era has come. The era of open political reprisals.”

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