What the Aleksei Navalny Case Says About Life in Putin's Russia

How a LiveJournal blogger became the Russian president's worst enemy.
Russian opposition leader and anti-graft blogger Aleksei Navalny looks on surrounded by journalists after arriving for a court hearing in the city of Kirov April 17, 2013. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

All show trials in Russia commence with adjournments, as if to purposefully use as banal legal procedure to interrupt the anticipatory anxiety of seeing the Kremlin face off with one of its enemies. So it was with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with Pussy Riot, and now with the trial of opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny. After all the hotels in Kirov had been booked for foreign and domestic correspondents and for Navalny's broad team of comrades and admirers, the first day of the trial lasted about 30 minutes. The defense had asked for a month-long adjournment to study the Everest of prosecutorial documents (one can't quite call these "evidence") against their client. They got a week. Then everyone went home, including the defendant who had taken a 12-hour train journey from Moscow, some 550 miles away, to see first hand just how Vladimir Putin intends to destroy him by branding him with the labels he hates the most: a fraudster and a hypocrite.

Depending on your perspective, which depends on how closely you follow events in Russia, the brazenness of the modern show trial is either surreal or typical. The presiding Judge Sergei Blinov has handed down 130 guilty verdicts and zero acquittals in the last two years, which is slightly above the national average of 99 percent conviction rates (defendants during the Great Purge were 20 times more likely to be acquitted than they are now). In Navalny's case, Blinov has so far broken the law by allowing no preliminary hearings. The head of the Leninsky District Court has publicly stated that a guilty verdict in the present case is "probable but not inevitable." In a normal country, that alone would likely be grounds for a mistrial, or at least a change of venue.

But Russia is not a normal country and no longer pretends to be. It's widely acknowledged that Putin has personally directed the Investigative Committee -- which is like the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover only it's wholly subordinate to the president -- to quash the two-year-old protest movement against the Kremlin by any and all means. Putin's avowed war on mid-level state corruption, itself little more than a wag-the-dog distraction from going after the heavies that he has neither the desire nor means to confront, is in fact a war that Navalny began and popularized. So the imperative to break the 36-year-old lawyer and blogger may be said to transcend politics. Navalny has dubbed Putin's ruling United Russia the "party of crooks and thieves," a coinage that is now universal and irreversible.

"Defendants during the Great Purge were 20 times more likely to be acquitted than they are now."

Having an arch-nemesis who never utters your name in public but will determine the course of the next decade of your life is bound to make you uneasy. So is being judged and found guilty, as Navalny inevitably will be, in a city named for the most famous assassination victim in Soviet history, whose murder in 1934 -- almost certainly ordered by Stalin -- was the curtain-raiser on the Great Terror. Yet Navalny seems clear-eyed about his own options, which are exactly two.

In an essay he published this month in the independent weekly The New Times, he said that he'll either go to prison for the maximum sentence of 10 years (he's already packed for it) or he'll be convicted but receive probation, an outcome that would bar him -- given the felony-status of the charges -- from public office for life. This is thanks to a newish tweaking of Russian electoral law, which he has termed the "Belorussian scenario" after Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko's practice of keeping opponents from competing in elections.

The Democracy Report

Make no mistake: Navalny has his mind on public office. He is one of the few opposition figures to openly describe himself not as an activist but as a "politician." Others agree. A credible poll taken last month found that of all Russians, 37 percent has heard of him, up from just 6 percent in April 2011 -- and this in a media environment where the state still controls the misinformation clearinghouse of television. (Of those who have heard of him, 14 percent said it would "definitely" or "probably" support Navalny in a presidential election; this translates to just 5 percent of the population at large.) Navalny's gaining recognition is the problem, as the Putinists have themselves have admitted.

Kirill Kabanov, a member of the Kremlin's council on civil rights, confirms that Navalny is being punished rather than brought to justice. His gravest offense was persuading protestors during a rally last winter to march on Lubyanka Square in Moscow, the headquarters of the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, the site of Putin's actual seat of power in Russia. "You want to work on your anti-corruption blog," Kabanov apostrophized, "Go for it. But politics is not your business." In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, Vladimir Markin, the spokesperson for the Investigative Committee, similarly accounted for why Navalny was on trial: "[W]here someone who appears in a case goes out of his way to attract attention, one could even say, to tease the authorities -- here I am, pure and innocent compared to everyone else, then the interest in his past grew and the process of bringing him to justice, naturally, accelerated."

Markin went further suggested that Navalny was an American spy who was run from Yale University, where he spent six months in 2010 enrolled in a leadership training program, and then sent back to Russia, which his spymasters mistook for "Georgia or some Third World country" in its vulnerability. "I doubt that his handlers knew that a criminal prosecution was likely," Markin added, nicely summarizing how this flak's own handlers view any off-script democratic occurrences in a "managed democracy" as the ministrations of a foreign conspiracy.

The point isn't just self-serving propaganda; it is instinctively felt by the siloviki whose worldview was molded by the KGB. Whenever a parliamentarian, bureaucrat or officer of the law in Russia is shown to be illegally keeping undeclared luxury condos in Miami, or homes in Eastern Europe, or millions in deposits in offshore bank accounts, it will not have a been a patriot toiling of his own accord who uncovered the corruption; it will have been provocateurs in Washington feeding him intelligence to de-stabilize all that Putin has built up over the last 13 years. This is why NGOs that receive money from overseas are now being raided and compelled to register as "foreign agents," a Stalinist epithet, and never mind that the ones who have the most contact with foreigners are the Kremlin-blessed oligarchs and state officials who send their children to private schools and colleges in the West and keep their fortunes abroad.

Navalny has exposed plenty of those. Since 2007, he has also waged minority shareholder crusades against state energy and banking giants, first via his LiveJournal blog, then via his crowd-sourced anti-corruption website RosPil. In 2010, he exposed how executive of Transneft, a major state-owned oil pipeline company, had pilfered $4 billion in contracts for the construction of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline. Last year his newish NGO, the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, put out a report cataloguing the eyebrow-raising history of the majority state-owned bank VTB, which you may have come across in reading about the Cyprus implosion. It's got retail, commercial and investment arms in over a dozen countries, and controls almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in French and German pension money. Yet VTB can most generously be characterized as rather lousy at performing due diligence. Eight-figure loans have a habit of defaulting and landing the bank in expensive civil court cases in non-Russian jurisdictions. Other allegations have also been leveled against its top executives.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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