Reflections on a Chat With Aleksei Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader

  • February 16, 2024

Sitting in the warren of rooms in a hipster brick Moscow office building where Aleksei A. Navalny ran both his political movement and his anti-corruption organization, I asked him about running for president in 2024.

There had been a series of small but widespread protests across Russia against corruption that spring of 2017, prompted by his investigation that revealed the vast wealth amassed by Dmitri A. Medvedev, the prime minister and former president. Although his supporters hoped Mr. Navalny could run for president in 2018, one told me he thought 2024 was more likely.

Mr. Navalny shook his head. “When I hear such a question I think about the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe,” he started.

The African leader had been in power for 35 years, and Mr. Navalny said that he could imagine President Vladimir V. Putin sticking around until not just 2024, but 2044 with his approval rating still stuck at 84 percent and his body mostly bionic.

“We need to think about what we need to do right now,” he said. “I do not agree with these rulers. They are making life in Russia worse. They are taking the country in the wrong direction.”

It was a vintage Navalny response: smart, witty, irreverent, prescient and somewhat unexpected. He seemed to embody the idea that if he ever became president, Russia would be a more relaxed place.

Of course, he used his response to pivot immediately to his favorite theme: criticizing Mr. Putin’s authoritarian grip on power. (Mr. Putin later changed the constitution so that he can stay in office until 2036.) Russian politicians in general are not given to cracking jokes, much less comparing their faded empire to a small African dictatorship.

Mr. Navalny was approachable, preferring to speak Russian rather than English, which he had worked to improve and spoke fluidly. He usually dressed casually but well, sporting clean bluejeans and a pressed cotton shirt. He kept fit.

At the time of that interview, he was thrilled that his live broadcasts on YouTube were beginning to catch on. He opined about politics and took questions from viewers submitted via social media. While I was watching him prepare, he looked startled for a minute because he thought he had missed the queue and that the broadcast had started. He joked easily with his staff.

“It’s always nerve-racking,” said a man who, in his public positions, did not seem to fear anything. On air that day, Mr. Navalny was going to discuss corruption allegations swirling around Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire oligarch close to the Kremlin.

The sound engineer asked him for a voice check.

“12345. Alisher Usmanov is bad,” he said.

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