Yulia Navalnaya, “first lady” of the Russian opposition movement, emerges as a force to be reckoned with
“If we keep silent, [the government] will come after any of us tomorrow, ”Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Instagram last month. It was the start of a day of mass protests across Russia, where tens of thousands streets demanding the release of her husband. Police would arrest more than 5,000 people and arrest 1,600 by the end of the day.
In the biggest dissent demonstration in Russia in years, Navalnaya, 44, is believed to be among thousands of arrests since the protests began on January 23. “Sorry for the poor quality. Very poor lighting in the police van,” she humorously captioned a selfie in custody.
Her role as the wife of the main critic of Vladimir Putin has earned her the title of “first lady” of the opposition by her supporters. But Navalnaya has become a force in its own right in Russia. Now, with her husband facing more than two years in prison, many wonder if she could take on the leadership role left empty by his absence, potentially leading the opposition movement itself.
“As long as Navalny remains in prison, Yulia Navalnaya will now be under great pressure to play a large public role as leader of the opposition,” said former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, to Know Your Value from NBC News. “She’s got all the credentials. She’s smart, charismatic, principled and fearless.” Whether or not she wants to take on that role, McFaul explained, is another question.
The couple met 23 years ago on a beach in Turkey, in residence in Moscow. While her husband rose to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger, Navalnaya, an economist, opted for a relatively private life, making few public appearances and speeches during Navalny’s protests and campaign events in the United States. over the years. But after her husband’s apparent poisoning by her own government in August, she quickly rose to the fore in lobbying the very man she and Western leaders believe to be responsible: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Holding press conference after press conference where Navalny lay in a coma in the hospital, the image of the formidable woman with icy blonde hair and black sunglasses emerged. She warned reporters he remained in danger in Russia and claimed he was being held up due to pressure from the Kremlin. She even wrote to Putin directly to demand the release of her husband from the country.
Putin “immediately gave the order” to let Navalny go, he later said after receiving Navalnaya’s letter. The family then flew to Germany, where Navalny spent five months recovering. The Russian government has repeatedly denied responsibility for the nerve agent attack.
“Alexei Navalny could not have had a better partner in life than Yulia Navalnaya. She shares his convictions, his bravery, his fearlessness,” said Ambassador McFaul. “She also raised and protected their two children in a way that has aroused deep admiration among supporters of democracy in Russia. Without a doubt, Yulia saved her husband’s life last summer.”
Navalny also credited his wife for her miraculous recovery in August. “Yulia, you saved me,” he wrote on Instagram, shortly after regaining consciousness in a Berlin hospital. The couple returned to Moscow in January, unwavering despite the extraordinary risk they faced.
She addressed a crowd of supporters last month, telling them: “I am not afraid, and I urge you all not to be afraid either.”
Senior members of Navalny’s anti-corruption organization, FBK, have dismissed speculations that Navalnaya will take on a greater leadership role. “Alexei Navalny is the leader of our movement,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov, project manager for FBK. “It certainly sounds good, but we are not discussing it now,” Shaveddinov explained. Navalny’s allies have since halted street protests for the immediate future, focusing instead on the safety of his release from prison.
But supporters continued to raise the possibility of Navalnaya playing a bigger role in leadership. Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of feminist punk rock group and activist Pussy Riot, also expressed hope that Navalnaya will become president in the future.
Women are largely excluded from political leadership in Russia, making up only 16% of the lower house of parliament. Currently, Russia has only one female governor, Natalya Komarova, out of 85 subjects across the federation. In a report on the 2020 Political Empowerment Index, the World Economic Forum ranked Russia 122nd out of more than 150 countries.
“In Russia (…) we don’t see the wives of politicians at demonstrations,” Navalnaya said in a 2013 speech during her husband’s candidacy for mayor of Moscow. “But politics are breaking into the lives of families, whether you like it or not.”
Navalnaya’s recent role as “first lady” contrasts with Soviet tradition, according to Dr. Valerie Sperling, professor of political science at Clark University and author of “Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.” “You didn’t see the Soviet leaders with their wives,” Sperling explained.
In addition to her husband, Navalnaya herself may have been poisoned on a family vacation last year, according to CNN. Flight records showed that three Russian security officers, the FSB, traveled to Kaliningrad while the family was vacationing there. She fell ill and experienced the same symptoms her husband would later describe as sudden exhaustion and disorientation as a result of his nerve agent attack. Nonetheless, she recovered and the exact cause of her illness has never been determined.
It has also been the subject of propaganda efforts by Russian state media. “The male character of Yulia Borisovna influenced the division of power within the family,” reported NTV, a pro-government channel, referring to her surname. “She brings up the children and, like a bully, controls everything in the house.”
These are gender tactics, explained Dr Sperling, that constitute a regime’s “toolbox” for exercising or destroying a politician’s legitimacy. “The fastest way and the lowest common denominator to undermine politicians is to say that they are not doing masculinity or femininity correctly.”
“If it’s a mother, she will be told that she hurts her motherhood. If she is too powerful, then she will be a tyrant and a man,” Sperling said. As for Navalnaya, she was targeted because she threatened an imbalance of power, assuming a role inappropriate for women.
Despite the efforts, Navalnaya is not discouraged. She draws her strength from her life as a mother, wife and ordinary citizen. “You write that I am strong. I am not strong, I am normal,” she addressed over a million supporters on Instagram. She continued, “There is no reason to retreat and be afraid. We will win anyway.”