Yulia Navalnaya | Woman of the opposition

The wife of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of President Putin who died in prison recently, vows to continue his fight for ‘a free Russia’

Updated - February 25, 2024 12:06 pm IST

Published - February 25, 2024 04:24 am IST

“The unthinkable sacrifice he made cannot be in vain,” said a solemn but stoic Yulia Navalnaya in a video posted on social media, three days after the death of her husband, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. In the eight-minute video, Ms. Yulia called on the Russian people to join her in continuing to fight for “a free Russia”.

Navalny rose to prominence a decade ago, when he began blogging about alleged corruption under Russian President Vladmir Putin. His popularity, and determination evidently unsettled Russia’s political establishment. Navalny was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent in 2020 and was later imprisoned, under charges of “extremism”. Throughout all of this, one person remained by his side: Ms. Yulia.

She married Navalny in 2000, at the start of his political career. But Ms. Yulia never overtly expressed interest in joining politics, preferring instead to remain on the sidelines as Navalny’s confidante, adviser and support system. She saw her role as supporting, protecting and caring for her husband and two children.

Ms. Yulia was born in 1976, to a scientist and a civil servant. She studied economics and worked at a bank, and then a foreign trade company. She was a part of the Yabloko, a liberal, socially democratic party, which Navalny was also a member of till 2007. She met Navalny in 1998, when he was a young lawyer.

Although she rejected the limelight, Ms. Yulia was still a politician’s wife. From his mayoral campaign in 2013, to his presidential campaign in 2018 and his imprisonment, she was there for him.

When Navalny was poisoned in 2020, it was Ms. Yulia who implored Mr. Putin to allow him to go to Germany for treatment. While at the hospital, she warded off the swarm of policemen, speaking into an aid’s camera, saying, “We demand the immediate release of Aleksei, because right now in this hospital, there are more police and government agents than doctors.”

She herself has faced poisoning attempts, likely meant for her husband, but something she has brushed off, regardless. When Navalny was jailed on arrival after the poison attack in 2021, Ms. Yulia was detained twice, at rallies in Moscow in support of him. “Sorry for the poor quality. Very bad light in the paddy wagon,” she captioned an Instagram photo. Her fierceness to support her husband exists alongside her candid love for him. Navalny and his wife exuded the energy of a power couple. When Navalny woke up from his coma, following his poisoning, he wrote a “post about love,” for Ms. Yulia, who he said saved his life. Two days after his death, she posted a picture of them, captioned, “I love you.” She has since flown to the U.S., to be with her daughter.

No time to rest

But, for the new de-facto opposition leader of Russia, there is no time to rest. In her video, she remained calm but firm. She said Mr. Putin “killed my husband”, but vowed that she won’t let him kill her husband’s cause. “We should defeat Putin, his friends, the bandits in shoulder straps, the thieves and murderers who have destroyed our country,” she said. “I address you with the words of Alexei, in which I firmly believe. It is not shameful to do little, it is shameful to do nothing. It is shameful to be intimidated.”

Navalny’s body was not immediately shown to Ms. Yulia. She says it’s because Mr. Putin wanted to buy time. As the body decomposes, so does the evidence of what he allegedly did to cause his death. Navalny’s mother was shown his body a week later, and authorities finally handed his body to her on Saturday. She said she was facing pressure from authorities to have a secret funeral, with no mourners. A social media post by Navalny’s spokesperson said it remains unclear whether “authorities will interfere to carry out[the funeral] out as the family wants and as Alexey deserves.”

For many Russians, Navalny was the only serious opposition leader who stood up to Mr. Putin. Despite the state’s attempts to crack down on opposition, Navalny consistently kept his cause alive. Kremlin continues to deny responsibility for his death, which comes just a month before the Russian presidential elections, where Mr. Putin is set to secure a fifth term.

As Ms. Yulia steps into her new role, she knows the risks and challenges she will face. She also knows that time is of the essence in the fight for freedom. “By killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart, half of my soul. But I still have the other half. And it tells me I have no right to give up.”

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