On August 20, 2020, former Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He slipped into a coma and was immediately evacuated to Berlin, where doctors discovered that Navalny had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent. While the Kremlin has denied any involvement, the chemical nerve agent used on Navalny was similar to the one that Russia was accused of using to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018.
A Kremlin-orchestrated attempt on Navalny’s life was hardly surprising. For the past decade, Navalny has been making a name for himself as one of the leading figures opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Navalny has denounced United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” and has organized campaigns to unseat Putin-affiliated politicians across the country. Furthermore, Navalny’s investigative journalism has uncovered government corruption, and he has used these exposés to advocate for political reform and to bolster his own popularity, especially among the younger generation. Navalny’s success in exposing corruption highlights several interesting and unique tactics and personal attributes that allowed him to be an effective advocate in a country that routinely punishes government opposition.
Navalny’s investigations have relied on clever ways to gather information to expose corruption within companies and organizations. For example, he started his foray into anticorruption by buying stock in state-linked companies. These companies are listed publicly to access outside capital and gain international legitimacy, but in return, they have to provide some transparency into their corporate governance. Taking advantage of his status as a stockholder, Navalny accessed shareholders meetings where he would ask probing questions to company executives. For example, he pressed the management of Gazprom, a partially state-owned Russian energy company, on why it purchased gas through an intermediary when it could have purchased the same gas at a third of the price directly from the distributor. (An investigation later revealed that the intermediary channeled about US$10 million to a shell company, presumably as a kickback.) Similarly, Navalny took advantage of a measure that Putin’s government enacted requiring all government requests for tenders to be published online. Putin did this not out of any great fondness for transparency, but rather to assuage foreign investors’ fears of corruption and fraud within Russia. Navalny saw this measure as a treasure trove of potentially damning information. And he was right. He pored through the tenders and found multiple instances of apparent wrongdoing. For example, based on these investigations, Navalny publicly denounced several multimillion-dollar tenders by Russia’s Health Ministry to build a healthcare network system that should be built for a much lower sum. His revelations led to a public outcry that forced the Ministry to cancel the tenders and fire the official behind them.
Navalny’s investigative reports on specific senior government individuals have garnered him the most attention. He has produced documentaries accusing the former Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, of embezzling US$1.2 billion through several non-commercial and charity foundations owned by his close friends. Navalny produced another documentary on the new Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, which questioned how Mishutin’s immediate family owns property valued at US$40 million when Mishustin, who previously oversaw Russia’s federal tax agency, has worked for the government for most of his life. These pieces are particularly effective at raising awareness among the public because they give a name and face to corruption that is otherwise hidden in the shadows of Russian politics and bureaucracy. By emphasizing the sheer wealth accumulated through corruption, Navalny is implicitly telling his viewers that these government officials are not serving the public, but rather enriching themselves.
Navalny’s political movement is perhaps the source of his current widespread popularity. In a country where politics have been tightly controlled and centralized, the Russian people have grown deeply cynical of anything political. However, Navalny represents a grassroot movement for institutional change. His outsider status, together with his track record of civic activism, has given him the credibility to lead the charge. His 2013 mayoral candidacy, although unsuccessful, was a testament to his popularity. About 15,000 volunteers canvassed on his behalf, and individuals donated millions of dollars (in rubles) to his campaign—crowdfunding feats that were unheard of in Russia. Similarly, when Navalny was banned from running in Russia’s 2018 presidential election, he mobilized massive street boycotts across 100 cities to slash voter turnout and undermine Putin’s inevitable victory. While his attempts to gain office via the traditional methods failed, his anticorruption, anti-oligarchy, and anti-Putin platform gained in popularity which, in turn, grew the audience and interest for his journalistic reporting.
Until July 2020, all of Navalny’s blogs, reports, and videos were all housed under his non-profit organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, whose dedicated goal was to investigate and expose corruption in the Russian government. The Foundation’s YouTube channel amassed over four million subscribers with over 831 million views of his political news and corruption videos. Navalny’s most viewed video, the documentary about Medvedev, garnered over 36 million views (equivalent to roughly a quarter of the Russian population). Precisely because of its success, however, the Foundation has been subjected to numerous lawsuits, and in July 2020, one of Navalny’s investigative targets successfully won a legal action against the Foundation, and the courts fined it US $1.23 million. Because Navalny could not pay that amount, he simply shut down the Foundation—but then re-launched it under a new name. This was possible in part because of the decentralized nature of Navalny’s operation. It does not rely on any one source of funding, but rather is run mostly on anonymous donations from supporters. If a given entity is overwhelmed with legal troubles, it can close its doors, and Navalny and his supporters can open another one in its place. Moreover, Navalny and his team can work from anywhere that has a camera to film and a computer to edit and upload.
Even Navalny himself is not indispensable. While he is the face of the anticorruption movement in Russia, the ideas he represents have transcended his efforts. To some extent, the Kremlin’s alleged poisoning attempt demonstrates this. While Navalny was comatose, his team continued to film, investigate government corruption, and put out content that generates millions of views. Though the Kremlin seems to subscribe to the classic KGB mentality of “no man, no problem,” even if Navalny were gone, there would still be advocates who are committed to exposing corruption. To be sure, Navalny himself is not perfect, and his tactics have flaws. For example, there is no independent fact-checking process for his reporting. He also has a history of espousing nationalistic views, calling for the expulsion of the Georgian people from Russia and affirming support in pro-Russian movements in post-Soviet states. Yet while neither Navalny nor his movement should be considered above criticism, he clearly approaches his advocacy and campaigns with sincerity and candor—both rare commodities in Russian politics—as well as genuine bravery. He has been sued, assaulted, maligned, jailed, partially blinded, and now had an attempt on his life. And yet, he perseveres. His story shows that average citizens despise corruption, and that as long as there are advocates who are willing to fight the good fight, there will be people in the public to support them.