Navalny and the Mirage of a Different Russia

Aleksei Navalny speaking with his staff outside his headquarters in Moscow in 2013.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

In late April 2015, while on a reporting trip to Moscow, I paid a visit to the offices of the anti-corruption campaign run by Aleksei Navalny.

At the time, his political party was preparing for Russia’s 2016 elections, and his international profile was growing. To many, he seemed to be the one prospective leader who might offer Russia a different path — a possibility that seemed all the more significant after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a well-known liberal politician and critic of President Vladimir Putin, in February 2015.

I didn’t meet Navalny, but I spent time talking to several of the young people who were working on his political campaign and anti-corruption initiative.

I remember the day well. The melting snow on the path to the campaign building was treacherous, with thin crusts of ice over dirty slush that soaked over the tops of my boots. Inside, the office had the colorful décor of a tech startup. And the energy of the young staff members I met was palpable. Many of them stayed working as darkness fell outside, and I wondered if the looming threat of government retaliation lent urgency to their tasks.

Unlike other opposition figures, Navalny was not just a dissident, but a compelling politician: someone who had built a genuine following, a nascent political party and an anti-corruption cause that was winning him attention and acclaim among ordinary Russians.

Talking to some of the people in that office, it was possible to see the hazy outlines of a more democratic future for Russia: Popular support for Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign might grow, undermining the popularity that was one of Putin’s greatest political assets; institutions might show some independence; elite support might fracture; Putin’s erstwhile allies might force him out of power.

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