The tumultuous life of Alexei Navalny, Russia's outspoken dissident who has been sentenced to 19 years in prison

The tumultuous life of Alexei Navalny, Russia's outspoken dissident who has been sentenced to 19 years in prison
Alexei Navalny wears a blue puffy jacket and looks into the distance.
Alexei Navalny attends a rally in support of political prisoners in Moscow, Russia.Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Alexei Navalny, Russia's most famous living dissident, made a name for himself as an anti-corruption blogger.

  • His videos linked bureaucrats to palaces and yachts, gained millions of views, and sparked protests.

  • In 2013, Navalny ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Moscow and — despite a conviction that barred him from running — also attempted to run for president in the 2018 election.

Last month, Alexei Navalny — a famously outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin — had 19 years added to his prison sentence.

Navalny, 47, has been a thorn in Putin's side for 15 years — first as an anti-corruption blogger, and later as an independent politician running and campaigning in local and national elections.

Navalny has often used humor to take on Putin. He dubbed Putin's political party United Russia "the party of Crooks and Thieves," and called Putin "a thieving little man in a bunker."

In 2020, he almost died after he was poisoned with a nerve agent, allegedly by Russian agents.He was flown to Germany for treatment.

Once he recovered, he returned to Russia knowing he would be imprisoned. He's now locked in a remote penal colony that's typically reserved for those accused of violent crimes and incarcerated people serving life terms.

Alexei Navalny was born on June 4, 1976, in Butyn, a town west of Moscow.

Alexei Navalny speaks into a microphone and points into the distance.
Alexei Navalny speaks during a rally against parliament elections in Moscow, Russia.Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

His father was a Red Army soldier, and his mother was an economist.

Until he was 10, he spent his summers with his grandfather, who lived in the countryside near Chernobyl. But that came to an end in 1986 after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

As he grew up, his family moved between military towns in the Moscow area.

After failing to get into Moscow State University, Navalny went to Peoples' Friendship University of Russia where he studied law. He graduated in 1998.

He wasn't particularly fond of his university education and found it uninspiring, recalling he once put $50 in the exam book to get a passing grade.

Alexei Navalny, wearing a blue argyle sweater vest and blue shirt, looks up at the camera and poses in his office in Moscow, Russia.
Alexei Navalny poses in his office in Moscow, Russia.Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

He later earned a degree in economics, graduating in 2001.

Navalny got his first taste of corruption working as a real estate lawyer.

Alexei Navalny looks at a crowd of people in front of him.
Alexei Navalny attends a meeting of the organizers in Moscow, Russia.Yevgeny Feldman/AP

"Working there taught me how things are done on the inside, how intermediary companies are built, how money is shuttled around," he told the New Yorker.

During this period of his life, his friends described him as a right-wing "punk."

In 1999, Navalny joined the Yabloko party, a liberal group his mother supported that formed after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Alexei Navalny speaks and gestures with an outstretched arm while sitting at a desk in front of an open laptop.
Alexei Navalny speaks in his office in Moscow.Oxana Onipko/AFP via Getty Images

The following year, Vladimir Putin was elected president. Soon after, debates and elections became infrequent and Yabloko became less relevant.

Regardless, Navalny wasn't impressed with Yabloko's internal politics.

He later told the New Yorker the party struggled to reconcile "normal people" and a radical group who had been political in the 1980s before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Navalny clashed with the party when he posted several controversial videos, including a 2007 pro-gun rights video where he suggested that Muslim militants are "cockroaches" that need to be exterminated.

Alexei Navalny speaks at a meeting in Moscow, Russia.
Alexei Navalny speaks at a meeting in Moscow, Russia.Mikhail Metzel/AP

In the video, he pretends to shoot an actor wearing a kaffiyeh who runs up to attack him.

In 2007, Navalny was kicked out of Yabloko. Party members said it was because of his "nationalistic activities." He had also gone to nationalist marches that were attended by uninvited neo-Nazis. He argued it was worse to ignore the movement and that these events had regular people, too.

His reasoning was later summed up by Daniel Roher, who directed the documentary, "Navalny."

Roher told NPR Navalny had said, "How can I afford to alienate these crazy guys? Their goal is to get Putin out of power. And my goal is to get Putin out of power. Fine. We might as well join forces."

In 2008, Navalny began to make a name for himself as an anti-corruption blogger.

Alexei Navalny speaks to his supporters and media holding his hands in the air as members of th e press hold microphones to him and photographers point cameras at him.
Alexei Navalny speaks to his supporters and media after his release from a detention center in Moscow, Russia.Mikhail Metzel/AP

He used data and "relentless, paint-stripping contempt" to attack the government, as described by the New York Times.

It helped that Russia was experiencing an internet boom at the time. By 2011, a quarter of Russian families had broadband internet.

Navalny's videos were popular with a younger audience, attracted not by his ideology "but the confident challenge he mounts to the system," the New York Times published in a 2011 profile.

He started buying stocks in state-owned companies, including oil and gas monopolies, so he could ask questions as a shareholder and see how the companies worked from within.

Alexei Navalny wearing a black jacket looks into the distance with Russian flags behind him.
Alexei Navalny takes part in a march at Strastnoy Boulevard in Moscow, Russia.Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

He soon found discrepancies. One company barely provided dividends but had donated $300 million to "charities" that no one could see. In another state-owned oil company, he discovered a $4 billion government corruption scheme.

His report received 1 million views on the day it was published.

When other companies refused to provide shareholder information, he sued them, then republished the information on his blogs.

Navalny was aware of how dangerous his work was.

Alexei Navalny wearing a blue jacket surrounded by people.
Alexei Navalny attends a rally in support of political prisoners in Prospekt Sakharova Street in Moscow, Russia.Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In 2011, Nikolai Tokarev, the chief executive of the state-controlled petroleum company, Transneft, accused Navalny of being a Western agent working for the CIA.

Navalny had just spent a year in the US studying at Yale University in 2010.

In response to Tokarev's claim, Navalny provided his wife with a list of names to contact if he suddenly vanished.

"They could arrest me at any moment," Navalny told The Times.

That same year, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK for short.

Alexei Navalny speaks into a microphone and points in the distance in front of a sign with words in Russian.
Alexei Navalny speaks during an opposition rally in central Moscow, Russia.Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images

Through the foundation, he hired several activists who continued exposing corruption. The foundation's investigations took aim at the authority and reputations of officials across Russia.

One of its most famous investigations was a short documentary on then-President Dmitry Medvedev's hidden wealth. The documentary played clips of his duck pond and huge shoe collection, according to the Conversation.

In response to the foundation's work, the Kremlin later labeled it a "foreign agent" and "undesirable."

During 2011 and 2012, Navalny's popularity grew as he campaigned to get people to vote for politicians running against Putin's party, United Russia.

Alexei Navalny with his arms being held behind his back by Russian police officers as he is detained.
Alexei Navalny was detained by Russian police officers during a protest in Moscow.Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Navalny famously called United Russia the "Party of Crooks and Thieves."

There were widespread protests across Russia after United Russia still won the most seats.

In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow.

Alexei Navalny, standing in front of a podium, looks toward former Kremlin adviser Andrei Illarionov who is motioning with his hands as he speaks during a televised debate.
Alexei Navalny takes part in a televised debate with former Kremlin adviser Andrei Illarionov in Moscow.Misha Japaridze/AP

Navalny ran a grassroots campaign meeting with voters outside metro stations and passing out posters. He didn't win, but he came second out of six candidates after winning 27% of the vote.

It was the first time there had been an election for the city in nearly 10 years after mayoral elections were banned in Moscow in 2004.

He told Foreign Affairs he hadn't wanted to run for office but was left with little choice.

"When this system controls the courts, the prosecutor's office, and everything else on earth, you have to change the system itself, that's all," he said.

During his mayoral run, he was also on trial for embezzlement.

Alexei Navalny is seen behind the bars in a police van after he was detained during protests.
Alexei Navalny seen behind the bars in the police van after he was detained during protests in Moscow, Russia.Sergey Ponomarev/AP

He was accused of stealing about $500,000 from a timber company, despite the accusation being dismissed earlier after a European human rights court found procedural violations in the first trial.

The case was reopened, and Navalny was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison in 2013.

Within hours, thousands of unsanctioned protesters — meaning they faced the risk of being arrested — gathered in Moscow. His sentence was suspended and he was released the next day.

Despite the conviction and loss of the election, all of the publicity transitioned Navalny from "a widely followed blogger and activist into a respected orator and politician," Joshua Yaffa wrote for Foreign Affairs.

The following year though, Navalny was accused of fraud alongside his younger brother, Oleg.

Police officers detain Alexei Navalny after his visit to the city's election commission office.
Police officers detain Alexei Navalny after his visit to the city's election commission office to submit documents to get registered as a mayoral election candidate in Moscow, Russia.Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

Navalny and his brother were accused of defrauding clients of a shipping company that they had started in 2008. Navalny was placed under house arrest — meaning no access to phones, internet, or other people.

During his house arrest, he kept busy by studying the internet — in particular, memes and viral hits.

Later in 2014, Navalny was convicted and given a suspended sentence of 3.5 years. He was released in 2015 on the same day Time magazine released its list of the internet's most influential people.

Navalny was on the list next to Justin Bieber and former President Barack Obama.

Navalny's brother, Oleg, was convicted and given a 3.5-year prison sentence.

Alexei Navalny and his brother, Oleg Navalny.
Alexei Navalny and his brother, Oleg Navalny.Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

It was seen as a tactic by the Russian government to keep Navalny under control. By 2020, Navalny himself had been to jail 13 times.

The government didn't stop there. It froze his bank accounts and imposed hefty fines for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he struggled to pay off.

His critics also pointed to the fact he didn't have a clear idea of what he wanted Russia's future to look like. In general, Navalny said he hoped Russia would "resemble a huge, irrational, metaphysical Canada," but his main focus was on loosening Putin's grip on the country.

In late 2016, Navalny announced his run for president for the 2018 election.

Alexei Navalny wears a suit and a red tie in front of a black wall.
Alexei Navalny is seen before his visit to the Russian Central Election Commission in Moscow, Russia.Evgeny Feldman for Alexei Navalny's campaign/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Navalny was implicitly barred from running because he was a convicted felon, but that didn't stop him. He opened more than 80 political campaign offices across Russia and called for a nationwide boycott of the election.

Putin was re-elected with 76.7% of the vote, according to Central Election Commission data.

In August 2020, Navalny was on a flight back from Siberia where he had been campaigning when he suddenly collapsed.

An empty stretcher is pushed by medical workers next to an ambulance outside a German hospital.
An empty stretcher was believed to have carried Alexei Navalny into the German hospital.Markus Schreiber/AP

Navalny said Russian agents had applied a nerve agent called novichok to his underpants. This was later confirmed by the German government, although Putin denied the accusation.

After international pressure, he was allowed to be flown to Germany for treatment. He was in a coma for a fortnight. Even after he woke up, he had back pain and lost control of his legs.

Navalny claimed he later managed to trick a Russian agent into confessing by calling and pretending to be an official demanding to know why the assassination had failed.

In 2021, after he had recovered, Navalny decided to return to Russia.

Alexei Navalny gestures with his hands up while wearing handcuffs sitting next to Russian law enforcement.
Alexei Navalny, who was arrested during an anti-corruption rally, gestures during an appeal hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia.Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

He was arrested as soon as he got off the plane. When news of his arrest got out, protests occurred across 180 different cities and towns.

The foundation then released a video tying Putin to a 190,000-square-foot billion-dollar palace he secretly owned, which was built with taxpayer funds. In May, Insider published annotated versions of diagrams of the palace.

In June, the Russian government reacted by banning the foundation and closing down 40 of its regional offices.

Navalny's days of freedom also appear to be over.

Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link.
Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link from his penal colony during court hearings t the Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow, Russia.Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

In 2021, he was sentenced to almost three years in a penal colony. Another nine years were added in 2022 for additional charges, and he was regularly locked in solitary confinement.

In 2022, Navalny was on the cover of Time magazine, described as "The Man Putin Fears," and a CNN documentary about his life called "Navalny" won an Oscar for best documentary.

Navalny's colleague, Maria Pevchikh, who is exiled from Russia, spoke about why the documentary was significant, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Putin wants Navalny to be irrelevant. We were aware that this film was life insurance," she said.

Despite international support, Navalny was moved to IK-6 prison, a remote penal colony that's typically reserved for those accused of violent crimes and incarcerated people serving life terms.

A screen shows Alexei Navalny and others standing in front of a desk.
A screen shows Alexei Navalny as he listens to his verdict over a series of extremism charges at the IK-6 penal colony.Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

In August, 19 more years were added to his sentence based on charges of extremism.

Navalny said Putin's main "gripe" with him was that he would be remembered for poisoning Navalny.

"We had Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and we will have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner," he said.

Navalny hasn't given up hope and told his allies "not to lose the will to resist."

A protestor holds a sign reading "Free Navalny" and another poster shows the Time Magazine cover featuring Alexei Navalny.
Activists of the Russian community in Italy demonstrate for the freedom of Alexei Navalny and all Russian political prisoners.Simona Granati/Corbis/Getty Images

"I understand perfectly that, as many political prisoners, I'm serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of my life or the length of life of this regime," he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider