Navalny's wife Yulia prepares to step into her dead husband's shoes

Navalny's wife Yulia prepares to step into her dead husband's shoes
Yulia Navalnaya released a defiant video address calling on the Russian people to "stand beside me" as she takes up the opposition leader's baton. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 20, 2024

In a video posted on Alexey Navalny’s YouTube channel on February 20, the Russian opposition leader’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, announced that she plans to continue his work in his absence.

“I wasn’t supposed to be making this video,” she said. “Somebody else was supposed to be in my place. But that person was killed by Vladimir Putin.”

“Putin killed the father of my children. Putin took away the most precious thing I had, the closest person to me, and the person I loved most in the world. But Putin also took Navalny from you all,” she added, before promising to continue her husband’s work.

"I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny. Continue to fight for our country. And I encourage you to stand next to me," she said in what appears to be a launch of her political career. She would not be the first and follows in the steps of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed Belarusian opposition leader, who stood for president in August 2020 and won by a landslide, according to the few independent polling results available.

Her video has fuelled speculation that started as soon as Navalny was imprisoned in January 2021 that she could take up his mantle as a leader of Russia’s opposition.

Navalny died on February 16 while serving a 19-year jail sentence in a maximum-security prison north of the Arctic Circle, in Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, nicknamed the “Polar Wolf” Correctional Facility No. 3 (abbreviated to IK-3 in Russian). It has a notorious reputation for being a brutal location.

Navalnaya was unequivocal in her assessment of Navalny's death, saying "Vladimir Putin killed my husband Alexei Navalny… It was impossible to break my husband. This is exactly why Putin killed him in a cowardly way... And in the same mean and cowardly way they're hiding his body. They're refusing to show it to his mother and are lying and waiting for the traces of something similar to Putin's Novichok to disappear."

Since his death the evidence that he did not die from natural causes – the official explanation is “sudden death syndrome” – has been mounting and the authorities have yet to release his body to the family; under Russian law they can hold it for up to 30 days.

Navalnaya stepped into his shoes almost immediately. The news of Navalny’s death broke in the morning just as the Munich Security Conference was getting underway, where Navalnya was attending as a speaker. Looking tired and distraught, she gave a short address, announcing the news and promising that Putin will be held accountable for what he has done to her family and Russia in general. The audience gave her a standing ovation as she left the stage.

In the video message released three days after Navalny's demise, Navalnaya not only vowed to carry on his work but also rallied his supporters to join her in the cause, which had 6.3mn views by the end of the same day.

And she seems to have already started work. Following Munich, Navalnaya went to Brussels where she had high profile meetings with a bevy of top EU diplomats, including European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who has been a stern critic of Moscow since before the war began two years ago.

She also spoke at a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. Following the meeting, Borrell wrote: “Vladimir Putin and his regime will bear responsibility for the death of Alexei Navalny. As Yulia said, Putin is not Russia. Russia is not Putin. We will continue to support Russian civil society and independent media.”

Observers have long noted Navalnaya’s integral role in Navalny's political activities, and Navalny himself acknowledged his wife's more radical political stance, often seeking her advice on political matters.

However, she has played a subdued role while Navalny was still at liberty, often travelling with him, but staying in the background. Her first openly autonomous political act was in Omsk where Navalny had been hospitalised after being poisoned and collapsing on a plane. wNavalnaya held daily press conferences and sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin demanding that Navalny be allowed to leave Russia on a medical plane the Germans sent. The international uproar she stoked evenly forced the Kremlin to give in and allow Navalny to leave where he eventually recovered.

But whether she has the strength and charisma of her husband, an ability to resonate with disillusioned and openly intimidated regular Russians, remains to be seen. In her address, Navalnaya herself emphasised her husband’s strength and commitment to his cause.

“He wasn’t just behind bars like other prisoners. He was tortured. He was held in an isolation cell, in a concrete box.. for hundreds of days,” she said. “And not only did he not give up, but he supported us the entire time: encouraging us, laughing, joking, and inspiring us. Never for a fraction of a second did he have doubts about what he was fighting and suffering for.”

It was because of this perseverance, she continued, that Putin ultimately killed Navalny. Despite the enormity of the challenge of taking on the Kremlin, she clearly does not intend to give up easily.

"The main thing we can do - for Alexei and for ourselves - is to continue to fight," Navalnaya said in her video address.

More extreme than her husband

Navalnaya, maiden name Abrosimova, was born in 1976 in Moscow, The Bell reports. Her mother and stepfather worked at the State Planning Committee, and Navalnaya entered the Faculty of International and Economic Relations of the Russian Economic University, Plekhanov.

After graduating she worked in a Moscow bank and then a foreign trade company. In the summer of 1998, while on vacation in Turkey, she met Navalny and two years later they married. After the birth of her daughter Dasha in 2001, Yulia decided to devote herself to her family and became a housewife.

She had never been politically ambitious, acquaintances told Julia Ioffe for a long profile piece on her that appeared in Vanity Fair in 2021 and again in the Russian Harper’s Bazaar written by famous journalist and friend of the family Evgenia Albats. “It’s much more interesting to be a politician’s wife,” she said. “Navalny the politician is two people: Yulia and Alexey,” Albats said, according to The Bell and suggested that she enjoyed the role of shadow politician.

Navalny’s ally Lyubov Sobol confirmed that the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) consults with his wife and discusses some ideas with her “in order to better formulate them.”

“She will be calm, calm, and then she will destroy you with one word,” a long-time acquaintance of the Navalnys told Vanity Fair, speaking of her intolerance of those she thinks are inconsistent, The Bell reports. Navalny himself has said that his wife is more radical in her political views than he is.
After the poisoning and arrest of her husbandw, Navalnaya has lived abroad, and has also been threatened with arrest by the authorities if she returns to Russia. But she also said she is a patriot and will draw on Navalny’s love of Russia for the strength to continue the struggle.

Asked about why Navalny returned to Russia in 2021 and faced the almost certainty of arrest and a long prison sentence, Navalnaya said he had no choice.

“He could have stopped speaking out, stopped investigating, stopped fighting, right? No, he couldn’t have,” she said as cited by Meduza. “Alexey loved Russia more than anything in the world. He loved our country. […] So deeply and sincerely that he was ready to give his life for it. And his immense love will be enough for us to continue his work. For as long as it takes. Just as fiercely and just as bravely as Alexey himself.”

“I will continue the work of Alexey Navalny. […] And I call on you [the Russian people] to stand beside me. Not only to share the grief and the endless pain that has engulfed us. I ask you to share the fury. The fury, the anger, the hatred towards those who have dared to destroy our future,” she said.

She ended the message with a clip of Navalny from a 2022 documentary saying: “All that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. So don’t do nothing.”