Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia takes on his fight for a free Russia

Yulia Navalnaya picks up her husband’s battle against Putin.

A blonde woman in black with black-framed glasses.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, pictured during her meeting with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib on February 19, 2024, in Brussels, Belgium. Didier Lebrun/Photonews via Getty Images Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, announced Monday that she would take up her husband’s crusade against President Vladimir Putin following his death while in prison.

“I have no right to give up,” Navalnaya said in a video address Monday. “I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny. I will continue to fight for our country, and I urge you to stand next to me.”

Navalny campaigned against the Kremlin for more than a decade following widespread anger over Putin’s 2011 move to retake power. He was Putin’s most internationally known critic, and was the most recognizable to Russians, too, despite Putin’s refusal to say his name. In what amounts to an opposition in Russia, Navalny was essentially the only figure with broad name recognition.

Now, Navalnaya will take up that mantle, but it’s not clear how far the Navalnys’ fight for a free Russia can go under such brutal repression — and with its most charismatic leaders either dead or in exile.

Who is Yulia Navalnaya?

Because of her husband’s work, Navalnaya has been in the public eye for over a decade — not exactly as a political wife or first lady figure, but more as a quiet, stoic partner, although she was a critical part of Alexey’s political activism as his closest adviser. That was intentional on her part; she supported her husband’s activism but wanted to make sure their children were well-adjusted.

But that changed in 2020, after her husband was poisoned by the Kremlin.

While her husband was fighting for his life surrounded by government agents in a hospital in the city of Omsk, she stood up to Putin, issuing a public letter demanding Alexei’s release to travel to Germany for care. It helped establish her as a national figure in her own right, projecting stoicism, grace under pressure, and defiance of the Kremlin all at once.

“Russia is still a sexist country,” economist Sergei Guriev, a friend of the Navalny family and former adviser to Alexei, told journalist Julia Ioffe in 2021. “People think that a woman is not an independent person, especially if she doesn’t work. Therefore, they didn’t understand that Yulia is an independent person. And then they understood. They saw Yulia fight the machine and win. I think for many people it was eye-opening.”

In a 2013 interview with the now-exiled Russian TV channel TV Rain — her first, and one of few, according to Ioffe — the interviewer asked Navalnaya if she wanted her husband to stop his political activism, if only for the sake of their children, Zakhar and Daria. No, she told the interviewer, “Because it’s them he’s fighting for!”

Navalnaya was always present in Navalny’s social media posts and in photos at protests and trials. Though she has occasionally spoken in public to supporters, in the past she has rarely granted interviews, in part to keep her family’s home life as normal and private as possible, but that is already changing as she takes up her husband’s cause; her surprise appearance Friday at the Munich Security Conference was the first signal of her new, more public role.

The space for dissent in Russia is vanishingly small — but dissent is showing a different face

That Navalnaya may become the most prominent Russian opposition figure says as much about Navalny’s organization and reputation and her own charisma as it does about the space for political dissent in Russia. Her self-imposed exile in Germany poses obvious challenges to creating any real political change — she is already being branded a Western puppet in Russian media, according to Reuters, and her distance will make it more difficult to unite a weak and fractured Russian opposition — but it also perhaps makes it possible to dissent at all.

“For years before [Navalny’s death], the overall message has been, ‘There’s no alternative to Putin,’” Eliot Borenstein, vice provost for Global Programs at New York University, told Vox in an interview. “But that was within the pretext of there being some sort of democratic electoral system and so on. Now, there’s not even the slightest public wiggle room when it comes to opposition.”

That leaves little opportunity for political organization even when causes and figures do emerge, but in addition to Navalnaya, there are vocal critics of the regime still inside Russia.

“We should never underestimate the bravery and the brilliance and the courage of many, many Russians,” Graeme Robertson, director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Vox. “People tend to paint Russians all with one brush as long-suffering and patient, and that’s not true of everybody, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Ilya Yashin, another opposition politician and friend of Navalny who is now serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison term for sharing information about Russia’s murder of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, is a compelling, charismatic figure. On Tuesday, a letter mourning Navalny appeared on his X account, in which he vowed to continue his friend’s cause. “As long as my heart beats in my chest, I will fight tyranny. As long as I live, I will fear no evil. As long as I breathe, I will be with my people,” Yashin wrote.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a British Russian journalist and democracy activist currently in prison in Russia for opposing Russia’s invasion, is also a vocal figure with international ties and name recognition — and boasts a partner who has vocally taken up the cause for a free Russia while her husband is in prison. Evgenia, Kara-Murza’s wife, spoke to Time magazine about Navalny’s death and Navalnaya’s decision to carry on in his stead:

“I see that this fight is getting an increasingly pronounced feminine face,” she said. “It’s those women who stand up because their loved ones were either killed or are in jail, both in Russia and in Belarus. And I believe this is actually a good thing because women can bring that long-forgotten understanding of values back to the world of politics; that understanding that you should act based on your values and not on your interests.”

That “feminine face,” as Kara-Murza said, is not new, but it could be effective in connecting with and organizing Russian women, especially around opposition to the war as Russian men come back from the front line permanently injured, psychologically damaged — or not at all. Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), which is one of the fastest-growing protest movements within Russia, according to the Financial Times, already threw its support behind Navalnaya in a Facebook post.

Another important activist space is the Russian LGBTQ community, which has faced increasing repression under Putin. Alexandra Skochilenko, a queer artist jailed for seven years over an antiwar protest — switching five price tags in a grocery store with information about the war — has gained international attention for her protest.

“How weak is our prosecutor’s faith in our state and society if he thinks our statehood and public safety can be ruined by five little pieces of paper?” Skochilenko said at her trial. “Everyone sees and knows that you are not judging a terrorist. You’re not trying an extremist. You’re not even trying a political activist. You’re judging a pacifist.”

Though there are still glimmers of opposition within Russia, any real challenge to Putin likely will not come from society, as Liana Fix and Maria Snegovaya wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month. When Putin goes — whether it’s because of his health, the war, or his policies — it’s likely to be the political elite that pushes him, and that almost certainly will not result in a Russia aligned with Navalnaya’s goals.


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