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'I am not afraid': Yulia Navalnaya, 'first lady' of the Russian opposition movement, emerges as a force to be reckoned with

Her role as the wife of Vladimir Putin's top critic has earned her the title "first lady" of the opposition by supporters. But Navalnaya has emerged as a force in Russia in her own right.
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, walks near a hospital in Omsk
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks near a hospital, where Alexei receives medical treatment in Omsk, Russia on Aug. 21, 2020.Alexey Malgavko / REUTERS

"If we keep silent, [the government] will come after any of us tomorrow," Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, wrote on Instagram last month. It was the beginning of a day of mass protests across Russia, where tens of thousands would take to the streets to demand the release of her husband. Police would detain over 5,000 people and arrest 1,600 by the day's end.

In the largest show of dissent in Russia for years, Navalnaya, 44, would find herself among the thousands arrested since protests began on Jan. 23. "Sorry for the poor quality. Very poor lighting in the police van," she humorously captioned a selfie in police custody.

Her role as the wife of Vladimir Putin's top critic has earned her the title "first lady" of the opposition by supporters. But Navalnaya has emerged as a force in Russia in her own right. Now, as her husband faces over two years in prison, many are wondering if she might step into the leadership role left empty by his absence, potentially heading the opposition movement herself.

"While Navalny remains in prison, there will be a lot of pressure now on Yulia Navalnaya to play a great public role as a leader of the opposition," former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told NBC News’ Know Your Value. "She has all the credentials. She is smart, charismatic, principled and fearless." Whether or not she wants to step into that role, McFaul explained, is another question.

The couple met 23 years ago on a beach in Turkey, taking residence in Moscow. While her husband rose to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger, Navalnaya, an economist, opted for a relatively private life, making few public appearances and speeches at Navalny's protests and campaign events over the years. But after her husband's apparent poisoning by his own government in August, she swiftly stepped to the forefront to pressure the very man she and Western leaders believe to be responsible: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Holding press conference after press conference where Navalny lay comatose in the hospital, the image of the formidable woman with icy blonde hair and black sunglasses emerged. She warned journalists that he remained in danger in Russia and alleged he was being kept due to the Kremlin pressure. She even wrote to Putin directly to demand her husband's release from the country.

Putin "immediately gave the order" to let Navalny go, he later said after receiving Navalnaya's letter. The family then flew to Germany, where Navalny remained in recovery for five months. The Russian government has repeatedly denied responsibility for the nerve agent attack.

Protesters march in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan. 23, 2021. The placard with an image of the Kremlin critic reads "Freedom to Navalny!"Kirill Kudryatsev / AFP - Getty Images

"Alexei Navalny could not have a better partner in life than Yulia Navalnaya. She shares his convictions, his bravery, his fearlessness," Ambassador McFaul explained. "She also has raised and protected their two children in a way that has generated deep admiration among supporters of democracy in Russia. Without question, Yulia saved her husband's life last summer."

Navalny also credited his wife for his miraculous recovery in August. "Yulia, you saved me," he wrote on Instagram, shortly after regaining consciousness at a hospital in Berlin. The couple flew back to Moscow in January, steadfast despite the extraordinary risk they faced.

She addressed a crowd of supporters last month, telling them: "I am not afraid, and I urge you all not to be afraid either."

Senior members of Navalny's anti-corruption organization, FBK, have dismissed speculation of Navalnaya assuming a more prominent leadership role. "Alexei Navalny is the leader of our movement," Ruslan Shaveddinov, a project manager for FBK, stated. "It certainly sounds nice, but we are not discussing it now," Shaveddinov explained. Navalny allies have since paused street protests in the immediate future, instead focusing on securing his release from prison.

But supporters have continued to raise the possibility of Navalnaya taking a larger role in leadership. Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of Feminist punk rock and activist group Pussy Riot, also vocalized hopes of Navalnaya becoming president in the future.

Yulia Navalnaya arrives at the Moscow City Court to attend her husband Alexei Navalny's trial on Feb. 2, 2021.Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP - Getty Images

Women are largely left out of political leadership in Russia, making up just 16 percent of the lower house of Parliament. Currently, Russia has only one female governor, Natalya Komarova, out of 85 subjects in the entire federation. In a 2020 political empowerment index report, The World Economic Forum ranks Russia 122 out of more than 150 countries.

"In Russia ... we don't see the politicians' wives at protests," Navalnaya said in a 2013 speech during her husband's run for Moscow mayor. "But politics storms into families' lives whether you like it or not."

Navalnaya's recent role as the "first lady" stands in contrast to the Soviet tradition, according to Dr. Valerie Sperling, professor of political science at Clark University and author of "Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia." "You didn't see the Soviet leaders with their wives," Sperling explained.

In addition to her husband, Navalnaya herself may have been poisoned while on a family vacation last year, according to CNN. Flight records showed three Russian security operatives, the FSB, flew to Kaliningrad while the family vacationed there. She fell ill and experienced the same symptoms her husband would later describe as sudden exhaustion and disorientation as a result of his nerve agent attack. Nevertheless, she recovered, and the exact cause of her illness was never determined.

She has also been the subject of propaganda efforts by Russian state media. "The male character of Yulia Borisovna influenced the division of power within the family," NTV, a pro-government station, reported, referring to her patronymic name. "She raises the children and, like a tyrant, controls everything at home."

These are gendered tactics, Dr. Sperling explained, that make up a regime's "toolbox" to wield or destroy a politician's legitimacy. "The quickest and lowest common denominator way of undermining politicians is to say that they're not doing masculinity or femininity correctly."

"If she's a mother, she'll be told that she does motherhood incorrectly. If she's too powerful, then she'll be a tyrant and a man," Sperling said. When it comes to Navalnaya, she's been targeted because she's threatened an imbalance of power, taking on a role that's inappropriate for women.

Despite the efforts, Navalnaya has remained undeterred. She draws her strength from her life as a mother, a wife, and an ordinary citizen. "You write that I'm strong. I'm not strong, I'm normal," she addressed over a million supporters on Instagram. She went on: "There is no reason to retreat and to be afraid. We will still win."