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Alexei Navalny’s death left a vacuum in Russia's opposition — can his widow fill it?

Yulia Navalnaya's defiance in the aftermath of her husband's death have turned her into a leader-in-waiting for the country’s beleaguered opposition.
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His wife’s voice was the first thing Alexei Navalny recognized when he woke from a poisoning attempt that he blamed on the Kremlin. 

On Monday, that voice was filled with rage against President Vladimir Putin, whom Yulia Navalnaya accused of killing her husband as she vowed to take up the mantle of his fight for a “free Russia.”

Her defiance in the aftermath of Navalny’s death in an Arctic penal colony have turned her into a leader-in-waiting for the country’s beleaguered opposition, raising hopes that his dream of a “beautiful Russia of the future” did not die with him. 

'Putin killed half of me'

Navalnaya, 47, has been in the public eye alongside her husband for years. She regularly attended protests and rallies with him, and was a constant presence as Navalny campaigned against official corruption and fought for a more democratic Russia. 

But she stayed largely in her husband’s shadow — until his life hung in the balance. 

When Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020, Navalnaya played a pivotal role in getting him out of Russia for emergency treatment, even pleading with Putin in writing to let her husband be flown to Germany. Navalny later said she saved his life. 

Navalnaya said at the time that she had to wear sunglasses so that no one could see her crying. 

That stoicism was on display when the news of her husband’s death broke Friday while she was back in Germany to attend the Munich Security Conference. She stepped in front of a microphone, her face pale but determined, to make clear that if her husband really was dead, she wanted the Kremlin to know that it would bear responsibility for what it did to her family and her country.

Three days later, she delivered a lengthy, surprise video address accusing Putin of killing her husband — putting herself directly in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

“Putin killed half of me, half of my heart, half of my soul,” she said, her voice trembling at times through the 9-minute address. “But I have the other half left, and it’s telling me that I don’t have the right to give up.”

It was seen by many as a declaration of her own political ambitions at a time when the Russian opposition — already decimated by years of repression and the crackdown that followed the war in Ukraine — was now reeling from the loss of its chief. 

“This really is a political bid for leadership,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “She has a chance to become a unifying figure, because she can become a moral symbol of resistance.”

Suggestions that Navalnaya should take Navalny’s place have been circulating since he was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election. 

Asked about her political ambition in an interview in Harper’s Bazaar in 2021, however, she said it was “much more interesting to be a politician’s wife.” And as recently as last March, she told the German weekly Der Spiegel that she was not going to enter politics to “replace” her husband.

Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalny
Navalnaya had long demurred at suggestions she could take her husband's place, but now appears determined to take up his fight.Evgeny Feldman / AP file

But with Navalny now gone, she may have felt she had little choice. 

Navalnaya began her video Monday with, “Hi, this is Yulia Navalnaya” — a throwback to the signature way Alexei used to start his videos. That symbolism did not go unnoticed, as the video racked up more than 2 million views in just four hours. 

“You saw how strong she is. She’s the obvious candidate to lead this charge,” the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC on Monday. Her address in Munich was “electrifying,” he added. McFaul called Navalnaya “smart, charismatic, principled and fearless” in another interview with NBC News in 2021, saying that she had “all the credentials” to become an opposition leader in her own right. 

Navalny himself had said that his wife shares his political views, and was even more radical than him in some ways.

More than a symbol?

While there are other figures who could stake a claim to lead Russia’s opposition — most of them in jail themselves — few have the symbolic weight or global profile of Navalnaya.

In that sense, she has been compared to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was surprisingly allowed to run for president in the country’s 2020 election after her husband, opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed. The incumbent strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, went on to win, sparking mass protests that were violently suppressed and forced Tsikhanouskaya to seek exile in the West, where she remains the nominal opposition leader but has little influence inside Belarus. 

“The same risk awaits Yulia: They will meet with her, give honors, but she may never become a player, not having serious support within the country,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and head of the political analysis firm R.Politik.

Navalny in court
Navalnaya was a regular at her husband's court hearings, offering a smile in support.Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images file

But a lot depends on what she will have to offer, Stanovaya said in a post on Telegram. “Not as the widow of an outstanding politician who was tortured to death, but as an independent figure,” she added. 

It remains unclear what Navalnaya may have in mind — whether she will seek to return to Russia, risking the same fate as her husband, or continue his anti-corruption efforts from afar.

Born and raised in Moscow, Navalnaya graduated from the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics with a degree in international relations. She worked at a bank before marrying Navalny and, since his political career took off, has been taking care of their two children, Daria and Zakhar. 

Her partnership with Navalny came in stark contrast to Putin, who has kept his family largely hidden from the public eye throughout his more than two-decade rule. 

That’s not the case with the Navalnys, who traded cheeky declarations of love on their social media channels and posted about the pain of being apart after he was jailed.

Still, she said, she never tried to talk Navalny out of his political path. She accepted the Oscar in Los Angeles last year for best documentary, “Navalny,” sending him a message: “Stay strong, my love.” 

Navalny’s last post from prison was a Valentine’s Day message to his wife.

One of the lasting images of the couple is on the plane back to Russia in early 2021, Navalany having decided to return home and face certain arrest after recuperating from his poisoning in Germany.

Navalny Plane Poisoning
The pair's flight back to Russia after the poisoning was captured by the world's press.Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images file

On a plane packed with journalists following their every move, the couple quietly watched the cartoon ‘Rick and Morty’ while sharing a pair of headphones. 

It was one of their last moments together while Navalny was still a free man. 

“To live is to risk it all,” he said in court a month later, reciting a quote from the show. In the wake of his death, his wife may have reached the same conclusion.