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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands inside a glass cell during a court hearing at the Babushkinsky district court in Moscow on Feb. 20, 2021.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian government has done everything it can to make Alexey Navalny disappear. He has been beaten, barred from politics, poisoned with a chemical agent and now sent to a penal colony outside Moscow.

Somehow, Mr. Navalny’s political insurgency continues. Even isolated in the Kolchugino prison facility, some 140 kilometres outside the capital, the anti-corruption campaigner remains the most significant domestic challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. This week, Mr. Navalny’s allies helped persuade the United States and the European Union to levy fresh sanctions against Russia’s FSB security service – which is accused of poisoning Mr. Navalny last summer with a Novichok nerve agent – along with several top Kremlin officials.

Since his dramatic return to Russia and his arrest on Jan. 17, which was followed by a court hearing that Mr. Navalny used to denounce Mr. Putin’s entire system – “it is the duty of every person to defy you,” he told the judge – comparisons have been made between Mr. Navalny and Nelson Mandela, another rebel who went to jail with his head held high.

Others fret that a more apt comparison may be to Aung San Suu Kyi, whose worrying statements about the fate of ethnic minorities in Myanmar may have revealed the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s darker side.

Mr. Navalny speaks during a rally against the December 4 parliament elections in Moscow, on Dec. 24, 2011.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

It has been a decade since Mr. Navalny burst onto Russia’s political scene in the wake of Mr. Putin’s 2011 decision to return to the presidency for an unprecedented third term. And yet Mr. Navalny remains something of a political unknown both inside and outside Russia, a situation highlighted by Amnesty International’s decision to name him a “prisoner of conscience” on Jan. 17, then revoke that status barely a month later after discovering racist statements he made about Muslim migrant workers early in his political career.

The episode was a reminder that the Russian public has met two Alexey Navalnys. The first incarnation was a Russian nationalist, someone who accused immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus of taking Russian jobs and blamed them for a wave of terrorist attacks. In one YouTube video, he compared Islamist militants to cockroaches.

Mr. Navalny’s allies say his beliefs have changed since then and that the sudden re-emergence of remarks he made years ago was part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to discredit the now-44-year-old politician. “Amnesty International’s decision was based on his 2007 statements, which he no longer holds,” said Sergei Guriev, an economist who advises Mr. Navalny. “I would love to have Alexey to respond to [Amnesty] but he is now in jail, so we have to wait until he is free.”

Mr. Navalny attends a hearing to consider an appeal against an earlier court decision to change his suspended sentence to a real prison term, in Moscow on Feb. 20, 2021.MAXIM SHEMETOV/Reuters

Mr. Navalny’s sentence could keep him in Kolchugino for 2½ years, and many suspect the authorities will find a way to keep him behind bars even longer. “I hope Navalny will not perish in jail – but I do not expect he will see daylight outside his cell as long as Putin is in power,” said Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster-turned-opposition politician who has been in self-imposed exile since 2013.

The liberal-minded Mr. Kasparov said he and Mr. Navalny have at times clashed over the latter’s nationalism, as well as his foreign policy positions, which include calling for a new referendum on the future of the Crimean Peninsula – which Russia seized and annexed in 2014 – rather than its immediate return to Ukraine.

But now, Mr. Kasparov said, is not the time to debate those differences. “You can question whether [Mr. Navalny’s] decision to return to Russia was a wise one, but you can’t argue that it wasn’t a brave one, a heroic one,” he said in a Skype interview. “Anything that can bring [Mr. Putin] down is good.”

Mr. Navalny was born in 1976 in a Soviet Union still 15 years from collapse. His father was a Red Army officer who despised the system in which he served. His mother was an accountant who, after the fall of the USSR, became an early supporter of the Yabloko party, the standard bearer of pro-Western, centre-left politics in Russia, which has never won more than 8 per cent of the vote in any national election.

Mr. Navalny, right, with his wife Yulia, daughter Daria, and son Zakhar leave a polling station in Moscow's mayoral election on Sept. 8, 2013.The Associated Press

A lawyer by training, Mr. Navalny joined Yabloko in 2000, shortly after Mr. Putin first rose to the presidency. That same year, Mr. Navalny also married Yulia Abrosimova (now Yulia Navalnaya), a fellow lawyer who would become his closest political adviser. The couple have two children.

He rose through the ranks of Yabloko to become deputy chief of its Moscow branch, only to be expelled by the leadership in 2007 over his increasingly nationalist politics, which included attending an annual march to “defend” the rights of ethnic Russians.

Tanya Lokshina, the head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Navalny’s track record reveals a populist politician who made “ugly” remarks early in his political career – which at the time helped him gain followers – but has not repeated them since.

“Personally, I think that people should be given the benefit of the doubt from the viewpoint that people can evolve with time, people change,” Ms. Lokshina said. The salient fact is that “Mr. Navalny is in prison as a result of a blatant and revolting manipulation of justice.”

Protestors hold a portrait of Alexei Navalny during a demonstration for fair elections in central Moscow on Feb. 4, 2012.Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

Starting in 2010, Mr. Navalny focused on a new target – corruption – that vaulted him out of fringe politics and made him the country’s most relevant opposition politician.

He bought shares in some of Russia’s biggest companies and used his status as a shareholder to force disclosures about how the companies were run and how public contracts were handed out. His blog became a must-read for business elites and earned him an army of followers among a middle class tired of seeing their own ambitions stymied by rampant influence peddling and graft.

“I was always interested in government and politics, but before I met Navalny I wasn’t a member of any political party, I didn’t support any politician,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, who left a senior post at one of Russia’s largest banks to help Mr. Navalny with his investigations. “He wasn’t just talking about corruption like other activists, he was launching lawsuits, he was filing complaints and he was writing about it in a style of irony and humour that was appealing.”

The two men founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has since produced a series of investigations that have embarrassed senior figures in the government, including Mr. Putin. Two days after Mr. Navalny’s Jan. 17 arrest, his team released a video alleging that the President, who has an official salary of about US$120,000 a year, was the owner of a Black Sea palace worth an estimated US$1.35-billion.

Mr. Navalny’s rise to prominence coincided with a key juncture in recent Russian history: Mr. Putin’s announcement in 2011 that, even though he had already served two terms as president, he would return to the top job in 2012 after four years in the theoretically junior post of prime minister.

The move infuriated an urban middle class who felt their hopes for a more open, democratic Russia had been blocked. The winter of 2011-2012 saw the country rocked by the biggest protests since the fall of the USSR.

Mr. Navalny, centre, attends a rally in Moscow on Jan. 28, 2018.Evgeny Feldman/The Associated Press

Mr. Navalny emerged as the leader of the swelling opposition. While veteran Putin opponents such as Mr. Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov called on their followers to protest, then peacefully return home, Mr. Navalny stayed in the streets at the end of protests, confronting riot police, until he was arrested. He would then post cheerful photos to his social-media accounts, posing with fellow arrestees – and sometimes the smiling officers who had detained them – from the back of police vehicles.

His charisma helped him build a network of supporters beyond the traditional opposition strongholds of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Demonstrations of varying sizes took place in some 100 cities and towns around the country after Mr. Navalny’s January arrest.

It’s that mix of determination and fearlessness that made him such a threat to the regime that it allegedly tried to kill him last summer, something the Russian government vehemently denies. He was flown in a coma to Germany for treatment after his poisoning but returned to Russia as soon as he was healthy enough, knowing full well he would be arrested as soon as he landed.

“Some people are just unique. They are a unique combination of skills and strength and moral resolve,” said Mr. Ashurkov, who has lived in London since 2014. Asking why Mr. Navalny went back to Russia after his poisoning, Mr. Ashurkov said, is like asking why David was willing to fight Goliath. “There’s no simple answer.”

It’s that good-versus-evil narrative that the Kremlin wants to destroy. After years of trying to consign Mr. Navalny to anonymity – Mr. Putin and his inner circle have at times gone to farcical lengths to avoid saying his name in public – the Kremlin now acknowledges his existence and is working hard to convince the Russian public that a President Navalny is the last thing the country needs.

Mr. Navalny attends a hearing in Moscow.MAXIM SHEMETOV/Reuters

His current prison sentence is tied to a 2014 conviction for embezzlement (on charges widely viewed as trumped-up). Worse, in the eyes of many Russians – raised on the legends of their country’s victory over Nazi Germany – is a separate case in which Mr. Navalny was fined for slandering a Second World War veteran who appeared in a video promoting constitutional changes that allowed Mr. Putin to remain president until 2036.

Mr. Navalny’s allies worry about how much further Mr. Putin might go to destroy his nemesis. “He’s in the custody of the very people who poisoned him six months ago,” said Leonid Volkov, who heads Mr. Navalny’s network of offices around Russia from his base in exile in Lithuania.

But Mr. Volkov said his friend returned to Russia knowing he would very likely end up in the dangerous situation he’s in now. Taking the safer road, staying away, was never an option.

“As hard, as challenging, as the situation is now, if we zoom a little bit out and consider the larger picture – he’s now in prison, and that’s a bad thing – but he’s become a symbol of hope for anyone who’s against Putin,” Mr. Volkov said, pointing to polls that show the number of people dissatisfied with how their country is governed is growing after 21 years of Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule.

“Putin has created this black-and-white perception. You have to take sides. You are either for Putin or you are for Navalny.”

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