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Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died in a prison camp, gestures after she passed the control point at the Russian Embassy on the final day of the presidential election in Russia, in Berlin, Germany, on March 17.Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Two things were on display as Russia’s stage-managed presidential election drew to a close: Vladimir Putin’s disregard for democracy, and the growing clout of his new chief nemesis, Yulia Navalnaya.

The official results of the election were decided by the Kremlin weeks, if not months, ago. On Sunday, the Central Election Commission announced that Mr. Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, had won another six-year term with almost 88 per cent of the vote, a sharp rise from the 77.5-per-cent support he claimed in 2018.

Within minutes of the first results being announced, air-raid sirens screamed across most regions of Ukraine, which Russia invaded on Mr. Putin’s orders just over two years ago. The war has left tens of thousands of people dead and has seen the International Criminal Court issue a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest on war-crimes charges.

Improbably, the Kremlin also claimed a record voter turnout at 74 per cent for an election that generated almost no public debate or excitement. There were widespread reports of ballot-stuffing, as well as of people being forced to vote in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.

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A protester feeds an election ballot into a shredder machine during a performance in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, where voters lined up to cast their ballots in the Russia's presidential election on March 17.TOBIAS SCHWARZ/Getty Images

If he serves the entire six-year term, Mr. Putin will surpass Joseph Stalin’s 29-year reign and become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Catherine the Great.

More remarkable than the official figures were the crowds of Russians who turned out at precisely noon local time at polling stations across the country – and Russian embassies around the world – to show their opposition to Mr. Putin and their respect for Alexey Navalny, who died on Feb. 16 in an Arctic prison camp. Russia’s beleaguered democrats have accused the Kremlin of murdering the country’s most popular opposition figure.

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Participants in the action were responding to a call from Ms. Navalnaya, who asked that Russians carry through with the Noon Against Putin protest – arriving en masse and voting for anyone but the incumbent or spoiling ballots – an action that her husband designed from behind bars shortly before his death.

As the election rolled across Russia’s 11 time zones, lines formed at exactly noon local time at polling stations from Siberia – where videos posted online showed lines forming hours before voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg were awake – to the tiny exclave of Kaliningrad. Some of the longest lines were seen at embassies abroad, particularly in countries that have large communities of Russian political exiles.

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Long lines of voters formed outside polling stations in major Russian cities during the presidential election on Sunday, in what opposition figures portrayed as a striking protest against a rubber-stamp process that is certain to keep Vladimir Putin in power.NANNA HEITMANN/The New York Times News Service

Many posted photos from inside the ballot booths of their spoiled ballot papers, with some scrawling words like “thief” or “murderer” over Mr. Putin’s name, while others added the name of either Mr. Navalny or Ms. Navalnaya to the ballot.

In the eyes of many, Ms. Navalnaya is now the leader of those who want to see a different Russia than the authoritarian, militaristic version that Mr. Putin has built over his quarter-century in power.

It’s a role she never wanted. Until her husband’s death, the 47-year-old economist left the politics to him and focused on raising their two children.

But within hours of the Russian prison service announcing that Mr. Navalny had died – the official version is that his death was caused by blood clot – Ms. Navalnaya took up his mission.

“I thought: Should I stand here before you or should I go back to my children?” she said in a surprise appearance that day at the Munich Security Conference. “And then I thought: What would have Alexey done in my place? And I’m sure that he would have been standing here on this stage.”

Ahead of the election, she penned a column in The Washington Post calling on the international community not to recognize the result, and to treat Mr. Putin not as the President of Russia but as “a usurper, a tyrant, a war criminal – and a murderer.” On Sunday, she was cheered as she joined the blocks-long lineup of Russians waiting to cast their ballots in Berlin.

President Vladimir Putin won a record post-Soviet landslide in Russia's election on Sunday, March 17, cementing his grip on power. Thousands of opponents staged a protest at polling stations and the United States said the vote was neither free nor fair. Angela Johnston reports.


After voting, she told journalists that she had written her husband’s name on the ballot. A crowd of protesters outside the embassy chanted “Yulia, we’re with you!” as she spoke.

Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation that Mr. Navalny founded, and one of his top political aides during their prolonged attempt to challenge Mr. Putin’s grip on power, said Ms. Navalnaya was well-suited to carry on her husband’s role.

“She definitely was not in public as much as Alexey Navalny was over the past 20 years. But so many times I was surprised that she knew our political strategies, or some not-so-well-known politicians in Russia, better than me,” Mr. Zhdanov in an interview at the foundation’s office in exile in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. “She can do this. Definitely.”

One challenge that Ms. Navalnaya will face is uniting Russia’s fractured democrats, a goal that eluded her husband. Even though he was by far the most popular opposition politician inside Russia, other prominent figures such as philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former chess champion Garry Kasparov always bucked at recognizing Mr. Navalny as the main leader of Russia’s democracy movement. That left the opposition divided into two, sometimes three, competing factions.

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Vladimir Putin arrives to speak after polling stations closed on the final day of the presidential election, in Moscow, Russia, on March 17.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Mr. Zhdanov believes the various groups must now get behind Ms. Navalnaya. “It’s about moral authority,” he said. “I believe that many oppositional leaders, oppositional politicians, accept this fact that Yulia Navalnaya is the best leader for Russia opposition. She took her place in the moment when we needed it.”

One person who can associate well with the position that Ms. Navalnaya suddenly finds herself in is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian democracy leader. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya was a schoolteacher until 2020, when her husband Syarhey Tsikhanouski was jailed after announcing that he planned to challenge Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus, in an election.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya stood in her husband’s place, and is widely regarded as having won the 2020 election. Mr. Lukashenko’s regime, however, declared that he had won the vote, and Ms. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee into exile amid a crackdown on her supporters. Four years later, the 41-year-old Ms. Tsikhanouskaya still longs to have her old life back.

The exiled leader met Ms. Navalnaya shortly after Mr. Navalny’s death. She said Ms. Navalnaya remarked during their conversation that the two women had chosen different paths – Ms. Tsikhanouskaya went into politics as soon as her husband was jailed, while Ms. Navalnaya stayed out even after Mr. Navalny was sent to prison in January, 2021 – but had nonetheless ended up in the same place.

“My advice to her would be to concentrate on delivering the message to the Russian people that we’re not fighting for our own interests or position,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said in her interview at her own headquarters in Vilnius, where she carries her files around with her in a black binder with her husband’s face on it.

“I just hope that she realizes that this path is full of challenges and pain and threats and risks.”

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