Imagine yourself in a country that has seen the same leader in charge for the last two decades. A leader who has changed the core political structure of the country on numerous occasions to remain in power. A leader who appears to be the epitome of the country’s values. A leader who seems unstoppable, powerful to the extent that he seems invincible. Many have tried to slip by him, some have outrightly dissented against him, and all those people have faced eerily tragic fates.
In such a situation, who in their right mind would want to spearhead a massive rebellion for over a decade? Who would be willing to give up any chance of a peaceful life, a life without constantly having to look over one’s shoulder?
Those who do opt for such drastic and unprecedented actions put their values, their nationalistic identity, and the wellbeing of their future compatriots ahead of themselves. They look away from the imminent danger staring them in the face and choose to take the path no one else is willing to go down.
The purpose behind this lengthy introduction is that this is a summary of what kind of a man Alexei Navalny is, a larger-than-life figure, fearlessly treading through an extremely eventful life.
Even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin refrains from saying Navalny’s name. The people love him. The media is intrigued by him. The authorities are wary of him. And, the rest of the world is astonished by just how resilient he is. He seems to be the type of person who is eventually tagged as a revolutionary.
So, what is it that makes such people stand out from the crowd? What is it, that equips them to stand up against great adversity?
The well-educated young man whose popularity blew up in the late 2000s, Alexei Navalny is a man of intelligence. Not just in the conventional sense, but also in terms of street smarts, as he has demonstrated by always being two steps ahead of those he wishes to overthrow.
Though he initially dipped his toes by being a part of radical groups in the country, he ultimately found the kind of approach he wanted to take: one based on cleaning up the system, exposing the corrupt and empowering the youth.
By the late 2000s, the Kremlin-controlled pretty much all the important pillars which are supposed to be independent in a democracy. The media was biased, elections were unfair, the judiciary was sub-par and legislative officials often had no interest in public welfare.
However, one important medium where it is hard to censor information is the internet. So, Navalny started to utilise social media to build up a following and reach as many people as possible without risking instant arrest.
This has suited him well, as even to this day, social media plays a huge role in his political activities.
Navalny had early on realised that speculatory allegations were not enough to substantially pressurise the Government. Something more concrete was necessary. People had to see the problems in the system for themselves to believe it, just hearing about it was not effective.
He came up with an ingenious plan, targeted at exposing deep-rooted corruption. He bought shares of various state-owned companies. As a shareholder, he was entitled to numerous documents containing transactions and financial details of these companies. There were clear signs of what can only be described as “shady business” when looking at the contents of the documents.
The follow-up step, which was crucial to the plan, was even more daring. Navalny managed to obtain pictures of the houses and personal property of the officials associated with the companies. The houses were palatial, the yachts were luxurious, the lifestyles were extravagant, and overall, these reflected a disproportionately massive amount of wealth in the hands of these individuals. Yet, the financial documents mentioned earlier did not show such massive earnings. There was a clear disparity between what these people were legally earning and how wealthy they actually were – a telling sign of corruption.
He released both the documents and the camera footage, to a dissatisfied populace who quickly started focusing their anger on authorities. Thanks to Navalny, the evidence for corruption was out in the open, for everyone to see.
Social psychology is fairly clear on some things related to human behaviour in group settings. Most people are unlikely to take an initiative that outrightly goes against the majority, particularly if there is a level of risk involved.
However, there are those few mavericks who are exceptions to this norm. The likes of Che Guevara were able to inspire, motivate and lead a massive number of people. Leaders like them are willing to take a stand, thus inspiring others to do the same. This process of converting ideas and wishes into genuine action is a critical part of becoming someone who brings about change. Put simply, it is the sign of someone willing to lead by example. This is what Alexei Navalny did.
This kind of social action can be in three forms: Initiating dissent, organising protests, and running for legitimate political offices.
Navalny did all three of those. By speaking out against corruption, he motivated others to take a harder stance. He led several rallies across Russia, encouraging people to take to the streets and make their voices heard. Most notable among his earlier rallies were the mass protests he led in 2011 and 2012 in response to alleged election fraud (the parliamentary elections were widely considered as rigged). He was arrested as a result, but now the movement he had started finally had a face…his own.
As support built up, Navalny could no longer avoid organised political activity, even though he believed his previous criminal record, especially the allegations about election fraud could hinder such efforts. As a result, he extended his support to several other parties which were discontent with the government, before finally starting his own progress party.
As for running for office, Navalny was a mayoral candidate in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, a race which unfolded in a “House of Cards”-esque fashion.
His opponent, Sobyanin, was in the good books of the Kremlin and was very confident of an easy victory. Just 3 months before the election, Navalny entered the fray, flipping the race on its head, those in power were not pleased with this new development.
Navalny’s team and supporters made bold predictions about how he could potentially amass a large proportion of the votes. There wasn’t enough time or momentum to outright win the elections by beating Sobyanin, so their entire strategy revolved around ensuring that no one got a majority victory. This would trigger a runoff election. The money was pouring in from all corners to support the campaign, and media coverage was also decent. Things were looking good. But it was never going to be straightforward.
Just weeks before the elections, Alexei Navalny was taken in on serious embezzlement charges. His supporters cried foul, and it has to be said that these charges did seem fabricated. Nonetheless, it was meant to tarnish his image, and the people against him pushed this narrative of him being a criminal and unfit to lead. Out of desperation, Navalny called for a boycott of the elections.
He was however soon released because it seemed like too blatant an attempt to stop his electoral aspirations. Navalny rushed back into the election race, but it was too little too late. Sobyanin won a seemingly easy victory. Once again, the opposition was not convinced, and the results were challenged constantly in courts, to no avail. Nonetheless, he continued to lead, and his support base continued to grow.
Being in a position where personal loss and sacrifice are almost a given, having great willpower holds extreme importance. At times, the entire purpose of the movement might seem futile to the leader. At other times, the challenges seem insurmountable. Worst of all, there is always the possibility of threat or harm to loved ones. Getting past all of this is what separates the revolutionaries from the rest.
Whether it was Gandhi’s numerous hunger strikes or Napoleon’s daring escape from the Isle of Elba, history has seen its fair share of people who stay headfast in the presence of continuous adversity.
“I spent every fifth day in jail…it has become a routine of my life”, said Navalny abjectly during an interview with ‘60 minutes’ a few years back. He went on to talk about how he did not try to think about the constant target on his back.
The constant cases, criminal charges and imprisonments did not seem to deter Navalny. He would be in jail one day, and leading protests the next day. The charges became increasingly serious, almost like a veiled threat to pressurise him to stop. But the show went on, and there were no signs of stopping.
In the most textbook and extreme manner, the authorities attempted to silence Navalny by making his family members pay. Oleg, Alexei’s younger brother, was found guilty of embezzling funds in 2014 and was thrown in prison. The conditions under which he was kept in prison were extremely harsh and difficult, yet neither of the brothers was deterred. Alexei continued his political activity with increased vigour, while Oleg completed a Law degree in prison.
During a rally in Siberia in 2017, Navalny was interacting with his supporters when someone drenched him with (slightly acidic) green liquid. Dousing protestors with green liquid was a common theme among Russians supporting those in power at the time. But once again, Navalny simply turned the situation to his advantage. Despite later admitting the burning sensation he had felt on his face due to the liquid, at the time he used it as a brilliant PR move, as he continued to smile and take photos whilst claiming that the green paint helped him look like a superhero. This naturally caught on, and people took to social media to post pictures with green face paint. What had been meant as an attempt to shut down Navalny instead turned into a symbol in his favour.
Perhaps the tensest moment of this story came around in August 2020. Navalny was on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, with his sights set on another major exposé. Midway through, he suddenly screamed in agony, much to the confusion and worry of his fellow passengers, who could clearly see that he was in serious distress. Very soon it became clear what had happened - Navalny had been poisoned using the dangerous nerve agent Novichok. The plane was quickly redirected, and later Navalny was urgently flown out to Berlin.
Such poisoning can be extremely dangerous and even fatal since it reduces the effectiveness of various chemicals essential for the proper functioning of nerves in the body. The situation looked bleak, and for a while, he was in a coma. Miraculously though, the story still had not ended. Seemingly, even serious injuries could not deter the man. Navalny made an incredible recovery and plotted his biggest move against Vladimir Putin. In January of 2021, Navalny’s return to Russia marked a tectonic shift in the political atmosphere of the great nation.
Upon his highly anticipated return to Russia, Alexei was arrested, but at nearly the same time he played his trump card. Navalny had been working on an expose on Putin for quite some time, and his efforts had culminated in the form of a film titled “Putin’s Palace'', which garnered massive attention on YouTube. The film showed a massive palace that is allegedly owned by Vladimir Putin. It further alleges that large sections of public funds were misused for this purpose. Protests like never seen before broke out across the country. Though the man himself was in prison, he was the symbolic leader of the movement now spearheaded by his wife, Yulia.
A person has certain beliefs which define who they are. These are central to their personality, the core purpose of their lives. These breed values and attitudes which people carry for life. What a revolutionary does that others do not, is that they are unwilling to compromise these beliefs at any cost. They will fight for their values regardless of the cost they have to bear. This is what makes the likes of Mandela so popular, the willingness to take risks to fulfil what they believe is right.
Navalny’s beliefs run deep, as is the case for many affiliated with politics. He cares deeply for his country, which has seen the highest of highs not too long ago. He believes that this country is being ripped apart by rampant corruption and there are deeply rooted systemic issues. He sees a very different future for Russia than where it is currently headed - a future in which an educated young population will live in a completely democratic environment, free of misdeeds by authorities. This naturally hits hard for younger people. As Navalny says, “Putin is stealing their future”. Many seem to agree and support him wholeheartedly.
This brings us to the events of the last few months. Somehow, Navalny was able to track down one of the people involved in the plot to poison him, allegedly a secret service agent. To get information from this alleged agent, he laid down this elaborate plan by pretending to be a high ranked official and asking the agent to brief him about the plan. Astonishingly, the plan seemed to work bit by bit, the agent started giving details about the plan. The video recording of this telephonic conversation has since gone viral, with many firmly believing that the Kremlin was responsible for poisoning Navalny. The fact that a highly advanced and dangerous Novichok agent was used, which is hard to access for normal civilians, only strengthened these beliefs.
The saga continues to rage on. Most recently, Russia blocked many of Navalny’s websites and social media handles, a seemingly desperate move at censorship. Once again, he called for his supporters to mobilize, with the pressure on the Government mounting ahead of September’s parliamentary elections, which will undoubtedly be a tense affair.
By now, a lot of people see Navalny as invincible. They believe that he will ultimately topple the current regime and lead his nation into a brighter future. The miraculous survivals and constant pressure have led to him achieving a near Messiah status. This story is not over yet, and there are bound to be many more dramatic twists.
Nonetheless, it seems worthwhile to understand what drives people like Alexei Navalny, what makes a revolutionary who they are. Such people are, after all, those who ultimately change the world, for better or for worse.