Well past midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 21, a few dozen Russian activists gathered outside a jail in the south of Moscow to await the release of Alexei Navalny, the blogger at the forefront of Russia's opposition movement. A snowstorm had begun that night, so only his hardcore supporters showed up at the jailhouse gate, passing around thermoses of tea and flasks of whiskey to keep warm. It was an odd mix of people, about as eclectic as Navalny's own political views, and ranged from tree-hugging liberals to hate-spouting nationalists and everything in between. Seen from a distance, they would have looked like a crew of hipsters who were, for some reason, really excited to be caught in a blizzard. But insofar as the ongoing wave of protests against the government can be said to have a vanguard, this was it. And they were waiting for the only man who has so far been able to unite them.
Navalny, 35, a lawyer by training, had been arrested during the demonstrations in Moscow on Dec. 5, when a crowd of about 7,000 people came out to protest the parliamentary elections held the previous day. The ruling United Russia party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, 59, had won a majority in parliament during the vote, but claims of fraud a regular trope during Russian elections finally seemed to hit a nerve among the urban middle-class. For the first time since Putin rose to power 12 years ago, they came out by the thousands to protest in the streets, chanting Navalny's viral nickname for United Russia, "the party of crooks and thieves." From the stage, Navalny told them them that, "After these elections, the Kremlin crooks have no right to say they are in power. They are nobody!" Riot police grabbed him afterward, when he tried to lead a column of protesters in the direction of the Kremlin. He was sentenced to 15 days for disobeying orders to desist.
Two days later, an official from the youth wing of United Russia called me to ask about Navalny. He seemed surprised to hear about his popularity. "I thought he was just some blogger," the official said. This might have been a fair assessment a couple of years ago, when Navalny was known only to a fairly small online community. But his status as a kind of Internet folk hero had already been cemented by November 2010, when he blew the whistle on a $4 billion embezzlement scheme at a state corporation.
The leaked documents he presented as evidence, which he posted on his blog, caused a sensation in the Russian and international press, and Navalny soon became known as Russia's top crusader against corruption. He followed that by setting up a series of websites that the changed the face of online activism. The most famous one, RosPil, allowed readers to dissect government tenders such as orders for a fleet of cars for a local police force or a new website for a dance company for signs of corruption or embezzlement. Since its founding last December, the site's volunteers have been able to find irregularities in state contracts worth a total of around $1.3 billion, according to RosPil's own tally. Many of those tenders have since been annulled.
Like most of Navalny's campaigns, RosPil stood out for its pragmatism. Instead of the polemics and pamphleteering that occupy most of Russia's old-school opposition groups, Navalny focuses on specific issues, like corruption or potholes, and invites his fans to help redress them with the crowd-sourcing power of the Internet. This has allowed him to tap a huge and unrepresented demographic, the young, tech-savvy and educated middle-class, who are not only fed up with Putin but also mistrustful of Russia's regular soapbox dissidents. "It's hard to call him a leader in the traditional sense, because the Internet society runs on a culture of networks," says Evgeniya Albats, the editor ofThe New Times, a liberal Russian weekly. "But he has an ability to unite various networks of people around concrete ideas and actions." By the beginning of this year, his blog had a daily readership in the hundreds of thousands.
But as his celebrity grew, government scrutiny followed, especially after his anti-corruption work targeted major state interests. Police in the Kirov region, where Navalny worked as a policy adviser to the governor in 2009, opened an investigation against him last December for giving the governor bad advice on a timber deal. Investigators claimed the deal had cost the regional budget $40,000, but later declined to pursue charges, citing a lack of evidence. Another attack came in July, when a news website with links to the security services published an expose about Navalny's family. The site's reporters went to a liquor store owned by his parents in a suburb of Moscow and purchased a bottle of "Putinka" vodka after 11:00 p.m., when stores are forbidden from selling hard alcohol.
Pro-Kremlin bloggers hailed the report as proof that Navalny was himself corrupt. "This tells you something about how deep they're digging," says Konstantin Voronkov, a friend of Navalny's and the author of his official biography, The Scourge of Crooks and Thieves, which was published this year. "With all their resources, they ended up having to record some poor salesgirl in his dad's shop with a hidden camera. This is the only thing they could find on him." Even Navalny's email correspondence with family and colleagues, which was stolen and posted online in October by a hacker known as Hell, revealed nothing at all incriminating.