Russia Rising: The Blogger Who Is Putin's Greatest Challenger

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Aleshkovsky Mitya / ITAR-TASS Photo / Corbis

Russian protest blogger Alexei Navalny, a key figure in the rallies after Russia's disputed parliamentary elections, outside a court on Dec. 25, 2011

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His main vulnerability, at least in the eyes of his detractors, is his fervent nationalism, which has alienated many in the liberal opposition. In 2007, he co-founded the National Russian Liberation Movement, known as NAROD, and published its manifesto on his blog. It calls for all law-abiding citizens to have the right to bear arms (Navalny owns several) and sets immigration policy as a priority. "Those who come into our home but do not want to respect our law and traditions must be kicked out," the manifesto says. That year he also began attending the Russian March, an annual nationalist rally that attracts thousands of right-wingers and some skinhead and neo-Nazi groups. "The only way to make the Russian March look better is to go there yourself. So I go," he wrote after helping organize the march in November.

His involvement in the nationalist movement got him expelled in 2007 from the the left-wing Yabloko party. When the party was choosing its candidate this month for the March presidential elections, one of its board members nominated Navalny, who was in jail at the time. The idea was quickly rejected. "When he renounces his nationalist views, maybe we can consider it," Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the party, told me.

But Navalny has done the opposite. He has used nationalism to tap another huge base of support in the right wing, which he has brought into a shaky alliance with the liberals.

Even when Navalny was incarcerated after the Dec. 5 protest, the two political flanks managed to work together. On Dec. 10, they organized the biggest rally ever against Putin's government, bringing about 50,000 demonstrators onto Moscow's Bolotnaya Ploshchad (Swamp Square). Oleg Kashin, a journalist, read out a message from "our leader Alexei Navalny" to the crowd. It lacked nothing in pomp. "The time has come to throw off our chains," the message read. "We are not animals or slaves." It urged the protestors to keep attending rallies in defense of their "personal dignity," with the next big demonstration scheduled for Dec. 24.

The goal of the opposition was simply to hold on to their momentum until then. But with Navalny still in jail, it quickly began to slip. Sessions of the so-called OrgKomitet (Organizing Committee) of the opposition were tiresome and frustrating affairs. "For once in your life, put your egos away!" one woman burst out — to wild applause — during a session on Dec. 13, when the committee spent more than an hour debating what to call itself. The problem was obvious. Career politicians were seated around the table with Soviet dissidents, tech geeks and graffiti artists. Hardcore nationalists would often show up in packs and overwhelm the meetings. Every 10 minutes or so a shouting match ensued. "Don't worry, it won't be long," Bozhena Rynska, a celebrity gossip columnist who took part in the Organizing Committee meetings, reassured me after a particularly hectic one. "Soon Navalny will be released and straighten everything out."

He did not disappoint. Outside the jail in the early hours of Dec. 21, he told the crowd of activists and reporters, who were frozen almost stiff by the time he was released, that he would consider running for president when he could be sure of an honest vote. Until then, his goal would be to attack and discredit Putin. "We have to push them until they give us what they stole, meaning politics, meaning the economy, meaning everything," Navalny said. He seemed to concede that with no viable competitors, Putin would likely win a third term as president during the March elections. "But this will not be a legal presidency," he said.

The next day, Navalny took over the chairmanship of the Organizing Committee and much of the bickering stopped. "Our priority is to leave here radiating the impression that we are united," he said. To Navalny's left sat the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Tor, who helped lead the Movement Against Illegal Immigration until the group was banned this year for extremism and hate speech. To his right sat the human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov and a gaggle of other liberals. Just about the only thing they had in common was a basic trust in Navalny and a desire to break Putin's hold on power. So far this seems to be enough.

On Dec. 24, the ragtag committee pulled off the biggest demonstration in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union. As many as 120,000 people gathered on Sakharov Avenue to call for democracy and political reform. Putin was their favorite laughing stock. Navalny was one of the heroes. "I see enough people here today to take the Kremlin," he told the crowd. "But we are a peaceful force. We won't do that just yet." Three days later, during a live interview on Echo Moskvy radio, he announced plans to create his own political party, saying he was "ready to fight for leadership positions," including the post of president.

The only question now is whether the Kremlin is ready to allow that. The chances look slim. From the start of his career as an activist, Navalny has pledged to put Putin and his circle on trial if they are ever removed from power. "He can't go back on that now," says Voronkov, his biographer. "He couldn't just give them a one-way ticket to Venezuela and call it a day. His credibility would be shattered." But Putin and his party have missed their chance to sideline Navalny while he was still just another blogger. He is now a political force, and even if he is again arrested, or worse, there is no guarantee that his influence will be diminished. "You can knock the head off of something a hundred times," says the novelist Boris Akunin, another member of the Organizing Committee. "But you can't destroy a wave that rises from the bottom. It can only rise and crest. You can't stop it." However, they can certainly try.

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