Jan 21st 2021MOSCOWIT IS 8.30PM on January 17th. Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia stride through the arrivals terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. A gaggle of journalists is trying to keep up. Mr Navalny spots a bright poster of the Kremlin on the wall. He stops in front of it. Cameras snap. “I am not afraid…this is the happiest day for the past five months of my life,” Mr Navalny declares. “I have come home.”Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.Those were Mr Navalny’s first public words back on Russian soil. (Five months earlier he had fallen into a coma after being poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent, and was evacuated to Germany for treatment.) Moments after he spoke, he was detained by officers in black
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IT IS 8.30PM on January 17th. Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia stride through the arrivals terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. A gaggle of journalists is trying to keep up. Mr Navalny spots a bright poster of the Kremlin on the wall. He stops in front of it. Cameras snap. “I am not afraid…this is the happiest day for the past five months of my life,” Mr Navalny declares. “I have come home.”
Those were Mr Navalny’s first public words back on Russian soil. (Five months earlier he had fallen into a coma after being poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent, and was evacuated to Germany for treatment.) Moments after he spoke, he was detained by officers in black uniforms at passport control, who led him away into the unknown. His wife hugged and kissed him, then wiped her lipstick from his cheek, uncertain when and if she would see him again.
A few hours later, far from the cameras, he was transferred to a police station. The next day, he was put on trial in a makeshift courtroom. “I’ve seen a lot of mockery of justice, but this time [Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president] in his bunker is so afraid that he has demonstrably torn into pieces Russia’s criminal code and thrown it into a dump,” he said.
After a brief hearing, the court sentenced him to 30 days’ detention for violating parole while recuperating in Germany from the assassination attempt. Before that sentence ends, on February 2nd, he will be back on trial. The next court will probably jail him for three-and-a-half years, a sentence that had earlier been suspended, on charges of embezzlement that are widely considered to have been trumped up. Mr Navalny’s real crime is to have exposed the actions of the Russian security services and to have returned home.
The scenes at the airport were just a warm-up. On January 19th, the day after the trial, Mr Navalny’s team released an explosive two-hour film about Mr Putin’s finances and a secret palace on the Black Sea coast that Mr Navalny alleges his friends have built for him at a cost of $1.35bn filched from Russian taxpayers.
A camera-equipped drone shows 78 square kilometres (30 square miles) of vineyards and parks with a church, an arboretum and a classical theatre, not to mention the residence itself—a 17,700 square metre Italianate palace filled with baroque furniture, a casino and a hookah lounge. In less than a day after it appeared the film had clocked up 20m views.
The fact that Mr Navalny’s team could evade security and put on public view one of the best-protected properties in the world is jaw-dropping, and humiliating for the Kremlin. And the symbolism of the palace itself does not flatter the regime. It is not like, say, the palace at Versailles, which was built to show off the power of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. On the contrary, it is hidden from view, conveying the opacity and obsession with money at the heart of the Russian state.
In the past, Mr Navalny’s investigations into corruption largely focused on Mr Putin’s entourage and cronies. He refrained from attacking Mr Putin personally; not out of fear, but because so many Russians admire their president. The latest film aims to puncture Mr Putin’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. That could earn Mr Navalny a long spell behind bars, or worse.
However, the Kremlin is faced with a dilemma. To imprison Mr Navalny now would be to turn him into a Nelson Mandela figure. To kill him would cement Mr Putin’s legacy not as the restorer of Russia’s lost empire and prestige, as he would like to see himself, but as something closer to a vengeful mafia boss.
Mr Navalny may see himself as a revolutionary. What is missing is the revolution. Only 23% of the public think political protests are possible where they live, according to a snap poll by the Levada Centre.
Why, then, has the challenger taken the gigantic risk of coming back to Russia and launching a direct attack on the Kremlin, which has already once tried to kill him? His may be a courage that borders on the suicidal. Yet he is no madman. Rather, Mr Navalny is a politician aiming to achieve power by democratic means, and determined to turn his country into a modern republic. As he says in his film, Mr Putin’s regime, like its Soviet predecessor, is primarily held together by fear and lies. Having first come into politics through the internet and social media, Mr Navalny has mastered its resources to destroy the Kremlin’s monopoly on propaganda. The number of people who have viewed Mr Navalny’s film already dwarfs the audiences of any news show on state television.
Yet, as Mr Navalny has often said at his real-life rallies, the biggest obstacle to ditching the current regime and moving towards “A bright future for Russia”, as he has branded his project, is not Mr Putin, his muscular goons or his propaganda, but the learned helplessness, resignation and fear that afflict so many of his compatriots.
By walking back into the lion’s den he is hoping to help the Russian public to jettison that fear. As he said from his courtroom: “Don’t be afraid…take to the streets not for my sake, but for your own sake and [for the sake of] your future! The only thing to be scared of is your own fear.” He has called for a countrywide protest on January 23rd. On TikTok, a social-media platform, videos with the hashtag “23 January” have already generated tens of millions of views. Whether those will turn into real people will perhaps determine Mr Navalny’s fate—and that of his audacious project. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Into the lion’s den"