Nobody knows when, or even if, opposition leader Navalny will return to his previous role as he recuperates in Berlin
By Theo Merz
MOSCOW 30 August 2020 • 4:00pm
Lyubov Sobol was already among the most visible dissidents in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At 32, she has fronted a protest movement, calling thousands to the streets when she and other opposition candidates were barred from standing in Moscow city elections last year.
She staged a hunger strike and a sit-in at the offices of the Moscow election commission, eventually being lifted out of the building on a sofa after she refused to stand for police officers. A laughing Ms Sobol broadcast the incident live from her phone to her vast social media following.
She has been sued by one of the most powerful businessmen in the country, and her husband has survived a poisoning. In 2016 an unknown assailant jabbed a syringe into his leg and injected a psychotropic substance that left him convulsing and unconscious, an attack Ms Sobol believes was linked to her activism.
Now, with opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a coma in a German hospital after another suspected poisoning, the telegenic lawyer finds herself at the helm of his anti-Kremlin organisation.
Doctors at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, where Mr Navalny was transferred from a Siberian clinic, have said he will probably survive the ordeal but may sustain long-term damage.
Alexei Navalny: The thorn in Putin’s side
Alexei Navalny has been a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin for a decade.
Part political activist and part investigative journalist, Mr Navalny uses a vast online platform to organise anti-Kremlin protests and expose corruption among the Russian elite. He has made a number of powerful enemies on the way, and repeatedly been tried, jailed and attacked.
A lawyer by training, Mr Navalny came to international prominence in 2011 as a face of mass demonstrations against Mr Putin’s return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
The 44-year-old famously branded the ruling United Russia Party a group of “crooks and thieves”, a slogan that was taken up with enthusiasm by his followers.
The Kremlin has long talked down the threat Mr Navalny poses to the regime though Mr Putin refuses to pronounce his name in public, referring to him as “the person you mentioned” among other euphemisms.
The charismatic father of two has twice sought high office himself in a bid to shake up a political system where tame “opposition” parties tend to toe the Kremlin line. In 2013, Mr Navalny stood for Moscow mayor and came second to Kremlin-backed candidate Sergei Sobyanin, in a vote he claimed was tainted by fraud.
Later he announced he would stand against Mr Putin for the Russian presidency in 2018 and built up a network of campaign headquarters across the country, but he was kept off the ballot because of a controversial criminal conviction.
Despite being barred from standing, Mr Navalny and a team of campaigners, lawyers and researchers still play an outsize role in Russian politics.
In 2017, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets after one of the activist’s slickly produced YouTube videos alleged that then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev was hiding a billion-dollar property empire.
The head of Russia’s national guard has also found himself the subject of Mr Navalny’s attention — for which he publicly threatened to beat the campaigner — as has Kremlin-aligned catering businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin among many others.
Prigozhin, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s chef”, successfully sued Mr Navalny’s foundation over an investigation into school lunches that were allegedly making children sick.
Mr Navalny was born near Moscow and studied law and finance in Russian universities before entering politics in 1999, as Mr Putin was taking power. He worked for the liberal opposition party Yabloko until the mid-2000s, before splitting with its leadership over his support for nationalist movements.
From then he blogged about corruption, building up an online audience that would develop into a YouTube channel with almost four million subscribers. In 2012, various leaders from the Russian opposition elected him to lead their movement.
He has been repeatedly jailed for organising unsanctioned political protests, and handed suspended sentences for embezzlement that supporters say were politically motivated. In 2017, he was left partially blind in one eye after green dye was thrown in his face outside his Moscow office.
And it is not the first time he has allegedly been poisoned – though officially his hospitalisation while in prison last year was the result of an “allergic reaction”.
Mr Navalny, however, says he has never had allergies.
Neither they nor his supporters know when, or even if, he will return to his previous role.
Tests at the hospital showed Mr Navalny was poisoned with a “cholinesterase inhibitor”, a group of chemical compounds that includes Novichok, the nerve agent that was used against former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
Mr Navalny’s team have laid the blame for the attack squarely on Russian authorities, but the Kremlin rejected the claims as “empty noise” and accused German doctors of “rushing to conclusions”.
Ms Sobol is part of a trio that have vowed to keep up the pressure of authorities in Mr Navalny’s absence. While she runs his YouTube channels – which have a combined six million subscribers and produce regular reports of wrongdoing among the Russian elite – lawyer Ivan Zhdanov heads Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation and top aide Leonid Volkov oversees political campaigning.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Ms Sobol said the group had no intention of scaling back their broadcasts or corruption investigations.
They also plan to campaign against the ruling United Russia party in regional elections next month. Mr Navalny’s group no longer fields candidates itself but encourages supporters to vote for whoever has the best chance of beating United Russia, whether they be from communist or nationalist parties.
“I’m working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Ms Sobol, who has worked with Mr Navalny for a decade.
“Any injustice gives me more strength and motivates me to work harder.”
Before he fell suddenly ill on a flight to Moscow from Siberia ten days ago, Mr Navalny spent months at a time under house arrest or in jail, and relied on a team of legal staff, researchers and other dissidents to keep up pressure on the Kremlin.
“There are dozens of people in our organisation all across the country,” Ms Sobol said, pointing to offices in 40 regions of Russia. “These are people who are professional and they are idealistic – they don’t need a boss to make sure they’re in the office from nine to five.”
And she argued the poisoning had also made an impression on the general public. “People who were indifferent to the authorities and the opposition have come round to our side because they’ve seen the dirty methods the Kremlin uses.”
The dangers of working against Mr Putin, however, are well documented: over his 20-year rule, dissidents have been attacked, poisoned, tried, exiled and, in the case of former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, assassinated.
Mr Navalny himself is partially blind in one eye after an assailant threw green dye in his face on a Moscow street in 2017. Last year he was hospitalised from prison, where he was serving a short term for organising unauthorised protests, with what officials said was an “acute allergic reaction” but he believed was a poisoning.
Ms Sobol said she was “saddened but not surprised” by the latest alleged attack.
“But I can’t resign myself to the idea that this is normal life. If it can happen to Alexei Navalny, someone who’s known all over the world, it means not a single person can feel safe.
“We all understand what we have to do to continue our fight against the Putin regime.”