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After his alleged poisoning, accusations that the Kremlin was responsible, then his immediate arrest on returning home, Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny is enjoying notoriety like never before. But who is he, exactly?
Media portrayals of the Moscow street-protest leader have ranged from comparing him to a western-style liberal, to a far-right radical racist to a persecuted freedom fighter. While many Russians from all points along the political spectrum support his investigations into corruption at the highest levels of government, there is little agreement on what he actually stands for or how he’d act if he were somehow thrust into a leadership role.
A former student at America’s Yale University, Navalny first gained international prominence in 2011, over a decade after he first became active in politics. Since then, he has been arrested on numerous occasions, received two suspended sentences, and participated in a Moscow mayoral election. He is well known for opposing President Vladimir Putin and exposing corruption, but what are his political positions? What does he believe in, other than simply removing Putin?
For many within the non-systemic opposition, Navalny’s opinions are unimportant. He represents a real alternative to the current administration and is a fighter against what his followers see as two decades of oppressive leadership that has failed to tackle the endemic corruption of post-Soviet Russia.
For his Western backers, the same applies. He is not Putin, and there’s no way he can be worse than Putin, in their opinion, so he’s worth supporting. However, many of them sweep under the carpet some of the activist’s unsavory history.
Navalny’s Nationalist Roots
Navalny first entered political life in 2000 as part of the liberal Yabloko party. Despite officially being a member of a left-wing faction, the activist was a fixture of far-right politics, becoming a familiar face in the ‘Russian March,’ an ultranationalist gathering that ran with slogans like “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” while flying the Russian Empire’s Black-Yellow-White flag.
Yabloko eventually kicked him out for his far-right leanings. Its leadership later noted that “infatuation with Navalny and membership of the party are incompatible.”