The Kremlin has worked hard to silence charismatic opposition leader and Putin’s chief critic, Alexei Navalny, since the politician declared war on Russia’s “crooks and thieves” a decade ago. His team of activists and supporters have lost track of the number of days and nights their leader has spent in jail. For them, any accusation against him is purely political. So it came as no surprise when, on Tuesday, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security prison on questionable fraud charges.
In an exclusive interview, Navalny’s right-hand man and most recognized opposition leader, Lyubov Sobol, told The Daily Beast that Moscow’s efforts to silence the Navalny movement have failed and that his team has a “plan”. for Putin as Russian troops continue their assault on Ukraine.
“We continue to act in the new reality of war and we are fully aware that Putin wants to keep Navalny behind bars for as long as he continues to govern Russia,” Sobol said in an interview after Navalny’s verdict on Tuesday. . “But we also have a plan: we are expanding globally, we are reporting in many countries and more and more people are listening to us. And if before we collected and exposed evidence of Putin’s corruption, now we are telling Russians the facts about Putin’s war crimes.
Sobol, 34, runs the YouTube channel Navalny Live, where she collects and disseminates video footage and photos of events in Ukraine – of arrested Russian soldiers, civilians dying, fleeing their homes and sleeping in metro stations.
“While the propaganda lied to the Russians about the special operation, our channel’s viewership grew by 20 million unique views in the last month, so we now have over 80 million views every month. People are watching us, despite the terrible pressure on free internet in Russia,” Sobol told the Daily Beast. “I address Russian women, mothers, and explain that war is going to come to every family with a coffin of their dead young sons.”
Tuesday was a difficult day for Sobol and the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation: the penal colony in the Vladimir region, where Navalny was sentenced, had done everything to block dozens of journalists who had arrived in prison to cover the trial. Most journalists and Navalny supporters were barred from entering the courtroom. Besides the fraud charge, he was found in contempt of court for insulting the judge and a witness.
Navalny, his family and his team were prepared for the long prison term. Last month, Russia’s only independent television channel, Rain TV, which has been covering Navalny’s struggle for years, said authorities “intend to keep Navalny in jail forever” and that the head of the opposition faced its fate alone. Two weeks later, Russia banned Rain TV, along with the oldest independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, after it introduced a new amendment in the State Duma that effectively bars journalists from covering the war in Ukraine from in a way that displeases the Kremlin.
Most of the key members of the Navalny foundation team, including Sobol, director Ivan Zhdanov and spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, left Russia after facing a series of threats and criminal investigations against them and their relatives. “Navalny never told us to stop telling the truth, it would be naive to shut up now,” Sobol told The Daily Beast. “Our plan is to inform the Russians at all costs.”
Authorities did not bring Navalny to stand trial in Moscow, where the corruption fighter still has thousands of supporters. Instead, he was tried 69 miles from the Russian capital, in Pokrov Penal Colony No. 2 in the city of Vladimir.
“We Russians want to be a nation of peace,” Navalny said in an address to supporters from prison last month, when the Russian military launched its first wave of attacks on Ukrainian towns. “But let’s not at least become a nation of scared and silent people, a nation of cowards who pretend not to notice the war of aggression unleashed by our little mad tsar against Ukraine.”
Navalny’s life might sound like a thriller to many people in the West. The Russians see in it both a hopeless martyrdom political drama and an example of courage. Since 2011, when he became a fearless political figure, police have detained him at almost every political rally, raided his offices and confiscated the work of his Anti-Corruption Foundation. But that never stopped Navalny from pushing back against the Kremlin, even after the opposition lawyer was poisoned, hospitalized and dragged into a jail cell.
“He knows Putin’s plan to quickly break up Ukraine hasn’t worked.”
Putin never referred to Navalny by name, addressing his opponent only as “a blogger”. Navalny, on the other hand, had choice words for the leader on Tuesday: “You can’t put everyone in jail. Even if you ask for 113 years, you won’t scare me or others like me. He echoed Soblov’s comments about the “going global” Navalny movement.
Although Navalny’s message in court was powerful, he looked slimmer than usual in his jail robe on Tuesday.
“Few people in the West understand how hellish existence is in Russian prisons, where they rape, torture people. But the best news for us, his supporters, is that Navalny is not broken, his spirit is still strong,” Sobol told The Daily Beast. “He knows Putin’s plan to break up Ukraine quickly didn’t work. And the West, which has always taken decisions slowly, has taken them very quickly this time and the whole world showed solidarity against the aggression in Ukraine.