“Why are you arresting me? Have I broken any law?” Yulia Navalny asked police officers who arrested her at a protest in Moscow when thousands of people gathered to demonstrate over the arrest of her husband, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Yulia Navalny was released a few hours later, but the speed with which she was caught says a lot about the nervousness that she and her husband are causing in Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
While Alexei Navalny became famous first as a blogger and then as a politician, Yulia Navalny (44) decided to live out of the public eye. His wife followed him to several protests, supported him during the presidential and local election campaigns, but rarely addressed supporters.
Then, at the end of August, her husband was poisoned and while he was lying in a coma, Yulia Navalny started the fight against the Kremlin and her image of a stoic, calm and collected woman became a story in itself.
Russia’s independent media, the few that are left, compare it to former US First Lady Michelle Obama, while supporters are now wondering if she will one day lead the opposition movement in the country.
Yulia Navalny acted decisively and quickly when her husband was poisoned – which probably saved his life – and gathered great and powerful support both in Russia and abroad.
She held a press conference at the hospital door, telling reporters she believed her husband would be in mortal danger if he stayed in Russia. Doctors here refuse to evacuate him to Germany, probably under pressure from the Russian secret service, she said at the time.
“They do it so that all traces of the chemical substance disappear from Alexei’s system,” she said, hiding her emotions behind black glasses.
– He is not in good condition, we do not trust the hospital and we want them to leave him to us – she said then.
She additionally pressed the Kremlin by writing to the man her husband claims was behind the poisoning, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally. In the letter, she asked to allow her husband to leave the country.
Putin later said that as soon as he received Yulia’s letter, he “immediately ordered” Navalny to be fired. The Kremlin persistently denies any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.
Yulia and the comedian Navalny were soon transferred to Berlin, along with evidence gathered from his hotel room that later proved to be key evidence that Navalny was poisoned by a newcomer, a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union.
– Yulia, you saved me – Navalny wrote on Instagram when he woke up from a coma in a Berlin hospital.
In the public spotlight
The couple met when Yulia, a Muscovite and the daughter of a scientist, graduated from Moscow’s Plekhanov University of Economics, where she studied international relations. The couple met on a beach in Turkey and until the poisoning last summer, they lived in an apartment in Moscow.
She worked at a bank before going to take care of their eldest daughter Daria who is now studying at Stanford in the USA. After returning from maternity leave, Yulia sold furniture with Navalny’s parents, but after the birth of her son Zahar – and Navalny’s growing popularity – she decided to dedicate herself exclusively to the family.
Before the poisoning, Yulia Navalny’s most famous public appearance was when she spoke at his rally when he was a candidate for mayor of Moscow in 2013.
– In Russia, we do not see women politicians protesting, but politics is invading our lives, whether we like it or not – she said at the time.
In the following years, politics invaded the lives of the Navalny family. In 2014, Alexei Navalny almost got three and a half years in prison on charges of embezzlement, which he claimed was fabricated (a court in Moscow the other day sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for violating probation in that case). Navalny’s brother Oleg was then imprisoned and Navalny received a suspended sentence. Many felt that this was done so that Navalny would not get more public support.
Navalny was detained for weeks for participating in protests against the government, and in 2017, they threw an antiseptic in his face because he could see less in one eye. They have been supervising the family for years.
Yulia Navalny was also poisoned last year, on vacation in Kaliningrad. It turned out that three agents of the FSB secret service were in the city at the same time, and the security cameras in the hotel mysteriously stopped working during the stay of the Navalny family. Yulia Navalny fell ill on July 6. Symptoms were fatigue and disorientation.
Yulia recovered and the exact cause of her illness was never determined. Experts told CNN that such symptoms were a sign of mild poisoning, and Navalny later said that his symptoms when he was poisoned by the newcomer were “absolutely the same”.
Yulia Navalny, at least in public, rejects claims that her husband has put misery on the whole family’s neck.
– Everyone wants me to say that or at least to suggest that I would like (for Alexei to stop what he is doing). No. I sincerely support him – she said in an interview with Russian blogger Yuri Dud recorded after Navalny’s poisoning.
“Unfinished business is not cool,” she added.
Since all accounts have been frozen due to the accusation of fraud, the family relies exclusively on cash.
– I just found out that I am part of the criminal group “Allies of Navalny” and that all our funds have been frozen – she stated on Instagram at the time.
– I’m angry. Why was Alexei Navalny declared the leader of the gang? Maybe I’m a crime boss here, and he’s my ally.
The support that Yulia Navalny provides to Alexei in his political career is completely atypical for most of the wives of Soviet and Russian leaders. Putin’s wife Lyudmila rarely appeared in public and was forgotten after the 2013 divorce.
– Navalny has never denied the extraordinary role that Yulia plays in his life, she is his strength – stated the journalist of Nova Gazeta, Vera Celisceva.
– He does not hide his wife, he openly declares his love for her but does not brag. Upload her photos to Instagram, protect her and do not hide that she saves him – she added in the text in which she presented her heroes in 2020.
The Navalnys returned to Russia after a five-month stay in Germany. Immediately after landing, Alexei Navalny was arrested.
As the police took him away, Yulia Navalny hugged and kissed him and then addressed reporters and gathered supporters.
– Alexei is not afraid, I am not afraid and I beg you not to be afraid either – she said.
Russia jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny for two years and eight months Tuesday.⁰⁰
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) February 2, 2021
After the court’s decision to sentence Navalny to prison, many analysts believe that Yulia Navalny could now be the leader of the opposition and compare her with the Belarusian oppositionist Svetlana Tikhanovski, who ran in the presidential elections last year instead of her husband Sergei.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, declared victory in the elections and Tikhanovska had to flee the country. Despite that, for many, she is the face of protests against Lukashenko that have been going on for months.
Some Russian tabloids speculate that Yulia Navalny could run for the Russian parliament next fall. Similar rumors appeared before the 2018 presidential elections, in which Navalny could not run because he was convicted.
Until now, Yulia Navalny has never hinted that she would like to get more involved in politics, but the state media have already accused her of being a “project” of “Western” curators “whose goal is to interfere in Russian politics.
Meanwhile, Yulia Navalny, whom her husband’s supporters affectionately call the “first lady”, remains to defy the Kremlin.