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Vladimir Putin submerging into the depths in a submarine. Aleksei Navalny being greeted by an adoring crowd as he triumphantly returned to Moscow.

Something old, something new.

The two images bookended what was a remarkable -- and highly consequential -- week in Russia. As the Navalny saga was unfolding -- from his conviction and detention, to the street protests that followed and his subsequent release and arrival at Moscow's Yaroslavl railway station -- Putin was largely invisible, save for one of his tired old macho photo-ops.

And even with that, someone in the Kremlin clearly forgot to think through the optics. "The long descent begins," one Twitter user wrote, in reference to a photo of Putin's submarine stunt.

Optics are, indeed, important and Navalny clearly won last week's image war.

Inevitable comparisons have already been made between the heroe's welcome he received in Moscow on July 20 to that of Andrei Sakharov when he arrived at the very same train station in December 1986. And some have compared Navalny's fiery comments to supporters with Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's famous speech upon returning from exile at Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917.

Navalny, of course, isn't Sakharov -- and he certainly isn't Lenin. But 2013 is beginning to have the feel of a time, like the early 20th century or the late 1980s and early 90s, when the tectonic plates of Russian politics are shifting. And Navalny is quickly assuming the role of the figure in tune with the new zeitgeist who is able to ride the turbulent wave to a new political epoch.

Checkers, Chess, And Pumpkins

In an interview with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" just days before his conviction, Navalny said that if he wins the Moscow mayorship, "Putin's regime will turn into a pumpkin."

And he is right. There is no office in Russia save the presidency with so much power and independence as mayor of the capital. Which is why the authorities will never allow Navalny -- or any opposition figure for that matter -- to come close to winning it.

Indeed, as soon as Navalny was released on July 19, after less than a day in jail, the theories of a dark Kremlin conspiracy appeared. The authorities needed him in the September 8 Moscow mayoral election. Otherwise, Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin's inevitable victory would appear illegitimate. As soon as Navalny has fulfilled this purpose, they'll imprison him again.

This is probably true, but it misses the point about what is going on right now. Navalny is playing chess and the Kremlin, it appears, is playing checkers -- and playing quite poorly at that.

Despite the rhetoric in his fledgling election campaign, Navalny knows he has little chance of winning the Moscow mayorship. But Navalny's long game is not about winning an election inside the confines of the Putin system. It is to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace that system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith -- attacking its weak points, building up his street cred, and expanding his base of support in the process.

The events of the past week advanced that goal considerably. The Kremlin has just given him the aura of a martyr, and he only had to spend one night in a holding cell to get it.

And the opportunity Navalny has now to openly campaign in Moscow -- which means rallies that will no doubt draw big crowds and television appearances that will boost his name recognition -- will advance it further still, even in defeat.

Navalny's July 19 release, after being convicted the previous day on what are widely seen as trumped-up embezzlement charges, marked the second time in just over a week that he was taken into custody and then set free to make a made-for-YouTube speech.

Several prominent Russian lawyers have noted that the prosecutor's decision to take a reverse step and free such a high-profile prisoner pending appeal was unprecedented.

And if Navalny performs reasonably well in the Moscow election and expands his base of support, it will be harder still -- and costlier still -- for the authorities to incarcerate him yet again.

'We Are Citizens!'

One of the most poignant moments of Navalny's speech upon arrival in Moscow wasn't even spoken by Navalny. It came from the crowd in response to him.

"You have destroyed the main privilege that the Kremlin has claimed -- its alleged right to arrest anyone in court and cause that person to disappear," Navalny said as he thanked his supporters for taking to the streets after his sentencing.

"It's because of you that we were released the next day. Thank you! We are a huge mighty force and I am glad that we are realizing this and I am glad to be one with you."

"We are citizens!" came a single -- and clearly audible -- voice from the crowd.

WATCH: Navalny's arrival in Moscow after his release (in Russian):

Which gets to the heart of why Navalny is winning his long battle with a Kremlin that doesn't quite know what to do with him.

"Navalny showed Russians how not to be afraid," Julia Iofe wrote in a recent article in "The New Republic."

Estimates varied on how many people took to the streets of Moscow (as well as other cities) on the night of July 18-19 in support of Navalny. Police said 2,500 came out in the capital, the opposition said 10,000, and journalists more or less split the difference and said 5,000.

In fact, it was a hard crowd to count because it so diffuse, fanning out around the center of Moscow -- and even up the walls and onto the ledge of the State Duma.

But the point wasn't the numbers. It was the intensity and the bravery of people who were willing to take to the streets for an unsanctioned protest amid a heavy police presence in full expectation of a crackdown -- albeit one that didn't materialize.

Navalny has indeed shown Russians how not to be afraid.

This was also on display on the morning of July 20, when police, in a lame attempt to clear the crowd from Yaroslavl Station, warned of a bomb threat. "Ooh, a bomb. We're really frightened," one man mockingly told a police officer.

Navalny, of course, probably wasn't freed due to pressure from the streets. As recently pointed out, deep splits in the elite over how to handle him -- and the ongoing political crisis -- go a long way toward explaining the Kremlin's vacillation.

But optics do matter. And as my co-host Mark Galeotti of New York University pointed out in the most recent "Power Vertical Podcast," Navalny can now claim that it was because of the power of the "Russian street" that he was set free. And just as importantly, his growing cadre of supporters believe this to be the case.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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