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One Year After His Arrest, Russia's Opposition Asks: Was Navalny's Return A Mistake?

A worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg in April.
A worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg in April.

When Aleksei Navalny shocked his supporters and announced his return to Russia last January after recovering in Germany from a poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin, the opposition politician did so with a post to Instagram.

"I never questioned whether I should come back, simply because I never left," he wrote on January 13, 2021. "I ended up in Germany after landing in an intensive-care box, for one reason: they tried to kill me."

The news was received by his acolytes throughout Russia as the possible dawning of a new era in Russian politics, a moment when the anti-corruption crusader who had survived an assassination attempt came home to confront the man he accused of authorizing it: President Vladimir Putin.

His supporters took planes, trains, and cars to Moscow to greet him upon his slated arrival in the capital on January 17. They had been subjected for weeks to a relentless campaign of fines, police raids, and harassment, and many of them believed strength in numbers would keep both them and Navalny safe from the threats issued by officials intent on arresting him upon touchdown and also spark a national reckoning in a country devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and riven by anger over falling real wages and miserly government support.

But fast forward one year and that euphoria has been wiped out amid an ongoing crackdown on Navalny's now-outlawed political network and civil society more broadly. Thousands of protesters have been detained and many jailed, and more than half of Navalny's political coordinators have left Russia or been arrested for their activism, with some placed on wanted lists as "terrorists" or "extremists." Journalists who probed the circumstances of Navalny's poisoning and cited his corruption investigations have been branded "foreign agents."

While few fail to commend Navalny's bravery, after the wave of political repressions ushered in by his return, many are taking stock and even questioning whether it was ultimately worth it.

"Navalny is an experienced politician, and he knew well how his return to Russia could end," said Aleksandr Zykov, Navalny's former coordinator in Saratov. "But I did not expect that [the reaction] would be so heavy-handed."

Among the first to commend Navalny's decision was former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 and spent a decade behind bars on what he called politically motivated fraud charges, before being pardoned, released, and whisked out of the country to set up a life abroad.

"Good man," Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter the day Navalny announced his return. "But he's taking a risk."

That risk became clear when Navalny, who boarded the flight from Germany assuring reporters his arrest was "impossible," was grabbed at the passport gates and detained by border guards, before being speedily tried and handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole.

'No Other Choice'

Navalny had pledged from the outset that he would return, dismissing suggestions after his recuperation in Germany that he would choose exile in the West over prison time in Russia.

Christo Grozev, an open-source investigator at Bellingcat and a friend of Navalny's, told Current Time on the day of Navalny's return that the politician knew he'd almost certainly be jailed. (Current Time is a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.)

"He's not just ready [for jail]. He believes he'll be jailed. He believes that most likely he'll be behind bars for a long time," he said.

Aleksei Navalny appears on a TV screen during a court hearing in Moscow on January 28, 2021.
Aleksei Navalny appears on a TV screen during a court hearing in Moscow on January 28, 2021.

But supporters of Navalny say that even if he knew that his arrest was almost certain, he had to return to maintain relevance in Russian politics.

"To remain a politician, the kind of politician that he wants to be, he didn't really have a choice," said Mikhail Svetov, a founder of Russia's Libertarian Party who left the country after being slapped with criminal charges connected with his political activism. "He would have turned very fast into a Khodorkovsky."

From exile, Khodorkovsky has continued to fund opposition movements and media platforms, many of which have been outlawed or blocked in Russia. He has also spoken directly to supporters in YouTube videos that occasionally rack up thousands of views. Despite that, few experts believe he retains much influence in Russian politics from his base in Europe.

Svetov says that even after showing his bravery through his return to Russia, Navalny himself may not remain relevant for long while he languishes behind bars. "He chose to be in the history books, but for every Mandela, there are hundreds of names you don't remember," he said, referring to Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa's emancipation from white-minority rule and served as its first black president after spending 27 years in prison.

Aleksei Navalny gestures while speaking via video link from prison during a court session in the Vladimir region, east of Moscow, on December 28, 2021.
Aleksei Navalny gestures while speaking via video link from prison during a court session in the Vladimir region, east of Moscow, on December 28, 2021.

In an interview with Dozhd TV on January 12, Zhanna Nemtsova said her father, Boris Nemtsov -- a Putin critic and former Russian deputy prime minister who was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015 -- ultimately returned to Russia from a stint in Israel because he "didn't want to be a coward." She said she could not judge him for his decision.

"We cannot view things from a politician's perspective because that's a unique psychology, it's a calling, a sense of responsibility for people who support you," said Nemtsova, who now lives in Europe. "I, for example, live calmly. But I don't live in Russia, and I'm not a politician, and I don't need to prove to others who I am."

Too Soon?

Others question why Navalny chose to return when he did -- in the dead of the Russian winter, many months before elections in September 2021 that his team saw as a key opportunity to rally support and harm the ruling United Russia party. Being arrested at the height of preelection tensions could have served as a trigger for an even bigger protest wave, according to political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.

"The return itself was not a mistake," said Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter. "What was a mistake was returning so early."

Svetov agrees. "I understand the decision to come back," he said. "But I don't understand the timing at all."

Milia Kashapova, a Navalny supporter who has run political campaigns for Navalny-backed politicians, says she believes that Navalny's video report about Putin's alleged Black Sea palace -- which racked up millions of views after it was released following his return to Russia -- would trigger a revolution and justify his decision. But she reserved judgment about the decision itself.

"We in the opposition don't tend to criticize Navalny. He's a victim of the regime," Kashapova told RFE/RL in September 2021 as she canvassed for another opposition politician jailed for his activism but permitted to contest parliamentary elections that month. "Blaming someone who was poisoned, declared an extremist, and jailed -- probably for many years -- is to me like blaming a domestic-violence victim for their fate."

'Don't Be Afraid'

Whatever the repercussions of Navalny's return, one thing is clear: his decision to come back to Russia, and his subsequent imprisonment, have elevated him to the status of Putin's No. 1 political foe -- a position that may give him the moral prerogative to rally the opposition when (and if) he is released before Putin's time in power ends.

Navalny "has become the most prominent and dangerous critic of Putin: the anti-Putin, and Russia's No. 2 politician," political scientist Aleksandr Baunov wrote shortly after Navalny came back to Russia.

The irony is that since Navalny's return, every one of his close aides has gone the other way: leaving the country amid fear of arrest. They continue to investigate and spotlight high-level corruption from their bases in EU capitals, but critics say their influence has waned and the Russian opposition currently has little scope to change events.

"The Navalny team finds itself for the first time in an isolated position from the rest of the country. I don't think they quite realize that the kind of work they've been doing up until now is not possible anymore. They can publish investigations on YouTube, but there's nothing they can do on the ground," Svetov said. "I think we've lost for the next several years."

Navalny himself appears more upbeat. On the anniversary of his return, he penned a message to Russians that was published on his Instagram page. He said he had no regrets about coming back to the country he calls home, despite everything that has happened since.

"Having served my first year in prison I want to say the same thing I shouted to those who gathered outside the courthouse when they took me to the police van: don't be afraid," he wrote. "This is our country, and we only have one."

With reporting by Dmitry Volchek and Matthew Luxmoore in Moscow
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