Ahead of a ruling that would land him behind bars for more than two years, Aleksei Navalny stood behind the glass of a courtroom cage on February 2 to address the thousands who took the streets in his support for two consecutive weekends and denounce the government he says orchestrated his prosecution after it failed to ensure his silence through assassination.
"This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions," said the 44-year-old Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic in Russia for the past decade. "This isn't a demonstration of strength — it's a show of weakness."
Since 2011, Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have needled the Kremlin with investigations into high-level corruption and electoral campaigns that threatened to shake up Russia's centralized political system with help from his growing, committed network of regional activists.
Now, with the opposition politician sentenced to 2 years and 8 months, the movement he nurtured and led is beginning to take stock of his absence and consider how to go on.
"We were ready for this," Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, told RFE/RL in a phone interview. "But we've endured great pressure before and can do so again."
Zhdanov said the organization Navalny inspired and founded will go on, since its employees know their roles and "Navalny doesn't need to be replaced." The task going forward, he said, is to continue the work of bringing to account corrupt officials and exposing the sins of Putin's government. It's a campaign Navalny's network has largely continued without his supervision since August, when the Kremlin critic was poisoned on a trip in Siberia and transferred for emergency treatment in Germany.
"I don't have an envelope that I must open and follow steps written by Aleksei," Leonid Volkov, the director of Navalny's network of regional offices, wrote on Facebook. "But of course the Navalny team and the Anti-Corruption Foundation understand what we must do now. We understand that everything is only just beginning. We understand what our job is."
Navalny's prison term marks a watershed moment in the Putin era, on par with the 2003 arrest and jailing of Russia's then-richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon whose prosecution accelerated a Kremlin campaign to bring the country's oligarchs to heel and stamp out their involvement in politics.
It also cleared the way for Putin to assert control over the media -- a process he began shortly after his first election in 2000 -- and oversee the development of a centralized political system that brooks increasingly little dissent.
Navalny claims that his poisoning in August was approved by Putin personally, a charge dismissed by the Kremlin. It sent shockwaves through the opposition and intensified the soul-searching that had already begun against the backdrop of growing state repression after a wave of protests in summer 2019. Since Navalny's return to Russia on January 17, police have arrested more than 10,000 people and unleashed violence at protests in his support.
'Enormous Moral Superiority'
Of four Navalny coordinators in different parts of Russia contacted on Feb 3 by RFE/RL, only one commented on the record. Andrei Fateyev of Navalny's office in Tomsk, the Siberian city where the Kremlin critic was poisoned, told RFE/RL in October that the his poisoning "was like a red flag to a bull. It motivated us." This time, asked about his reaction, he answered in a text message with an angry emoji, adding only: "We're taking stock."
Volkov is adamant that Navalny's movement "is not going anywhere."
"We find ourselves in a position of enormous moral superiority," he said. "The whole country has witnessed Putin's fear. The whole country has seen how pitiful and weak he is, what he's ready to do with the courts, with justice, and with common sense."
Even in his absence, Navalny's teams across Russia had been busy preparing for elections to the national parliament and local legislatures in September, looking to tap a protest vote that has led to unlikely victories not only for their own candidates in Tomsk and Novosibirsk but for others who represent an alternative to United Russia, the ruling party that backs Putin.
"The current situation is a pivotal moment for Putin's regime," political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on Twitter. "For the first time in 20 years it faces a completely new situation. This is the first time the Kremlin is unable to channel public discontent in a controllable direction."
Navalny's "Smart Voting" strategy, launched in 2019 with the aim of breaking United Russia's political monopoly, will be key to this process. So will a series of new corruption investigations, Zhdanov said, targeted at driving home for Russians the contrast between the lifestyles they lead, after years of falling wages, and the lifestyles of those who rule over them.
"Putin has shown that he is incensed by Navalny, because he wasn't able to kill him," Zhdanov said. "He now looks afraid and angry. And that's how people will perceive him, in Russia and abroad."