Last month, students and professors jostled with photographers and cameramen crammed into a room of Moscow's venerable Institute of Higher Economics, a bastion of free thinking in a country where that kind of thing is generally discouraged.
They were there to observe a debate on the merits of revising the country's law regulating state tenders; not the sort of thing that would normally draw much, if any, attention. But this wasn't just any esoteric policy debate; one well-known columnist later characterized it as a "landmark event."
That's because one of the debaters was Aleksei Navalny, an activist minority shareholder and blogger whose crusade against corruption that he says is choking his country has drawn international attention. Navalny has gone from unknown to cause celebre within the past year, the hottest thing to have hit Russia's opposition since Garry Kasparov took on the Kremlin four years ago.
He's used his blogs to stunning effect by encouraging ordinary Russians to uncover official wrongdoing. And he's convinced courts to rule against major state-controlled companies accused of billions of dollars of corruption.
But Russia's fastest-rising political star remains unknown among a broad swath of Russians who rely on state television, not the Internet, for their information. He's also drawn criticism from veteran opposition members for his nationalist views.
More than that, it's not certain what ultimate response Navalny's crusading will draw from a government that has jailed and exiled -- and many believe condoned the killing of -- those who have posed the authorities any serious threat.
'No One Did It Before Me'
Navalny, a lawyer, runs his operation with a handful of others from cramped quarters rented in a Soviet-era building near a busy train station. The blond 34-year-old exudes confidence. Sitting behind a laptop at a round table in his office, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he's relaxed, well-spoken, and lays out his arguments with lawyerly logic.
Official corruption is so widespread in Russia, Navalny says, that even the government admits more than $35 billion is stolen from state contracts each year.
"Corruption is so hardy in Russia because it forms the very basis of the power structure," he says. "[President Dmitry] Medvedev and [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin are in power because of corruption."
WATCH: Blogger Aleksei Navalny criticizes the so-called tandem of Putin and Medvedev:
Navalny publicizes corruption through blogs on his website and elsewhere. His latest project is a new site called RosPil, where volunteers post information and documents concerning state tenders across the country. RosPil has already achieved notable successes, among them the cancelation of a $300,000 purchase: an Audi sedan for the finance minister of Daghestan, one of Russia's poorest regions.
But other Navalny victories have had far greater resonance. In 2007, he began buying small stakes in some of the country's biggest companies and proceeded to demand information about how their managers spend their profits. "When I read every day how those people are buying soccer clubs, flying on private airplanes, partying at luxurious ski resorts," he says, "I understood it was funded by the money stolen from me."
"That's why I decided to do a very simple thing," he says. "If crimes are being committed so openly, why not just try to go to court or write prosecutors? It's simple enough, it's just that no one did it before me."
In November, Navalny published what he said was a leaked audit of Transneft, the state oil pipeline monopoly. It described shell companies he says produced fake contracts for siphoning off some $4 billion from the construction of a pipeline to China. Transneft denies the claims, but the firm is now under investigation.
Navalny has also gone after the giants of Russia's energy industry: state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom and Rosneft oil company. Last year he forced the government to open an investigation into the state-owned bank VTB after exposing embezzlement of more than $150 million in a deal to buy Chinese oil drills.
Although he doesn't plan to run for office -- "Elections don't exist in this country," he says -- Navalny often appears at public events such as the Higher School of Economics debate last month, when he argued against a new law on tenders he said would legalize corruption.
He explains his popularity by saying he's the first opposition figure to have opposed the Kremlin in a "practical" way.
"Thousands of people say that those around Putin are swindlers and thieves," he says. "I back it up by trying to investigate them through the justice system. Whether or not I succeed is another matter, but I'm creating problems for them."
But not everyone agrees Navalny is the pioneer he claims to be. Galina Mikhalyova, a prominent member of the liberal Yabloko Party -- to which Navalny once belonged -- says Yabloko members have been silenced in the past for campaigns against corruption that posed the authorities a greater threat.
"We know in our party how that kind of activity ends," she says. "One of our chairmen was killed, several of our members are under criminal investigation, others have been sentenced to jail."
The death in 2003 of Yabloko member Yury Shchekochikhin, a crusading investigative reporter, was among the highest-profile of Russia's many unsolved killings. He was looking into criminal allegations involving the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2003, when he suddenly fell ill and died from what his family says was poisoning.
But it's Navalny's views on nationalism that have done the most to alienate would-be allies. Mikhalyova often sparred with Navalny before he was expelled in 2007 for his support of right-wing nationalist groups such as the Movement Against Illegal Migration. Navalny says Russia is swamped by illegal immigrants and plagued by "ethnic crime" that prompts ethnic conflict and attacks against them.
"Those are real issues today," he says, "but for some reason the liberal movement believes they should be made taboo because discussing them will unleash mythic dark parts of the Russian soul and result in the emergence of a new Hitler. That's all idiotic."
Mikhalyova says such opinions are "absolutely incompatible with our party's position," although political expert Vladimir Pribylovsky says compared to the majority of Russians, Navalny's views are "mostly moderate."
"He just doesn’t like people from the Caucasus," he says, "he's not anti-Semitic." Pribylovsky adds that Navalny's views, which some describe as populist, could give him an advantage over other opposition leaders in an election.
'Not a Liberal Country'
So far the authorities have accused Navalny of minor infractions -- he was implausibly accused of $30,000 of damages to a timber company when he was advising a regional governor -- but he says he's been otherwise untouched. He says he's well aware of the danger to his life, pointing to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in last year after having accused officials of massive corruption.
Navalny says his priority now is to establish a decentralized system of reporting corruption that would continue to function were something to happen to him. But despite his success, he doesn’t believe Russia will change until Putin leaves the scene.
Asked whether he sees any similarities between Russia and Arab countries swept up in a wave of unrest, Navalny admits before they broke out, no one expected the Middle East revolts would take place. But he's not holding his breath the same will happen in Russia any time soon. "You have to understand that Russia isn’t a liberal country," he says. "We're not Holland."
Danila Galperovich reported from Moscow; Gregory Feifer reported and wrote from Prague