MOSCOW — The man most responsible for the extraordinary burst of
antigovernment activism here over the past week will not speak at a
rally planned for Saturday, or even attend it, because he is in prison.
Cut off from the Internet, Russia’s
best-known blogger will have to wait until the next morning, when his
lawyer will take him a stack of printouts telling him what happened —
whether the protest fizzled, exploded into violence or made history. At a
final coordinating meeting for the protest on Friday evening, where a
roomful of veteran organizers were shouting to make themselves heard, a
young environmental activist turned toward the crowd, suddenly grave.
“I’d like to thank Aleksei Navalny,” she said. “Thanks to him,
specifically because of the efforts of this concrete person, tomorrow
thousands of people will come out to the square. It was he who united us
with the idea: all against ‘the Party of Swindlers and Thieves,’ ” the
name Mr. Navalny coined to refer to Vladimir V. Putin’s political party, United Russia.
A week ago, Mr. Navalny, 35, was famous mainly within the narrow context
of Russia’s blogosphere. But after last Sunday’s parliamentary
elections, he channeled accumulated anger over reported violations into
street politics, calling out to “nationalists, liberals, leftists,
greens, vegetarians, Martians” via his Twitter feed (135,750 followers) and his blog (61,184) to protest.
If Saturday’s protest is as large as its organizers expect — the city
has granted a permit for 30,000 — Mr. Navalny will be credited for
mobilizing a generation of young Russians through social media, a leap
much like the one that spawned Occupy Wall Street and youth uprisings
across Europe this year.
The full measure of Mr. Navalny’s charisma became clear after protests on Monday night; an estimated 5,000 people materialized, making it the largest anti-Kremlin demonstration in recent memory, and Mr. Navalny was arrested on charges of resisting the police and sentenced to 15 days in prison.
All that night, as temperatures dipped below freezing, Mr. Navalny’s
disciples stood vigil outside the precinct where he was being held,
their eyes on their Twitter feeds. Someone had spread a rumor that he
was dead, and even his lawyers were unsure of his whereabouts, adding to
the sense that Mr. Navalny — who has been reluctant to present himself
as a political leader — was at the center of everything that was
“He is the only man who can take all the common hipsters and make them
go onto the street,” said Anton Nikolayev, 35, who spent much of Tuesday
outside courtrooms hoping to see Mr. Navalny. “He is a figure who could
beat Putin if he was allowed.”
This assertion may sound far-fetched. Mr. Putin, now in his 12th year as
the paramount leader, has approval ratings of above 60 percent,
according to the independent Levada Center. As recently as two weeks
ago, Levada found that 60 percent of Russians surveyed were not willing
to consider any figure from the anti-Putin opposition as a presidential
candidate. Only 1 percent named Mr. Navalny, whose exposure is through
Twitter and his blogs, Navalny.ru and Rospil.info.
But the aftermath of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections has shaken
political assumptions, largely because the authorities seem unable to
regain control of the public discourse. For a decade, Russia’s political
agenda has been determined inside the Kremlin, where strategists
selected and promulgated themes for public discussion, said Konstantin
Remchukov, editor of the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
“And now, just a few days after the elections, the political agenda is
being determined by other people,” like the longtime opposition leader
Boris Y. Nemtsov and Mr. Navalny, he said. “This is shocking, and
MR. NAVALNY has Nordic good looks, a caustic sense of humor and no political organization.
Five years ago, he quit the liberal party Yabloko, frustrated with the
liberals’ infighting and isolation from mainstream Russian opinion.
Liberals, meanwhile, have deep reservations about him, because he
espouses Russian nationalist views. He has appeared as a speaker
alongside neo-Nazis and skinheads, and once starred in a video
that compares dark-skinned Caucasus militants to cockroaches. While
cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says that in the case of
humans, “I recommend a pistol.”
What attracts people to Mr. Navalny is not ideology, but the confident
challenge he mounts to the system. A real estate lawyer by training, he
employs data — on his Web sites he documents theft at state-run
companies — and relentless, paint-stripping contempt.
“Party of Swindlers and Thieves” has made its way into the vernacular
with breathtaking speed and severely damaged United Russia’s political
He projects a serene confidence that events are converging, slowly but surely, against the Kremlin.
“Revolution is unavoidable,” he told the Russian edition of Esquire, in
an interview published this month. “Simply because the majority of
people understand that the system is wrong. When you are in the company
of bureaucrats you hear them talking about who has stolen everything,
why nothing works and how horrible everything is.”
He was less definitive about the future he envisioned for the country,
saying only that he hoped it would “resemble a huge, irrational,
Mr. Navalny had become less obscure by the end of the week. On
Wednesday, the former mayor of Moscow, Yuri M. Luzhkov, said he would
consider appearing at a protest if Mr. Navalny invited him. A few hours
later, a blindingly profane reference to Mr. Navalny was reposted from
President Dmitri A. Medvedev’s Twitter account, prompting his press
office to release a statement explaining that the message had been sent
out by a member of the technical support staff “during a routine
On Thursday, United Russia published an attack on Mr. Navalny,
describing his activism as “typical dirty self-promotion,” and Secretary
of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement about his case. The
consulting firm Medialogia documented a sudden leap in the number of
mentions of Mr. Navalny in the Russian news media, from several hundred a
day to around 3,000. On Friday, people started circulating a Web site
promoting him as a candidate in the March presidential election. Mr.
Navalny, even skeptics admit, managed to knit together a crowd that had
not previously existed.
“They had never gathered anywhere together before,” wrote Grigory Tumanov, a reporter for Gazeta.ru.
“They just read Twitter, and to them it was clear that in this
situation you have to go somewhere, do something, unite around someone,
because it was intolerable. Let this be Navalny, with all his pluses and
BY his appeals hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Navalny looked tired and disgusted. His supporters had found amateur video
showing that he had not resisted arrest, and that the officers who
testified against him were not the ones who had arrested him, but the
judge refused to review it. A photograph taken from outside the
detention center showed him gripping the bars on his window and staring
out with a fierce, fixed gaze.
“There are people standing here who were not recruited by anyone,” said
Viktor Masyagin, 28, outside a courtroom earlier in the week. “No one
drove us here in buses, no one paid us anything, but here we are anyway,
and we have been here for more than a day.”
“That should tell you something,” he said.