For Many Young Russians, Dreams of Democracy Died with Alexei Navalny

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo/File Photo
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (2nd R, first row) and his wife Yulia (3rd R, first row) walk during an opposition rally in Moscow, October 27, 2013.

RIGA, Latvia – As shared grief over Alexei Navalny’s death echoed across countless Russian émigré communities – in online chatrooms, and encrypted messenger calls – many of the opposition leader’s young, idealistic followers described the same sinking feeling: their dreams of a free, democratic Russia died with him, forcing many to redraw their life plans.

Over six days of shock and mourning, of flowers and candles brought to makeshift memorials in Russia and across the world, many said they felt deeply alone, left to fight President Vladimir Putin one-on-one with little hope of victory. For many already abroad it means never going home; and for those still home it means deciding whether to leave, once and for all.

“I hoped to one day to return to that ‘Beautiful Russia of the Future’ Navalny has always dreamed of, maybe when I’m 30 or 40,” said Alina, a student in her early 20s, who went to study in Western Europe abroad shortly before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and who has not been back to Russia since. “Now I don’t think I’ll ever return to my homeland, and I feel that Putin and his legacy will outlive us all.”

Alina, like others in this story, asked to be identified by first name only because of fear of retribution.

Navalny tried many political avenues seeking to build a coalition that could break Putin’s authoritarian grip on power, from joining the progressive Yabloko party to controversial outreach to far-right nationalists. He rose to prominence as an anti-corruption crusader and as a driving force behind mass protests in 2011-12 against fraudulent parliamentary elections and Putin’s return to the presidency after circumventing term limits by serving four years as prime minister.

But it wasn’t until Navalny built a nationwide political network, hoping to run for president in 2018, that he coined the slogan “Beautiful Russia of the Future” and solidified his standing as the leader of the Russian opposition. The authorities barred him from the ballot, prosecuted him in trumped-up criminal cases and even poisoned him with a military-grade nerve agent in August 2020.

Navalny also had remarkable success engaging young people. He attracted large numbers of millennials who flocked to his regional headquarters to volunteer and get involved in local politics – believing that sweeping change in Russia was possible because Navalny told them so.

“I’m proud that I am who I am in many ways thanks to Navalny,” wrote Nikita Stupin, deputy editor of a media outlet created by members of the Vesna democratic youth movement and Navalny-allied activists. “This man instilled desire for freedom and faith in a bright future in an entire generation. And no one can take this away from me.”

Russians born in the late 1980s and the 1990s were raised on horror stories of their parents who lived through repeated upheaval: the shift from communism to Gorbachev’s perestroika, the breakup of the Soviet Union; multiple financial crashes that wiped out their savings; two Chechen wars. For these people, now in their mid-30s or younger, Navalny’s fairly simple political program, which looked to Russia’s future rather than dwelling on its past, was a novelty.

In contrast to Putin’s revisionist tirades, conspiracies about Western plans to “subjugate” Russia, and nostalgia for imperial grandeur and Soviet superpower status, Navalny offered a domestic-oriented and somewhat utopian program aimed at creating an independent judiciary, holding fair elections, fighting corruption and boosting health care and education.

For the first time, Russians who cannot remember a president other than Putin saw a different style of politics. From prison, Navalny also called for replacing Russia’s strong presidential system with a parliamentary republic.

Since Navalny’s imprisonment in January 2021, when he returned to Russia after treatment in Germany for the poisoning attack, many young Russians have drawn parallels to Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who emerged from 27 years in jail to become president of South Africa.

“Navalny is someone who showed me what politics actually is,” said Fedor, 23, a specialist who fled Russia to avoid going to the army. “I’ve had this dream somewhere in the back of my mind, even though it wasn’t very realistic, but it nevertheless persisted: that one day, 20 or 30 years from now, the regime will change, he will be released and he will be able to join the contest for power.”

Fedor added: “Now that dream is gone.”

Navalny’s death crushed all hope of a Mandela scenario, and the declaration Monday by his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, that she will continue his work, while cheered by many Navalny supporters, has not restored confidence.

Navalny, who long predicted that he could be killed, repeatedly warned against despair in recent years, anticipating that his allies and followers would have to carry on his legacy in much darker times.

“Do not give up,” he said in the 2022 Oscar-winning documentary when director Daniel Roher asked about his message to followers if he were killed. “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is the inaction of good people. Do not stay idle.” Indifference, Navalny believed, was Russia’s true enemy.

Yet even Navalny did not envision the bleak and bloody circumstances of 2024, with the invasion of Ukraine nearing its second anniversary, other opposition activists jailed, exiled or dead, and Putin emboldened by wavering support for Kyiv, including a stalled $60 billion U.S. aid package.

Putin is certain to secure a new term in elections next month. And despite Navalny’s pleas, despair is now palpable among his mourners.

“I haven’t particularly liked Navalny as a politician before, but when he got arrested, I felt immense compassion and respect for him,” said Yevgenia Korneeva, 30, an art manager in game design who moved abroad after the war. “And now I feel like someone very important to me died, and that an illusory, thin hope has been killed in me, and that there is nothing else.”

Fedor, the tech specialist, said that the vigils and other outpourings of grief – which authorities have cracked down on in Russia, arresting hundreds – helped him feel a sense of unity and the potential to galvanize the Russian diaspora.

Anastasia, 28, a hospitality worker who returned to Russia half a year ago and paid tribute to Navalny’s memorial in her hometown, said that her first instinct after his death was to pack and leave again.

“But then, after despair, came the understanding that we can’t give up. I went to the memorial to the victims of repression to lay flowers and show like-minded people that they are not alone,” Anastasia said. “It is especially important for everyone now to do what they can to bring about change.”

Navalnaya’s plan to succeed her husband echoes Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s path as Belarusian opposition leader.

Tikhanovskaya took the place of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, as a presidential candidate in August 2020 after he was jailed for challenging Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. But while Tikhanovskaya has built a solid following among Belarusian exiles, Lukashenko has retained an iron grip on power. Putin seems poised to do the same.

Some liberal Russians warned that the opposition could fall into the same trap of pinning hopes on one person and that it will be hard for Navalny’s network to persevere without him.

“I think for Navalny’s movement, it’s been difficult to exist without Navalny himself,” Fedor said. “As a Russian, I’m very glad that she made this decision. … Now, there is at least some hope that the existing structures will continue working.”

In some respects, Navalny’s network and the broader Russian opposition have banded together since the Ukraine invasion but in other ways they remain divided – squabbling over how to engage with Western backers, and facing criticism from antiwar Russians who feel underrepresented.

Some analysts and supporters say Navalny’s organization is in crisis and Navalnaya alone is unlikely to fix it.

“I don’t think that everything is over with Navalny’s death but I also think that he was the main symbol, the fire that fueled the movement so it will be a while before someone emerges who can replace him in the same grandiose manner,” Korneeva, the art manager, said. “But I feel the utmost respect for Yulia.”

For others, like Anastasia, Navalnaya’s words resonated as a battle cry. “I admire this woman,” she said, “and believe that she has the power to unite people who believe in the ‘Beautiful Russia of the Future’ that Alexei believed in.”