Russia gives few glimpses nowadays of Alexei Navalny, an opposition icon who leveraged social media and fatigue with the Kremlin to rise to stardom before being poisoned and jailed.
He now only appears in grainy videos from court hearings at his maximum-security prison — occasions he has used to slam the Kremlin for what he sees as its latest folly: attacking Ukraine.
“(Russia) is floundering in a pool of either mud or blood, with broken bones, with a poor and robbed population, and around it lie tens of thousands of people killed in the most stupid and senseless war of the 21st century,” Navalny said at his last hearing in July.
The most prominent Kremlin critic inside Russia over the last decade, 47-year-old Navalny is serving a nine-year prison sentence near Moscow on embezzlement charges he and his allies contest.
But authorities on Friday are expected to add 20 years to his term for extremism, building on a sweeping clampdown on any dissent since launching large-scale hostilities in Ukraine in 2022.
Navalny’s criticism of the military intervention is just the latest chapter of his long and dramatic fight against ruling elites and his activism has taken many forms.
– ‘I am not afraid’ –
He has campaigned across the country to be president, published corruption investigations that embarrassed the Kremlin and rallied massive crowds onto Russia’s streets.
His message — pumped to fans through glitzy social media content — contrasts dramatically to that of Vladimir Putin, a Soviet-styled, 70-year-old former KGB agent who has ruled without compromise for over 20 years.
Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in early 2021 after recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning attack with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.
His return to Russia despite facing jail put him on a collision course with Putin, after Navalny blamed the poisoning attack in Siberia on the Kremlin.
“I’m not afraid and I call on you not to be afraid,” he said in an appeal to supporters as he landed in Moscow, moments before being detained on charges linked to an old fraud conviction.
His arrest spurred some of the largest demonstrations Russia had seen in decades, and thousands were detained at rallies nationwide calling for his release.
– Putin ‘fears me’ –
Navalny countered with the release of “Putin’s Palace,” an investigation into a lavish Black Sea mansion that his team claimed was gifted to Putin through corruption.
The expose forced a rare denial from Putin, who quipped that if his security services had really been behind the poisoning, they would have finished the job.
While Navalny traffics confidently in memes, Putin is known both for not using the internet and asking a teenager who wanted him to follow his YouTube channel: “What should I sign?”
A similar Navalny corruption video targeting then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev spurred large demonstrations in 2017, with protesters carrying rubber ducks which became a symbol of the protests.
Ahead of a presidential election in 2018, Navalny toured cities across the country to drum up support but was barred from running because of the old fraud charge.
“(Putin) fears me and he fears the people I represent,” he told AFP at the time.
Before that he had challenged Sergei Sobyanin to become Moscow mayor and forced a runoff.
– ‘Crooks and thieves’ –
At rallies and in courtrooms, Navalny is a convincing public speaker and rallied protesters around home-grown slogans like “the party of crooks and thieves” to slam the ruling United Russia party.
But he has been tainted by an early foray into far-right nationalism, and a pro-gun video from 2007 routinely resurfaces in which he compares people from the ex-Soviet South Caucasus region to cockroaches.
Navalny also remains a fringe figure for a large portion of Russian society, who back the Kremlin’s official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.
Before he was sentenced in February 2020, he had become such a thorn in the Kremlin’s side that Putin refused to pronounce his name in public. His anti-corruption group was shuttered and his top allies are either imprisoned or in exile.
– ‘Cannot shut my mouth’ –
Navalny’s team says he has been harassed in prison and repeatedly moved to a punitive solitary confinement cell.
He says guards have subjected him and other inmates to “torture by Putin”, making them listen to the president’s speeches.
Still Navalny is upbeat and sardonic on social media accounts curated by aides.
The lawyer by training has fought for basic rights and taken prison officials to court. He has also tormented them, filing formal requests for a kimono and a balalaika — a traditional musical instrument — and to be allowed to keep a kangaroo.
“You cannot shut my mouth,” he declared.