Alexei Navalny's Day in Court

Putin’s Nemesis Faces the State’s Legal Wrath

Navalny at a rally in Moscow, May 2012. (Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters)

On Wednesday morning, in a courtroom in the city of Kirov, 500 miles from Moscow, Alexei Navalny will finally face the moment he has been expecting for years. Navalny, the most well-known leader of the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, will go on trial for allegations that he helped embezzle 16 million rubles (around $500,000) from a state-run timber company. The actual charges are strange, and even Russia’s investigative bodies acknowledge the overtly political nature of the case. For Navalny and those who have followed his rise, it was only a matter of time before the state unleashed its repressive apparatus against him.

Navalny, who is 36, is a lawyer by training who turned himself into a particularly Russian version of a shareholder activist. He bought small stakes in state-owned corporations and then pushed them to become more transparent, exposing cases of apparent fraud and nepotism. His largest coup came in November 2010, when he posted documents on his blog that appeared to show that managers at the state-owned Transneft corporation had stolen $4 billion during the construction of an oil pipeline to China. As Sergei Guriev, the rector of the New Economic School, told me, “Navalny is not fighting corruption in general, he is fighting specific incidents of corruption.” Or as Navalny himself put it when I first met him in 2010, it’s not enough to say, “corruption is bad.” Instead, he said he wanted to show “what was stolen, who stole it, where the money went, and who in government is responsible.”

As his reputation grew, Navalny widened his focus beyond corruption and began morphing into a de facto politician, albeit one outside of any official political structures. His sincerity offers the obvious antidote to the political manipulation of Vladislav Surkov, Putin's chief ideologist until 2011, whose favored style was cynical, if not nihilistic. His labeling of the pro-Kremlin United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” became the most successful meme in Russian politics in a generation. Navalny emerged as the star of the protest movement that broke out in December 2011.

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