A cartoon titled “Keep the fight alive!” The artist badiucao made to honor Navalny

On February 16, the Russian Federal Penitentiary System (FSIN) announced the death of Aleksey Navalny, a prominent figure who openly challenged Russia’s president Vladimir Putin for many years, and pointed out examples of large-scale corruption and major violations of Russian and international law. 

Navalny’s death reminded the world that Russia still has an opposition after over two decades of rule by the same person. Putin started his top political career in December 1999 and has served as President or Prime Minister since — just over a quarter of a century. There is a popular expression in Russia saying that there are probably no cats left in Russia that were born before Putin started leading and dominating the country. 

But Navalny is not the only face of the opposition to Putin, whether inside or outside of Russia, and he remains a very divisive and controversial figure in Russia’s political life of the 21st century, as well as in neighboring partially Russophone countries and exile communities from those countries. 

There is little doubt Navalny was, in effect, killed by Putin’s system of repression, arrests, torture, and absolute disregard for Russia’s rule of law, whether because of direct or indirect causes. Navalny was also poisoned by Russian secret agents during a flight in Russia in August 2020. After being evacuated to Germany to be cured, he decided to return to Russia in January 2021, deciding exile was not an option for him. He made this choice knowing perfectly well he would be immediately detained. Since his death, his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has called for a full investigation to expose what happened inside the Russian prison where he was kept and also announced she will continue her husband’s mission and work from outside Russia. 

Perhaps she will be more sensitive to issues that have made — and continue to make — Navalny and his legacy problematic for large numbers of people also opposing Putin.

For years, Navalny voluntarily joined what is called the “Russian March,” a demonstration taking place across Russia with the approval of the government and dominated by right to extreme-right and neo-nazi groups demonizing and threatening LGBTQ+ community members and migrant workers who come mostly from the South Caucasus and Central Asia in Russia. Over time, Navalny shared multiple statements ridiculing and mocking the people and culture of those regions and opposing their presence in Russia though they play a key role in its economy.

Similarly, until very recently, Navalny and his team never gave clear statements about their views on whether Crimea belongs to Ukraine or Russia. He himself stated in 2014 that Crimea belongs to Russia. Navalny’s clarification came as late as January 2023 — nearly a year after Russia's most recent invasion — when he stated Ukraine should remain in its 1991 international borders. He also supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, though he later apologized for it in 2023.

While clearly an opponent to Putin who paid with his life, Navalny’s discourse is symptomatic of the narratives shared by many of the leaders of the more visible opposition to Putin: They are ethnic Russian men who adopt Russian colonialist attitudes, whether they believe them or find them useful to appear more mainstream and continue to disregard non-ethnic Russian voices, women leaders, and other groups. Over 19 percent of Russian citizens are non-ethnic Russians and regularly demonstrate across their country against Putin’s policies threatening their cultures, languages, but also because of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. 

This special coverage focuses on Navalny’s death and its aftermath but also on the many other voices inside and outside of Russia. People of different genders, ethnic origins, and political affiliations, and those not living in the top cities of Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, continue to oppose Putin’s dictatorship and oligarchy despite the extremely high risks associated with this opposition, including outside of Russia. 

Stories about Opposing Putin: A multitude of voices