Taking on the “tsar”: the courage of Putin’s fiercest critic

Taking on the “tsar”: the courage of Putin’s fiercest critic

You have to admire Alexei Navalny’s courage, said The New York Times. Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic critic returned to Russia last week, after five months recovering in Germany from his near-fatal poisoning by “Putin’s political goons” with the nerve agent Novichok. He was, of course, arrested as soon as he reached Moscow, and is now languishing in the city’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison. “Yet still he torments his tormentor,” said The Economist. Two days after he was detained, Navalny’s team released a two-hour film devoted to what it called Putin’s “billion-dollar secret palace on the Black Sea”. Set on an estate 39 times the size of Monaco, the palace boasts an underground ice-hockey rink, a casino and a red-velvet “hookah lounge” with a dancing pole. Its grounds house vineyards and oyster farms; it even has a tunnel to the beach. “It’s an entire city, or rather a kingdom,” Navalny said in a prerecorded video. “It has impregnable fences, its own port, its own security, a church, its own permit system, a no-fly zone, and even its own border system. It’s like a separate state inside Russia. And in this state there is a single and unchanging tsar: Putin.”

Putin claims that nothing in the video belongs to him. But rumours have been circulating since 2010, said Grigory Levchenko in Meduza (Riga), when the businessman Sergei Kolesnikov said that he had been involved in a project to build a residence for Putin, built by his “friends” using funds from state-owned businesses. Later, photos of its plush interiors were leaked online. But the investigation by Navalny’s FBK anticorruption organisation piles up the details. It features aerial drone shots of the estate, along with floor plans and inventories apparently leaked by a shocked contractor. There’s a wine cellar, a Turkish bath and a cinema; there are 47 sofas worth $20,000-$27,000, and even an Italian toilet brush costing $840.

Navalny has long been a thorn in Putin’s side. The 44-year-old has been repeatedly arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten up and poisoned. But he keeps coming back: in December, he posed as a senior bureaucrat and duped a member of Russia’s FSB spy agency into apparently describing the plot to kill him – Novichok, the man said, had been smeared in Navalny’s underwear. Now, he has upped the stakes, said Anton Orekh in Echo Moskvy (Moscow). In the past, he largely refrained from attacking Putin personally, focusing instead on his cronies. But this latest investigation has made things personal. Navalny has delved into “intimate aspects” of Putin’s life in a bid to destroy the “celestial image” many ordinary Russians have of him. And it may work: the video investigation was viewed almost 25 million times on the day it was released.

Navalny’s arrest precipitated protests across Russia, said Robyn Dixon in The Washington Post. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in over 100 towns and cities from Siberia to Moscow on Saturday – the largest show of defiance against Putin’s regime in years. Russia has seen such protests before, said Alexander Baunov in The Moscow Times, but this time it felt different. The usual crowd of liberals and academics were joined by working-class Russians who are fed up with Putin’s “lawlessness” – and think Navalny might just improve their lot.

Putin is now facing the biggest threat to his power since entering the Kremlin two decades ago, said Gideon Rachman in the FT. The authorities are spooked. Saturday’s protests were met with a fearsome crackdown: 3,700 people were arrested, including Navalny’s wife, Yulia (who was later released). Navalny himself is due to stand trial in February on charges of violating the terms of a suspended sentence for fraud (he has been prosecuted a number of times). He could face three years or more in jail; he may even die there. Maintaining the momentum of these protests will be a formidable task, said The Project (Moscow). But there’s reason to think Navalny’s bravery may just bring lasting change. After all, if anyone can take on Putin, it’s probably him.