Yulia Navalnaya, wife of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, calls for support

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of former Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died in prison recently, has stepped out of the shadows and called on supporters. KAI PFAFFENBACH / POOL / AFP

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of former Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died in prison recently, has stepped out of the shadows and called on supporters. KAI PFAFFENBACH / POOL / AFP

Published Feb 20, 2024


Stony-faced and resolute, Yulia Navalnaya on Monday picked up the baton from her late husband Alexei with a call to action for Russia's opposition after years in his shadow.

In a dimly lit room, her light blond hair tied in her usual bun, the 47-year-old addressed the opposition that has been left leaderless after Navalny's death.

"I call on you to stand by me," she said in a powerful nine-minute video that gathered around two and a half million views in a few hours.

Her husband has for over a decade been Putin's most prolific critic, running against the long-time ruler and blasting the regime's corruption.

The two met on holiday in Turkey, with both saying they fell in love immediately.

A trained economist, Navalnaya gave up her job to raise the couple's two children.

But she stayed away from media spotlight, maintaining as much privacy as she could while Alexei's political career took off.

She stood by him as he galvanised mass protests in Russia, flying with him out of the country as he lay in a coma after a poisoning in 2020.

Five months later, she was defiant when the couple flew back to Moscow, knowing it would land him in jail.

"Waiter, bring us some vodka, we're flying home," Navalnaya said in a video sitting next to Alexei on the plane, copying a scene from a Russian cult film.

'Closest and most beloved person'

The couple were separated at passport control upon landing, the last time she saw her husband free.

They briefly embraced before police took him away and she was greeted at the airport to chants of "Yulia!".

The couple often shared photographs of their family life with their children - in a stark contrast to Putin, who keeps his personal life in utter secrecy.

They last saw each other in February 2022, only speaking through letters as prison visits became forbidden.

She had since clung on to the hope that she would see him again even as he was given 19 years in prison and sent to the harshest possible prison.

But on Friday Russian penitentiary authorities announced the Kremlin critic had died, after more than three years behind bars.

Navalnaya, who was at the Munich Security Conference, spoke out shortly after the announcement.

"If this is true, then I want Putin and all his entourage, Putin's friends and his government to know: they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family, to my husband."

'Fight more fiercely'

Hopes were finally dashed when Navalny's team confirmed the opposition leader's death on Saturday.

"Putin killed the father of my children. Putin took away the dearest thing I had, the closest and most beloved person," Navalnaya said on Monday.

She had over the years seen her husband be arrested, poisoned, and abused.

Navalny used to joke that this made her views more radical than him.

"When you are not a politician but you see the darkest things against your family then, of course, it radicalises you," Navalny had said in an interview.

Navalnaya had nevertheless insisted she was primarily a mother and a wife uninterested in going into politics.

But many observers were left wondering if there was anyone else to unite the divided opposition, which used to revolve around him.

And after decades of resisting calls to take on a more active political role, Navalnaya agreed to pick up the torch.

"The most important thing we can do for Alexei and for ourselves is to continue to fight more desperately, more fiercely than before," she said.

"I know it seems like nothing more is possible. But we all need to come together into one strong fist and use it to strike this crazed regime."