Iulia Navalnaia, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni, knows how to deal with the frequent arrests of her husband by Russian authorities.
In 2018, a Russian general wearing a large green military hat and several eye-catching medals posted a video containing an outright threat to convert Navalni into “juicy minced meat”. Then Navalnaia stepped forward to give the answer her then-detained husband couldn’t – and with typical Navalni family humor. In an Instagram post, she mocked the general’s absurdly tall hat, saying he looked like a half-bowl dictator.
Now, as her husband faces the remaining two years and eight months of a 3.5-year prison sentence – the first longest sentence he has ever been sentenced to – the question many opponents and others are asking is whether the woman sometimes described as the first lady will take on a more prominent role or whether she herself will enter politics.
Navalnaia, who already has a much higher profile than the typical Russian wife of a politician, has inspired admirers in Russia and abroad, supporting her husband throughout his rise and always paying attention to extraordinary risks. Along the way, she has drawn sexist attacks from state media which depict her in a cartoonish tone as a domineering wife.
She became in the spotlight after Navalni was poisoned by a military nerve agent last August – an attack which he and Western leaders say was ordered by the Kremlin. By making a series of public demands, Navalnaia managed to snatch her husband from the hands of Russian authorities so that he could be transported to Germany, in a medically induced coma, for medical treatment.
“I understood that in this situation, I was the person closest to him,” she explained later in an interview. “I am the woman. If I fall, everyone will fall. So I pulled myself together.
She continued to criticize her husband’s arrest last month after he returned to Moscow. “I’m not afraid and I urge you all not to do it either,” he told a crowd of supporters at Navalni.
Navalni’s conviction on Tuesday sparked a series of major street protests across the country that breathed new life into the Russian opposition, solidified Navalni’s position as the biggest opponent of President Vladimir Putin and raised expectations as to Navalnaia’s participation in a more important role.
She and her husband met on a beach in Turkey 23 years ago. Before the poisoning last summer, they lived in an apartment in Moscow, surrounded by surveillance and repression. Navalnaia, 44, with a degree in economics, worked in a bank until the birth of the couple’s first two children. For ten years, she has devoted herself to her family and her children.
In 2018, she wrote on Instagram: “Our family has lived for years where magazines, prisons and threats are commonplace”.
And, while it remains to be seen whether she will decide to take the lead while Navalni is in jail, she has already proven to her friends and supporters that she has what it takes for it.
“Iulia Navalnaia is a unique flower” in an uninspiring ensemble of Russian political brides, commentator Anna Narinskaia wrote in an essay on the exceptional role Navalnaia has played in recent months.
“It is not because she is the wife of an opposition politician,” writes Narinskaia, “but because she has so naturally brought together two elements that are often difficult to combine: the position of wife of a man with many achievements and a woman. who controls his own destiny.
Today, women are generally excluded from the Russian political scene, so much so that they make up only 16% of the lower house of parliament and occupy only a few high-level positions in roles outside government positions. that Russian political culture considers appropriate for women. , as in the ministries of health or education.
Even the post-Soviet political opposition is dominated by men, despite their moral clarity on other human rights issues, said Alena Popova, co-founder of You Are Not Alone, a Moscow-based women’s rights organization. .
But Russia has one of the biggest gender imbalances in the world: There are 11 million more women than men in the population, due to the high male death rate. As a result, many important issues for women go unaddressed.
“Iulia fits perfectly on our country’s agenda right now,” said Popova, who would like to see Navalnaia speak more strongly. “She is a mother, the wife of a husband who is in custody, and she was always a woman who did not want to get into politics, until the rotten system forced her to.”
Strangely, the Russian state press was among the main voices promoting the idea of Navalnaia taking the lead in the opposition, as it did in neighboring Belarus last year when Svetlana Tikhanovskaia stepped down. presented to the presidency in place of her incarcerated husband.
But discussion in the media about his potential role is ruled out by senior officials in Navalni’s organization, seen as a trap to distract Navalni’s attention while he is incarcerated and potentially weaken calls for his release, while by portraying him as someone who is being manipulated by a domineering woman.
As absurd as the official Russian propaganda argument may be, Alexei Navalni himself is convinced of his wife’s powers, claiming that she saved his life.
At the Berlin hospital, he emerged from a coma, confused, unable to recognize faces and mind-blowing in which he heard doctors discussing the possibility of replacing his legs with prostheses.
“It was like ‘Fear and Delirium’,” he said in an interview with Yury Dud on a popular YouTube channel.
“Finally I felt, I understood, that it was Iulia who was approaching, that she was adjusting my pillow. It was very important to me, ”he said. “I was waiting for him all the time.”
He added: “I am extremely grateful to him.”