The Lead-up to the Murder: Navalny and protest politics in Russia

Kirill Rogov
Director of Re: Russia

Alexei Navalny was the central figure of Russian society's opposition to Putin's authoritarianism, energising tens of thousands of people with the heroism of personal fearlessness and creating a new ethic of resistance. For more than a decade, he remained the creator and coordinator of protest politics in Russia. This article is not an attempt at a political biography of Alexei Navalny, but rather is intended to explain his role in Russia’s history over the past fifteen years, the nature of his popularity, as well as the reasons for the assassination attempt on him in 2020, his subsequent return to Russia, and the drama associated with it.

Moreover, Alexei Navalny's political biography is by no means just a derivative of his heroic personality. The phenomenon of Navalny is primarily composed of the combination of expectations and aspirations that he has focused within himself and of which he became both a voluntary hostage and symbol. These expectations, in turn, are based on the social capital of certain post-Soviet generations of Russian citizens. Putin's war against Ukraine aims to undermine and destroy this capital, turning Russia into a bastion of conservatism and the cult of victory. 

The history of protest politics, of which Alexei Navalny became the central figure and ideologue in Russia, has seen many examples of confrontations that lasted for decades, either fading (after a wave of repression) or reigniting. One might recall the confrontation of the workers' and students' movements against the communist regime in Poland (1970–1990) or, in a more relevant context for contemporary Russia, the confrontation between democratic students and the military-personalist regime in South Korea from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, which ended with a peaceful transition and the establishment of a fairly stable democracy. However, these historical analogies are, like all analogies, not tools for prediction but merely indications of a spectrum of possible scenarios. In the most optimistic of these scenarios, we might someday say that the first half of this path of resistance was traversed by Russian society largely thanks to Navalny.

Protest politics: From LiveJournal to the streets

The political star of Alexei Navalny rose during the mass protests at the end of 2011-2012, ushering in a new period in Russian political history after the apolitical era of the 2000s. Navalny remained a central political figure during this period, which lasted until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The renowned historian and sociologist Charles Tilly and his co-authors proposed considering protests and protest movements as a distinct sphere of politics — contentious politics, which we might also term protest politics (→ Charles Tilly et al .: Dynamics of ContentionContentious politics). This includes a variety of demonstrations, petition campaigns, strikes, and other forms of collective political action that are not part of traditional party-electoral politics and through which citizens directly assert their interests and demands. In democracies, they become a way of exerting pressure on politicians and political parties to adjust their agendas, while in autocracies, they serve as an alternative to party-electoral politics, which is either absent or purely symbolic.

In each episode of protest politics, there are three sides: groups of citizens challenging certain rules and orders, the government defending the status quo, and the public that both sides seek to sway. Each side has its own repertoire of possibilities, and generally speaking, 'contentious politics' represents a series of interactions between these sides leading to various possible outcomes. The ultimate goal of this confrontation is to change the public's perceptions, their view of the issue, and thus alter the balance of power. 'Protest politics' is typically nonviolent but can involve violent actions. The source of violence, however, may come from both the 'dissenting' groups and the government, which seeks to portray its violent actions against dissenters to the 'public' (the third side) as lawful and legitimate.

Protest politics became an important factor in the final years of the Soviet Union and in the early years of the new Russia (until the end of 1993). It then largely receded to the periphery of the political process and began a slow resurgence in the late 2000s as Putin's autocracy strengthened. However, it truly returned to the stage and became a crucial factor in the political process in the 2010s.

According to a popularly held opinion, episodes of protest mobilisation in Russia in the 2010s did not pose a critical threat to the regime. However, this assessment is fundamentally inaccurate. In many cases, successful revolutions developed according to a similar trajectory: the regime seems quite stable to most observers and even to the protesters themselves, and the protests in their initial phase are insignificant and small in number. However, the authorities then lose control, and the scale of the protests snowballs. Such dynamics were observed in some anti-communist revolutions of the late 1980s, in many 'colour' revolutions during the 2000s–2010s, and finally, in the events of the 'Arab Spring' in 2010–2011. Therefore, initial assumptions about the stability of the regime and the potential of protests are not a guarantee of a successful outcome for the authorities. It is from this perspective that the Russian authorities approached the protests (carefully studying the experience of 'colour' revolutions and the 'Arab Spring'), and therefore episodes of protest mobilisation actually had a significant impact on the logic of the regime’s evolution itself, responding to the protests as a significant threat.

The Russian mass protest movement of the 2010s included several waves and was largely associated with the figure of Navalny. The first wave was a response to the falsification of the results of the 2011 parliamentary elections. At its peak, this wave gathered protest rallies and marches with about 120–150,000 participants across Russia. It comprised a series of actions from December 5, 2011, to September 2012, with at least ten events attracting more than 15,000 participants each (→ Kirill Rogov, Aby Shukyurov: Protests of 2021; estimates of the turnout of the events mentioned are based on media reports and monitoring projects analysed in this review). This wave of protests elevated Alexei Navalny to a leadership position in the Russian opposition. He emerged onto the political scene as a politician of a fundamentally new generation, initially gaining popularity through his blog on LiveJournal. It was during this time that Navalny first initiated the strategy of tactical voting (not for the candidate you like, but against the opponents of the one you dislike). Initially, he put forward the slogan 'Vote for any party except United Russia', and then fueled discontent among voters with numerous evidence of falsification of the results of their tactical choices.

The protests of 2011–2012 became an unsuccessful 'colour' revolution in Russia. And they were followed by a counteroffensive by the regime. Importantly, the main instrument of this counteroffensive was not only the reinforcement of repressive pressure by the authorities in 2012–2013 but also a reciprocal pro-government mobilisation linked to the 'return' of Crimea. This event allowed the Kremlin to mobilise 'civic neutrality' and restore the impression of an absolute majority of support behind it, which had seemingly been undermined by the protests of 2011–2012.

The Navalny era: The 'schoolkids' and ‘beyond the Garden Ring'

The next stage in the history of the protest movement was the distinctly 'Navalny' wave from 2017 to 2019. This wave differed from the previous one in the nature of its agenda, methods of recruiting the protest core, and the socio-demographic composition of the protesters. And, perhaps most notably, virtually all of its actions were met by a harsh police response.

The first action, 'He's Not Dimon to You,' took place on March 26, 2017, coinciding with the release of Navalny's investigative film of the same name, which accused then-Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev of corruption. The film gained viral popularity, amassing 5 million views on YouTube within a few days and another 1.4 million on the social network 'Odnoklassniki'. According to the Levada Center, by early April, 7% of people surveyed had watched the film. Navalny called on supporters to take to the streets to demand an investigation into the facts presented in the film. As a result, protests took place in nearly a hundred cities, drawing around 50,000 participants.

This was an entirely new phenomenon — a protest action following a corruption investigation presented in the form of a documentary film posted on YouTube. AThis form dictated a fundamental change in the audience and the protest core of Navalny's campaign. The next 'Dimon's' series action took place on June 12 and attracted even more people — between 50,000 and 98,000 across 154 cities, according to Meduza and OVD-Info. A survey of 125 participants in Moscow showed that more than half of them were under 25, and over 60% had not participated in protests before March 2017 (→ Kirill Rogov: The Case of Navalny).

These actions served as a kind of prelude to Navalny's 'presidential campaign', the goal of which was to secure his registration as a candidate in the presidential elections as a challenger to Putin. Thus, Navalny tested a new strategy of 'electoral protests', focusing not on the falsification of election results, as before, but on the fight for the inclusion of an opposition candidate on the ballot. This thematic shift was evident in the subject of the next mass protest, which coincided with Putin's 65th birthday (October 7, 2017), the main demand of which was Navalny's registration as a presidential candidate. The rally gathered between 10,000 and 15,000 people.

Indeed, in mature authoritarian regimes, significant alternative policies and parties are usually not allowed to participate in elections, and the opposition is not able to call on voters to 'defend their choice’. In such a situation, possible scenarios include either tactical protest voting, as in 2011, or organising a protest campaign around the demand to allow opposition politicians to participate in elections. This tactic was tested by Navalny in his 'presidential campaign', and the same strategy was used by the opposition in the Moscow City Duma elections in the summer of 2019.

In general, the traditional triggers for protest mobilisation in semi-authoritarian and authoritarian countries are: 1) electoral manipulation by the authorities ('Rose Revolution' in Georgia in 2003, 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine in 2004, protests in Russia in 2011–2012); 2) 'symbolic injustice’; and 3) excessive violence by law enforcement against protesters and opposition representatives. 'Symbolic injustice' can include instances of corruption (protests following the film 'He's Not Dimon to You'), a 'private episode' of injustice that evokes sympathy and outrage (the case of trader Mohammed Bouazizi, which sparked the revolution in Tunisia and the 'Arab Spring'), violent intrusion into citizens' 'private' spaces (destruction of urban squares in Istanbul in 2013 and in Yekaterinburg in 2019), or 'betrayal of expectations/backtracking on promises' (protests in Ukraine following Yanukovych's refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU in 2013; the Armenian revolution of 2018, prompted by President Serzh Sargsyan's reneging on his promise not to occupy the prime minister's seat after constitutional reform). However, the real challenge for the regime is not just individual protests but the societal reaction to them. The crucial factor is whether the initial dissatisfaction on the streets and the police response generate a protest wave where demonstrators persist in their demands, and their numbers increase.

Events might unfold according to three main trajectories. The first: the number of people taking to the streets for one of the mentioned reasons turns out to be much greater than expected. This produces a mobilisation effect whereby many people who sympathise with the protest's goals but consider themselves a minority reassess their own perceptions of the number of supporters and step out of their 'comfort zone' to join the protest. Events partly unfolded this way in Russia in December 2011 after the unexpectedly large December 5 protest at Chistye Prudy. If the number of people does not exceed expectations, it is highly likely that the protest will fade away. However, even if the initial turnout is small (third scenario), but the protesters do not leave the streets and, as a result, experience police brutality, images of this brutality can trigger a wave of sympathy. This may prompt people to leave their 'comfort zone' and join the protest, which may then snowball in size. In other words, the third reason for protests — outrage at police brutality and the demand for the release of detainees — becomes a trigger for secondary mobilisation in support of the protest, which may initially have had a relatively local cause and small scale. This scenario, with many differences and variations, was observed in Istanbul during the protests to protect Gezi Park, in Kyiv in 2013–2014, and in Belarus in 2020.

After being denied registration for the presidential elections, Navalny held the 'Voters' Strike' rally on January 28, 2018, which was not very large (around 10,000 participants). Then, after the Central Election Commission officially announced the presidential election results but before Putin's inauguration, another rally titled 'He's Not Our Tsar', took place on May 5, 2018 and was even smaller. Thus, the mobilisation potential of the new protest agenda (preventing the opposition from participating in elections, demanding electoral alternatives and change of power) was generally much lower than the effect of the anti-corruption 'Dimon' rallies. These protests took place amid much harsher police repression, and demonstrated much higher resilience: the core of the protesters used 'water tactics' moving around the city, and, despite being pursued by the police, did not leave the streets until late evening. However, despite the higher resilience, these actions did not trigger a secondary wave of protests associated with public outrage at the actions of the police.

The possibility of such a scenario was partially indicated in the summer of 2019 when the mass protests were sparked by the refusal to register opposition politicians for the Moscow City Duma elections. The intense street clashes on July 27 and August 3 demonstrated that the police could not handle the protesters if they were numerous and moving through the city centre. Numerous videos depicting police brutality led to a wave of sympathy for the protesters, as shown by sociological surveys and social media activity. Realising this, the authorities made partial concessions, allowing one 'authorised' rally (August 10), which, according to estimates by the 'White Counter', attracted around 60,000 people. Additionally, the authorities did not oppose another 'unauthorised' rally (August 31). The authorities sought to 'let off steam' on the eve of the start of the working and academic year.

Thus, in the second half of the 2010s, Navalny began to organise a new political movement, using several key and innovative tools in Russian politics at that time. First, there were vivid journalistic anti-corruption investigations, stylistically aimed primarily at young people, which extended his popularity far beyond the traditional layers of the 'democratic community'. Second, the organisation of unauthorised protest actions, the core of which became a very young activist group ('Navalny's school kids') that refused to scatter in the face of police pressure, forced the police to be more aggressive. And third, the deployment during his independent 'pre-election' campaign of a network of regional headquarters, mainly in regional capitals. This not only created the basis for Navalny's proto-party but also contributed to the crystallisation of a stratum and culture of political behaviour among 'advanced urbanites' beyond the Russian capitals and, ultimately, the formation of the 'Navalny generation' in Russian politics.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the protest campaigns of the 'Navalny' wave from 2017 to 2019 did not reach the scale of the protest movement in 2011–2012. They occurred under increasing repressive pressure, but did not trigger a secondary wave of mobilisation. To some extent, these actions and Navalny himself remained, at this stage, somewhat of a ‘youth ghetto’ phenomenon for Russia as a whole, isolating him not only from older age groups but also from the attention of the elite.

Breaking through the Screen: Blogger vs. television

The emergence of a new protest culture and the formation of the 'Navalny' political generation were the results of Alexei Navalny's political intuition and creativity, allowing him to leverage the technical possibilities of the new era. The 'Navalny' protest wave unfolded against the backdrop of rapidly changing patterns of media consumption and social practices. In essence, it coincided and was largely fueled by the mass engagement of Russian citizens, particularly the youth, on social media. As shown in Figure 1, the share of television in the population's information sources decreased from 42% in 2013–2015 to 35% in 2020–2021, while the share of all traditional sources of information (television + radio, newspapers, and magazines) declined from 70% to 45%. At the same time, the share of Internet sources (websites + social networks) grew from 18% to 45%, with the share of social networks increasing from 7% to 25%. Meanwhile, the Kremlin's information control policy, formulated in the previous era, was primarily focused on traditional media. As a result, the nearly eradicated space for uncensored content in traditional media was quickly reestablished in new online publications and social networks.

Figure 1. Structure of information sources in Russia, 2013–2021, % of those surveyed

As a result, the structure of media consumption began to vary significantly across age groups. By 2021, traditional media (television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) accounted for less than a third of the information sources for younger age groups (under 40), while they comprised two-thirds for older age groups (55+). Social networks became the most significant source of information for young people (34–42%), outweighing television by one and a half to two times. In 2015, the age differentiation in the structure of information sources was not as dramatic: traditional media accounted for 75% of media consumption among older age groups and 50% among younger ones, but by 2021, the difference had almost tripled — 65% and 23%, respectively.

Figure 2. Structure of information sources by age groups, 2021, % of those surveyed

As a result, the level of engagement of various age groups in social networks became a determining factor in shaping their 'reality,' creating an increasingly noticeable distinction in the political orientations of younger (up to 40 years old) and older (over 55 years old) demographics(→ Kirill Rogov: Social Media People and TV Children). Ultimately, the youth, which experts viewed as even more pro-Putin in the early 2010s than the average population, became the most anti-Putin segment among Russian citizens by the end of the 2010s. The overall level of trust in Putin as a politician dropped by half from 2015 to 2021, with the decline being almost threefold among younger age groups (18–39 years), while trust among older age groups decreased by just one and a half times.

Figure 3. Trust in Vladimir Putin in 2015 and 2020–2021, % of those surveyed

This effect was also evident in attitudes toward protests. During the 'Navalny' protests in 2017, 40% of those surveyed considered the police's harsh actions against protesters to be entirely justified, while only 30% held the opposite view. Importantly, this pattern was consistent across different age groups. Therefore, despite the resilience (willingness to resist) of the new protests, these actions could not trigger a secondary wave of sympathy for the protesters. By 2019, the situation had changed: 30% believed that the police were justified compared to 40% who were outraged by their actions. While there were no changes in the older age group compared to 2017, sympathy for the protesters sharply increased among younger demographics, with young people indicating stronger support for the protesters. This shift is directly related to differences in the structure of information sources through which respondents learned about the protests: traditional media dominated the official narrative, while social networks featured photos and videos exposing police brutality.

Table 1. Attitudes toward police actions during unauthorised protests, 2017–2019, % of those surveyed

During the second half of the 2010s, the key development was the rapid growth of mobile broadband Internet and, consequently, the Russian segment of YouTube (→ Sergey Guriev: The 3G Era). YouTube, in particular, emerged as a significant competitor to television, usurping its key advantage of 'live coverage', thus significantly expanding the accessibility of alternative socio-political content.

These circumstances placed a new tool in the hands of Navalny, once again altering his status in Russian politics. He became the first Russian politician to be a YouTube blogger. Navalny made a significant leap into this role as early as the spring of 2017, just after the release of 'Dimon'; by the beginning of summer, his YouTube channel already had a million subscribers (see Figure 4). By the summer of 2018, Navalny had 2 million subscribers, by the end of 2019, 3 million, and by the beginning of the summer of 2020, over 3.5 million. This Internet audience is comparable to the audience of a central federal television news programme. Of course, the cumulative reach, viewing time, and other parameters are incomparable, but having an audience of several million people and expanding the broadcasting infrastructure through the second channel, 'Navalny LIVE', transformed Navalny into a genuine federal media figure. Thanks to this, during this phase, he managed to overcome the confines of the 'youth ghetto' of 2017–2018.

Figure 4. Dynamics of subscriber growth for the YouTube channels 'Alexey Navalny' and 'Navalny LIVE,' 2017–2021, thousands of people

His investigative films played a key role in audience growth (see Table 2), attracting audiences ranging from 5 to 15 million people and continually introducing new demographics to Navalny. At the same time, as a YouTube blogger, Navalny cultivated a new political style that captivated the contemporary audience (now up to 40 years old) with an unusual combination of pathos and irony, including self-irony. This style overcame the culture of apoliticalness and cynicism that had developed in the 2000s while avoiding the tragic pathos of dissident culture.

Table 2. Most popular films and videos by Navalny, million views

Sociological survey data also indicate that at that moment, Navalny definitively became a politician of nationwide importance (see Figure 5). In the summer of 2020, between 70% and 80% of respondents knew about him and his activities, with approximately 20% approving of his actions (25% among younger age groups). Among the leaders of the Russian opposition, only Boris Nemtsov had a recognition level exceeding 50%. However, this recognition was largely inherited from a period when Nemtsov, holding key positions in the government and political establishment, frequently appeared on television. In contrast, Navalny created his all-Russian political brand without any access to television, demonstrating radical changes in the information and political landscape.

Figure 5. Dynamics of attitudes toward Navalny, 2013–2021, % of those surveyed

The emergence from the 'ghetto' and the new political role of Navalny are particularly evident in certain details of his 'popularity map'. For instance, in September 2020, even among those who approved of Putin, 14% expressed approval of Navalny (compared to 4% in October 2019). It is also noteworthy that over the two years from 2018 to 2020, not only did the proportion of positive assessments double, but the proportion of those who viewed Navalny negatively decreased by 20%. At first glance, this political capital — a level of approval around 20% - may not seem critical for the regime at that time, but it undermines the fundamental principle of personalist authoritarianism, the 'conspiracy of absence' of any political alternative. Citizens should not have any opportunity to compare the autocratic leader to anyone else; only then can his shortcomings be perceived as advantages. However, the emergence of an alternative creates a threat of sudden shifts in sympathies during crises. The decline in negative ratings and Navalny's penetration into Putin's loyal base can be seen as clear indications of the possibility of such a turn of events. In a broad sense, it is precisely this situation and Navalny's new status that become the cause of the first assassination attempt against him.

The first assassination attempt and the 'regional revolution'

While the factual circumstances of the assassination attempt on Navalny in August 2020 are well-known thanks to international investigations(→ The Insider: Laboratory), the immediate triggers remain less clear. It seems quite logical to link the assassination attempt to events in Belarus, which demonstrated the potential for protest mobilisation even in highly consolidated authoritarian regimes. Protests erupted immediately after the Belarusian electoral commission announced Lukashenko's victory on August 9. And, within the next week, it became clear that the regime lacked the strength to stop them. On the contrary, the protest rally snowballed out of the regime’s control and the brutality of the security forces towards the initial and not very numerous groups of protesters led to the expansion of the protest. On August 16, an action took place, with an estimated 200-400,000 people in Minsk and a further million across Belarus. Lukashenko prepared to defend his residence, which had seemed unthinkable just a few weeks earlier. And it was precisely on the evening of August 16, according to Bellingcat's investigation, that the first surge of conversations by Navalny's poisoners occurred in Novosibirsk.

However, as it is now known, this sequence of events is incomplete. The first assassination attempt on Navalny was evidently made in early July 2020, more than a month before the events in Belarus. And this date allows us to discern further important context for the assassination. Yulia Navalnaya felt inexplicably unwell on July 6, and the poisoners' team travelled to Kaliningrad on July 2 and 3, just two days after the announcement of the results of the vote on constitutional amendments. Another fact worth noting is that almost simultaneously, on July 9, Governor Sergei Furgal was arrested in Khabarovsk. The connection between these events may be more profound than it appears at first glance.

On July 1, before departing for Kaliningrad, Navalny recorded and released a video on his channel titled 'Results of the 'voting'. What to do next,' in which he urged his supporters to focus on the 'Smart Voting' project and detailed his plan to vote against candidates from 'United Russia' in the regional elections in September 2020. This would lead to 'United Russia' losing its monopoly control over regional parliaments and, consequently, over electoral commissions. As evidence of the effectiveness of such actions, Navalny cited the example of the Khabarovsk Krai: after Furgal's victory in the gubernatorial elections, deprived of the lever of falsifications, 'United Russia' suffered a complete defeat in the regional parliament elections, and even in the vote on the constitutional amendments, there was almost no electoral fraud. In case of falsification of the results of ‘Smart Voting' itself in the regional elections, Navalny called on his supporters to take to the streets and not to leave them.

Many elements of this plan seemed feasible. First, regional parliamentary elections attract few actual voters, so even limited mobilisation of citizens within the framework of protest voting can create the necessary advantage in the results. This was demonstrated by the regional elections in 2018, where the Kremlin and 'United Russia' suffered defeats in several regions at once (→ Liberal Mission Foundation: Stress Test for Half of Russia), as well as the Moscow City Duma elections in 2019. Second, confrontation with demonstrators in several regions can pose a much larger technical and political problem than dealing with protests in Moscow. Local police forces may not be as reliable in this situation, and the dispatch of ‘aid from Moscow’ can trigger anti-Moscow mobilisation, enhancing local patriotism and idiosyncratic reactions toward Moscow. The situation was further exacerbated by the uncertainty of the economic consequences of the spring lockdown and the ongoing pandemic. In this context, Furgal's arrest was supposed to be a clear signal to regional elites that the Kremlin would not tolerate a 'Khabarovsk anomaly' - a governor who came to power against Moscow's will and relied on support from 'below'. In Putin's conspiratorial consciousness, Furgal and Navalny evidently already looked like two leaders of the 'regional revolution', complementing each other with different protest audiences. The plan to deal with them was most likely adopted simultaneously, immediately after the release of the video.

The video outlining Navalny's plan garnered over 13 million views. Moreover, throughout July-August, Navalny prepared and released a series of investigative materials dedicated to Russian regions where elections were scheduled to take place in the autumn. Five of these accumulated more than 5 million views each: two focused on Khabarovsk after Furgal's arrest, where protests were already occurring, and there was one video each on Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Kazan (see #9–13 in Table 2). For investigations of regional scale, these are incredible results.

Another point worth noting is that, looking at Navalny's entire ‘filmography’, it becomes clear that videos dedicated to general political and electoral topics usually get significantly fewer views than corruption investigations. The 'hits' from Table 2 are almost entirely investigations (the only exception being the video from July 1, 2020, outlining the plan for the 'autumn regional offensive'). The same holds true, as shown above, when it comes to the potential for protest mobilisation: electoral themes yielded much smaller scale protests than corruption (for example, the 'Dimon' investigation). In his summer 2020 campaign, Navalny establishes a strong connection between corruption and the 'Smart Voting' project: at the centre of each film is a corruption investigation with a regional focus, ending with a call for protest voting in September and taking to the streets afterward. Even the film dedicated to the confrontation between Furgal and the Kremlin has, as its most important plot arc, the 'secret mansions' of the president's envoy to the region, Yuri Trutnev. Overall, the scale of Navalny's information campaign ahead of the 2020 regional elections appears unprecedented, primarily due to the informational resources he had accumulated on YouTube.

Navalny's plan for September apparently seemed like a threat to the Kremlin as early as July (the poisoning attempt in Kaliningrad). The events in Belarus only served to further fuel these concerns. The 'Arab Spring' was a political avalanche, where protests starting in one country of a region, sharing a common cultural and linguistic space, rapidly spilled over to neighbouring ones. But the immediate trigger for the poisoning was not the events in Belarus, but apparently the realisation of Navalny's informational and political influence and the danger of his 'regional revolution' plan, against the backdrop of the Kremlin's defeats in the 2018 and 2019 local elections. These defeats exposed the realistic prospects of regional protest consolidation.

Return: Becoming bait for a tyrant

In one way or another, the second assassination attempt on August 20, although it disrupted Navalny's regional campaign (protest voting did not significantly impact the outcome of regional elections and did not initiate regional political crises), triggered a crisis that developed along a completely different trajectory. By September 2, Germany officially stated that Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent from the 'Novichok' family; on September 3, the European Union issued a stern statement condemning the assassination attempt and holding the Kremlin responsible, and Navalny became a hero of the global press and a recognized leader of the Russian opposition in the West.

Meanwhile, in September, his YouTube channel surpassed the 4 million subscriber mark, and after the publication of the investigation identifying the poisoners and Navalny's phone call with one of them, the number of subscribers surged by another 600,000, reaching almost 5 million. The investigative film on the poisoning and Navalny's conversation with Kudryavtsev collectively garnered over 50 million views. Against this backdrop, Navalny decided to return to Russia, armed with a film about 'Putin's palace’.

The almost inevitable arrest upon his arrival and the release of the investigation on the 'main corruption deal' were supposed to ensure a dual trigger for protests — 'symbolic injustice' (the corruption saga about the palace) and 'unjust repression' (the assassination attempt and the anticipated arrest upon his return). In other words, Navalny transformed himself into bait for Putin, which, once swallowed, would force him to confront the main revelation — the release of the film about the palace. Navalny was detained on January 17 while going through border control at Sheremetyevo, and on January 19, the film 'Palace for Putin' was released, which, by January 23, had garnered around 60 million views—an unprecedented audience for non-entertainment content on Russian YouTube. By January 28, when the film reached 100 million views, the number of unique viewers was 33 million, with over 20 million in Russia alone. According to a Levada Center poll conducted between January 29 and February 2, 2021, 26% of people surveyed said they had watched the film, which extrapolated to the adult population of the country equates to 28 million people.

Based on this, it can be reasonably assumed that by January 23, the date of the first major protest in support of Navalny, the Russian audience for the film had exceeded 10 million people, and by January 30, it was at least 20 million. Additionally, the preparation for the protests on January 23 was characterised by unprecedented activity on social media and even extended to the 'young' network TikTok, which was filled with viral clips in support of Navalny and the protests.

Despite this, the January 23 demonstration did not gather as many people as expected. According to our estimates, the total number of protesters was in the range of 100,000–200,000 people, or slightly more. On one hand, this made the rally one of the largest in Russia in the 21st century and comparable to the top protests of 2011–2012, as well as unique in terms of geographical coverage and the number of protesters beyond the capital. However, unlike the protests of 2011–2012, the January 23 protests did not surpass the scale established during the protest wave of 2011–2012: ordinary large rallies gathered 10,000–30,000 participants, and the largest ones, 100,000–200,000.

The number of protesters who took to the streets on January 23 was approximately 2% of the audience of the palace film and roughly 4% of Navalny's channel subscribers. It cannot be said that the growth of Navalny's audience as a blogger did not convert into support for Navalny the politician, but the coefficients of this conversion appear to be somewhat limited: in January 2021, Navalny had six to seven times more subscribers than in the spring of 2017, while the scale of protests exceeded the scale of the 'Dimon' rally by three to four times. In January 2018, when Navalny had 1.5 million subscribers, 9% of respondents approved of his activities, and in January 2021, with 6.5 million subscribers, it was 20%. These figures demonstrate the non-linearity of converting informational coverage into political support.

According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center that January, approximately 68% were aware of the content of the film, with 37% of all respondents believing this content to be accurate or plausible (half of those who knew about the film), and about 12% of those surveyed said their opinion of Putin had worsened. Given that these figures are likely underestimated (respondents may have concealed their attitude toward such a sensitive issue), it is evident that there is a significant gap between knowledge of the film (and even trust in its content) and experiencing strong political emotions that could serve as a stimulus for participating in unauthorised protest rallies. The corruption theme generates enormous interest among the audience, as we know from Navalny's history as a blogger, but it does not overturn the 'worldview' of those surveyed and does not have a significant mobilisation effect against the backdrop of increased risks of participating in protests.

The second protest trigger — 'unjust repression' (poisoning and Navalny's arrest upon return) — could have played this role. However, it must be noted that outside traditional opposition support groups, the majority of Russians did not believe in the poisoning. As seen from Table 3, the share of those who knew about the poisoning remained stable from September to December 2020 (76-78%). This is somewhat strange in itself against the backdrop of news from October (when the International Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the German doctors' conclusion about Navalny's poisoning with Novichok, and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russia) and the sensational investigation in December by a journalistic consortium (when the direct perpetrators were identified). In September (according to surveys), only 25% trusted the information that Navalny had been poisoned. And a minority of them — 10% of all those surveyed — blamed the authorities or figures from Navalny's investigations for the poisoning, while about 15% could not decide on the main version of events, although they believed that the poisoning happened. In October, certainty increased, and opinions somewhat consolidated and polarised. Almost three equal groups—about 20% of respondents each — considered the events on the plane as 1) a 'staging'; 2) a 'provocation by the West'; and 3) retaliation by the authorities or figures featured in Navalny's investigations. Another group (16%) could not decide between these different versions of events.

Table 3. Attitude towards Navalny's poisoning, 2022, % of those surveyed

Towards the end of December, uncertainty in interpreting what happened increased once again: the shares of those who believed that the events were staged and those who could not decide on the main version of events grew, while the shares of those who had made up their minds (blaming the Russian authorities and the West) slightly decreased. This happened directly after the poisoning story was revealed in the investigation by the international consortium and Navalny's phone conversation with FSB employee Kudryavtsev, and despite the gigantic audience gathered by the two videos dedicated to each. It can be assumed that, to the layperson, it seemed that everything in the investigation was too simple and transparent, which contradicted their worldview permeated with conspiracy theories ('if they wanted to kill him, they would have killed him'). As a result, the atmosphere of conspiratorial uncertainty surrounding Navalny himself, largely fueled by the Kremlin, was not dispelled and was transferred to the poisoning story, blocking its ability to evoke emotions. 

So, in the story of Navalny the blogger and Navalny the politician, we see, on the one hand, an example of how new media, primarily video hosting platforms, enable the overcoming of information isolation and creation of a nationwide political brand without the participation of television. On the other hand, it is an example of how this individual resource is insufficient to overturn the 'worldview' formed by the authoritarian information mainstream. Paradoxically, the miraculous rescue of Navalny began to work against him, becoming a 'reverse' conspiracy theory, which dampened protest emotion and allowed the audience of Navalny's films to stay within their 'comfort zone'.

The Lancelot effect: Why Russians did not believe the poisoning

Undoubtedly, in the conditions of a mature autocracy, the most important factor in deciding whether to participate in protests is the fear of police violence and subsequent persecution. The decision to take to the streets is an internal struggle between fear and the degree of 'outrage' caused by the events that serve as the reason for the protest (the 'battle between good and neutrality', as brilliantly defined by Navalny). However, as mentioned above, another crucial aspect of protest politics is not only this struggle and its outcome, but also the attitude of the 'public' towards it. In other words, the critical factor for the fate of the protest wave is the attitude towards the protests from those outside – those who do not participate in them. This attitude largely determines whether the regime can use violence against the protesters and how it will be perceived.

From July 2020 to April 2021, pollsters had a rare opportunity to assess Russians' attitudes towards participants in three protest waves simultaneously – in Khabarovsk in support of Furgal, in Belarus, and the 'Navalny' protests. Regarding the protests in Khabarovsk, the number of sympathisers with the protesters in the three waves of the nationwide survey was almost three times higher than those who condemned these protests. However, regarding the Belarusian protests and the protests in support of Navalny, the situation was reversed: there were twice as many respondents expressing a negative attitude towards the protesters as those expressing support for them (see Figure 6). The question is – why?

(As has been repeatedly noted, in the conditions of autocracy and increasing risk of repression, sociological sampling may have a significant bias: people who are critical of the regime but perceive their position as marginal or risky may more often refuse to participate in surveys. Perhaps, in some ideal measurement, there would be a higher number of supporters of Navalny; however, the existing sample remains a fairly representative cross-section of society, reflecting the spectrum of opinions and their dynamics.)

Figure 6. Attitudes towards participants in protests in Khabarovsk, Belarus, and Russia, January–April 2021, % of those surveyed

As seen in Figure 7, the structure of support for protesters across various socio-demographic groups, groups with different sources of information, and political orientations (levels of loyalty) is very similar for all three waves of protests. The grey and red columns (representing the Khabarovsk and 'Navalny' protests, respectively) closely mirror fluctuations in the level of support, but in the case of the Khabarovsk protests, they are on average 26 percentage points higher. The most significant differences across groups (i.e., cases where the difference deviates from the average 26 points) are summarised in Table 4.

Figure 7. Support for protesters in Khabarovsk, Belarus, and in support of Navalny across socio-demographic groups, groups with different sources of information, and political orientations, % of those surveyed

Table 4. Most significant differences in support for participants in Khabarovsk and Navalny protests across different groups.

The differences in information sources turn out to be insignificant; that is, variations in sources lead to synchronous increases or decreases in support in both cases. On the other hand, the unexpectedly strong decline in support for the 'Navalny' protests is noticeable in the 25–39 age group (usually close to the youngest group, 18–24 years old, due to similar information source structures). However, the main difference is noticeable in groups with different political attitudes, i.e., levels of loyalty to the regime. Among loyal groups (those who approve of Putin and believe that things in the country are heading in the right direction), participants in protests in support of Navalny receive the lowest level of support (6–7%), while at least one in four 'loyalists' supported the Khabarovsk protesters (26–27%). Meanwhile, among disloyal groups (those who do not approve of Putin and believe that events are leading the country to a dead end), around 40% supported the Navalny protest’s agenda, while around 70% supportedthe 'Khabarovsk agenda'. In other words, the 'Navalny agenda' did not capture all dissatisfied individuals but only 40% of the most radical among them. On the other hand, at least a quarter of loyal respondents still sympathised with the Khabarovsk protests. In the eyes of those surveyed, the Khabarovsk protests were viewed as more 'legitimate', while the Navalny protest seemed too radical.

Researchers who analysed the mechanisms of protest escalation in connection with the attempt to demolish Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 came to the following understanding of the mechanisms of their escalation. At first, very few people came out to defend the park; however, the police's brutality, the use of force against them, outraged people belonging to various party-ideological groups. In their eyes, the reason for the protest seemed entirely 'innocent', that is, legitimate, and police violence was perceived as unjustified and illegitimate; as a result, different dissatisfied groups showed solidarity in support for the handful of protesters and took to the streets, which probably would not have happened if the initial agenda more closely reflected the 'party' agendas of one of these groups (→ Defne Över, Basak Taraktaş: When Does Repression Trigger Mass Protest?)

Protests and directed police violence against them evoke sympathy from the average citizen (median voter) if their cause, from their point of view, is 'legitimate', innocent within the accepted rules of the game, that is, they seem to be the victim. In this case, police violence is perceived as an attack on the recognised boundaries of society's autonomy, as an infringement of its right to 'legally' express dissatisfaction. Such a shift in causes for violence appears 'illegitimate' to the average citizen and prompts them to express effective sympathy. However, in the 'Navalny case', the situation was interpreted differently by the average citizen (median voter). It appeared as a deliberate radicalisation on Navalny's part, returning 'into the dragon's den’, despite inevitable arrest, and with a film about Putin, at that. Such radicalisation would probably have seemed more legitimate in their eyes if they had 'believed' in the poisoning and held the authorities responsible for it.

It seems that the negative attitude of the 'public' towards the 'Navalny' and Belarusian protests and sympathetic attitude towards the more moderate Khabarovsk protests ('bring back our governor') are linked to the reluctance to take on the risks of direct confrontation with the regime. This motive played a key role both in the 'blocking' the events of the shocking poisoning, evidence of which was presented by an international consortium, and in redirecting responsibility for the 'radicalisation' of the situation to Navalny himself ('he shouldn't have returned'), who found himself in the position of Schwartz's Lancelot, condemned by the city's inhabitants for intending to free them from the dragon.

Thus, it can be said that while protests in support of Navalny were approved by disloyal citizens who were potentially ready for confrontation with the regime (about 15%), the Khabarovsk protests were also approved by those who were disloyal but not ready for direct confrontation (about 20%), as well as some loyal citizens who considered the actions of Khabarovsk residents in defence of their popular governor to be quite legitimate (approximately 20%).

In simpler terms, against the backdrop of the risks of direct confrontation with the regime, it was easier for the average citizen not to believe in the degree of Putin's villainy indicated by the investigation, which would compel them to take to the streets in defence of 'good' and instead to attribute the escalation of the conflict to Navalny's radicalism, as he headed into the dragon's jaws. Neutrality prevailed.

This analysis appears to be directly related to the events of recent days and the question of how the Russian public will perceive the murder of Navalny in the 'Polar Wolf' prison. Typically, after political assassinations, the Kremlin throws several versions of what happened into the public space, emphasising Putin's lack of any acute 'need' to kill the opponent. The cacophony of versions and the conspiratorial cult ('everything is not as it seems') leave a convenient door of disbelief open for the average citizen, which allows them to remain in their comfort zone. At the same time, compared to 2020, Putin's image in the mind of the average citizen has undergone significant evolution. Even against the backdrop of extending his powers through constitutional amendments, he remained in the zone of civil autocracy and systemic (relatively legitimate, in the eyes of the average citizen) corruption. Today, this image has shifted into the zone of danger and deceit, and Navalny's death resonates with the death of Prigozhin, an event of which the authorities did not even bother to present the average citizen with a plausible version.

One way or another, Alexei Navalny was a key figure in the confrontation in Russian politics and society that lasted more than a decade. This confrontation included two waves of protests in 2011–2012 and 2018–2021, coinciding with periods of declining trust in Vladimir Putin and his regime (Figure 9). These waves largely shaped the evolution of the Putin regime over the past decade. In response to each wave, there was not only a tightening of the regime and an increase in its repressiveness but also the organisation of counter-mobilisation under the banners of state nationalism, triggered each time — in 2014 and 2022 — by the attack on Ukraine. Both protest waves suffered defeat, and Alexei Navalny was killed in custody.

Figure 8. Vladimir Putin's trust rating and the dynamics of political confrontation in the 2010s, % of those surveyed

However, the phenomenon of Navalny is not only shaped by his extraordinary qualities as a political leader but, above all, by the combination of expectations and aspirations that he embodied and voluntarily became a hostage to. These expectations, in turn, rely on the social capital of certain post-Soviet generations of Russian citizens. The war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine aims to undermine and destroy this capital.

The history of protest politics — with Alexei Navalny emerging as its central figure and ideologue in Russia — is replete with examples of confrontations that have lasted for decades, sometimes subsiding (after a wave of repression) and then flaring up again. It is enough to recall the confrontation between the workers' and students’ movements and the communist regime in Poland (1970–1990) or, perhaps more relevant to the contemporary Russian context, the confrontation between democratic students and the military-personalist regime in South Korea from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, which concluded with a peaceful transition and the establishment of a relatively stable democratic regime. However, these historical analogies are not, like all analogies, instruments of prediction but merely indicate a spectrum of possible scenarios.