Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 16 February 2024


Alexei Navalny’s wife and two children learned of his death from afar

Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny's widow, attends the Munich Security Conference on Friday. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool/Reuters)
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As Telegram exploded with the news of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death, his wife, Yuliya Navalnaya was in Germany — about to attend the annual Munich Security Conference surrounded by world leaders and defense officials, and within view of countless television cameras.

Navalnaya has generally sought to avoid the spotlight, to shield her two children from the fallout of her husband’s political work and to deny his tormentors in the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin, the satisfaction of ever seeing her cry. But as she took to the stage and delivered a dramatic, surprise statement, grief and worry were etched across her swollen face, and her eyes were tearful and blotchy.

She said she was not certain if the reports of her husband’s death were true. But, her voice trembling with fury, she said: “I want Putin, his entourage, Putin’s friends and his government to know they will pay for what they have done to our country, to our family and my husband. And that day will come very soon.”

She noted that Navalny — who had spoken out forcefully against Russia’s war in Ukraine and called for reparations to be paid from Russia’s oil and gas revenue — would have wanted to be in Munich, were he in her place.

“He would be on this stage,” Navalnaya said, adding, “I want to call the world, everyone who is in this room, people around the world, to together defeat this evil. Defeat this horrible regime in Russia.”

Navalnaya said she was torn about whether to remain in Munich or fly immediately to her children. The couple had a 23-year-old daughter, Daria, and a teenage son, Zakhar.

Navalny with his family in 2019. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

In August 2020, Navalnaya left them home still asleep as she raced for a flight to Siberia where her husband was in a coma, having fallen mysteriously ill while on a flight back to Moscow. Navalny had been poisoned with a banned nerve agent, and Navalnaya later appealed personally to Putin to allow her husband to be flown to Germany for treatment.

Navalnaya has generally shied away from attention, declining most media interviews and rarely speaking in public — though she has made notable exceptions, such as her speech accepting the Academy Award for best documentary in 2023 for the film about the poisoning attack on her husband and the investigation into the Russian assassins responsible for it. Daria and Zakhar joined her onstage in Los Angeles.

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Despite her reluctance to be a focus of attention, Navalnaya has been a crucial partner to her husband throughout his career, often appearing with him at protests and in courtrooms as he faced numerous prosecutions in cases widely viewed as political retribution, and occasionally doing joint interviews with him. She has also made countless trips to visit him in prisons.

In 2013, she told an interviewer that she could envision her husband as president of Russia but not herself as first lady. “I want him as president because I want a person who has overcome so much,” she said. “I think he deserves it. Sharing his convictions, I imagine him as president.”

“Myself, I don’t really imagine as first lady,” she added. “I imagine myself as his wife, no matter what he is.”

Navalnaya, 47, met her husband, who was the same age, while they were both on vacation with friends at a resort in Turkey, a classic post-Soviet romance. Their relationship became a source of fascination and admiration for supporters.

Over the years, she has worked to give her children a normal upbringing even as their father was the subject of relentless attacks, including two different assaults with brilliant green dye. One of those attacks, in 2017, damaged one of his eyes and required surgery.

Daria, a student at Stanford University, has slowly molded herself into an activist like her father and occasionally has stood in for him at public events.

This included accepting the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on his behalf from the European Parliament in December 2021. She delivered a blistering speech in which she accused Western politicians of being too timid in confronting Putin and his authoritarianism. She accused them of pragmatism, using the word as if it were a slur.

“I don’t understand why those who advocate for pragmatic relations with dictators can’t simply open the history books,” she said. “It’s very easy to understand the inescapable political law: the pacification of dictators and tyrants never works.”

Last year, Daria gave a TED Talk during which she described her own resilience amid her father’s continuing imprisonment.

“I miss him every single day,” she said. “I’m scared that my father won’t be able to come to my graduation ceremony or walk me down the aisle at my wedding. But if being my father’s daughter has taught me anything, it is to never succumb to fear and sadness.”

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