Alexei Navalny's widow Yulia faces a tough challenge in Russia

  • By Sarah Rainsford
  • Eastern Europe Correspondent

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WATCH: 'Putin killed Alexei', says Navalny's widow

Over the years, Yulia Navalnaya has been a constant presence at her husband's side. She often holds his hand at political protests and court hearings.

In 2020, when Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent, it was Yulia who allowed him to be flown abroad for life-saving treatment.

Now he died alone and far away from her in an arctic prison.

He blames Russian President Vladimir Putin and calls on Russians to stand with him now in fighting him.

Yulia Navalnaya's video statement posted online on Monday was a deliberate and dramatic step to garner political attention. Her love for her husband is so strong, her grief is still raw, and the record is painful to watch in parts.

But it is very stressful.

Navalny's widow describes herself as torn in two and her heart broken. But it is her anger that drives her to pursue her husband's cause.

She says she wants to realize his “beautiful Russia of the future” so his “unthinkable” death will not be in vain.

For some Russians opposed to Mr Putin, now more pessimistic, the speech would have been encouraging.

Until this moment, Yulia Navalnaya was reserved and distant. But the video reveals that she is a woman of immense inner strength.

Her loss – and her love – gives her a clear moral authority and she is engaging.

Strong women

There is also precedent for strong women stepping up for absent men.

This happened most notably in neighboring Belarus, where dictator Alexander Lukashenko belittled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, allowing her to register for the 2020 presidential campaign when her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested.

That sexism nearly cost Mr Lukashenko his longest hold on power. As she announced a landslide victory, Ms Tikanovskaya drew huge crowds into the streets shouting about a rigged vote.

She was forced to flee abroad after a warning from the KGB and now acts as a “president” in exile.

Evgenia Kara-Murza is a global director.

When her husband was poisoned in Moscow in 2015 and 2017, Evgenia fought to stay by his side in hospital, protecting him “like a dog”.

At the time, Vladimir Kara-Murza campaigned for Western leaders to tighten sanctions on Mr Putin's people.

Later in 2022, he was arrested and convicted of treason for denouncing Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Evgenia now spends most of her time continuing her husband's campaign for sanctions – as well as for his freedom – in Western capitals.

Yulia Navalnaya may take on a similar role.

He has already addressed EU foreign ministers, who issued a statement of “outrage” over Navalny's death. They declared that “ultimate responsibility” lay with Mr Putin and promised as yet unspecified “further costs”.

But it is difficult to see leading opposition forces within Russia.

image source, Good pictures

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Alexei Navalny (center) and Yulia (right) at a march in memory of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 29, 2020.

Yulia Navalnaya is abroad for a start. It was too dangerous for her to return to Moscow as an activist, as she was accused of having Putin kill her husband.

Within Russia, Navalny's political organization is banned as “extremist” on a par with the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda.

In April 2021, Navalny's group called for a protest, which they declared the “final battle” before the organization was banned. The reason was strong. There was heavy police presence.

But the number of protestors was few. Since then, pressure on all protests has intensified.

Navalny's supporters are either in prison or in exile to avoid arrest.

Vladimir Putin has systematically crushed all opposition to power over the past two decades.

Navalnaya doesn't have much to lead.

A hopeless monument

Flowers piled up at Navalny's memorials across Russia show that many people want change.

Every time the tributes are removed by men in black hoods, people bring more flowers. It is an act of quiet and peaceful protest.

These Russians, Navalny's widow, called on the Putin regime to “punch hard” with its video.

But their fear and sense of powerlessness is felt very strongly.

After all, it was Alexei Navalny who hit the hardest in his life, and for which he paid a heavy price.

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