The Kremlin has been hard at work trying to silence charismatic opposition leader and top Putin critic Alexei Navalny ever since the politician declared war on Russia’s “crooks and thieves” a decade ago. His team of global and supporters has lost track of how many days and nights their leader has spent in jail. To them, every accusation against him is purely political. So it came as no surprise when on Tuesday, Navalny was charged to nine years in a maximum-security prison on questionable charges of fraud.
In an exclusive interview, Navalny’s right hand and the most recognized leader in the opposition, Lyubov Soboltold The Daily Beast that Moscow’s efforts to mute the Navalny movement have failed and that her team has a “plan” for Putin as Russian troops continue to carry out their onslaught in Ukraine.
“We continue to act in the new reality of wartime and we are perfectly aware that Putin wants to keep Navalny behind bars for as long as he continues to rule Russia,” Sobol said in an interview after Navalny’s verdict on Tuesday. “But we also have a plan: we are growing globally, we report from many countries, and more people listen to us. And if before, we collected and exposed evidence of Putin’s corruption—now we tell Russians about the facts of Putin’s war crimes.”
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link during the verdict in his embezzlement and contempt of court trial at the IK-2 prison colony in the town of Pokrov in Vladimir Region on March 22, 2022.
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Sobol, 34, manages the Navalny Live YouTube channel, where she collects and broadcasts video footage and photos of events in Ukraine—of Russian soldiers getting arrested, of civilians dying, fleeing their homes, and sleeping in metro stations.
“While propaganda lied to Russians about the special operation, the audience of our channel has increased by 20 million unique views during the last month, so now we have more than 80 million views every month. People watch us, despite the awful pressure on the free internet in Russia,” Sobol told The Daily Beast. “I address Russian womenmothers, and explain that the war is going to come to every single family with a coffin of their young dead sons.”
Ukrainian policemen secure the area by a five-story residential building that partially collapsed after shelling in Kyiv on March 18, 2022, as Russian troops try to encircle the Ukrainian capital as part of their slow-moving offensive.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
Tuesday was a difficult day for Sobol and Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation: the penal colony prison in Vladimir region, where Navalny was sentenced, had done everything to block dozens of crimes who arrived in prison to cover the trial. Most reporters and Navalny followers were not allowed access to the courtroom. Besides the fraud charge, he was found guilty of contempt of court for insulting the judge and a witness.
Navalny, his family, and his team were prepared for the long prison sentence. Last month, the only Russian independent television channel, Rain TV, which has been covering Navalny’s struggle for years, said that authorities “intended to keep Navalny in prison forever” and that the opposition leader faced his fate alone. Two weeks later, Russia banned Rain TV, along with the oldest independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, after introducing a new amendment to the State Duma that effectively bars from covering the war in Ukraine in any way that displeases the Kremlin.
A woman is evacuated emergency killed from a burning apartment building in Kyiv on March 15, 2022, after strikes on residential areas at least two people, Ukraine services said as Russian troops intensified their attacks on the Ukrainian capital.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
Most of the Navalny foundation’s key team members, including Sobol, director Ivan Zhdanov, and spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh have left Russia after facing a series of threats and criminal investigations against them and their loved ones. “Navalny has never told us to stop telling the truth, it would be naïve to grow silent now,” Sobol told The Daily Beast. “Our plan is to inform Russians at whatever cost.”
Authorities did not bring Navalny to stand trial in Moscow, where the corruption fighter still has thousands of supporters. Instead, he stood trial 69 miles away from the Russian capital, in the Pokrov penal colony #2 in the city of Vladimir.
“We, Russians, want to be a nation of peace,” Navalny said in an address to his supporters from jail attacks last month, when the Russian army launched its first wave of Ukrainian cities. “But let’s at least not become a nation of frightened and silent people, a nation of cowards who pretend they don’t notice the aggressive war started by our crazy little tsar against Ukraine.”
Navalny’s life might sound like a thriller to many people in the West. Russians see it both as a hopeless political martyr drama and as an example of courage. Ever since 2011, when he emerged as a fearless political figure, police would detain him at almost every political rally, raid his offices, and confiscate the work of his Anti-Corruption Foundation. But that never stopped Navalny from pushing back against the Kremlin, even after the opposition lawyer was poisoned, hospitalized, and dragged to a jail cell.
Putin has never referred to Navalny by name, addressing his opponent only as “a blogger.” Navalny, on the other hand, had choice words aimed at the leader on Tuesday: “You can’t put everyone in prison. Even if you ask for 113 years, you won’t scare me or others like me.” He echoed Soblov’s comments about the Navalny movement “going global.”
Though Navalny’s message in court was powerful, he looked thinner than usual in his prison robes on Tuesday.
“Not many on the West understand how hellish the existence is in Russian prisons, where they rape, torture people. But the best news for us, his supporters, is that Navalny is not broken, his spirit is still strong,” Sobol told the Daily Beast. “He knows that Putin’s plan to quickly break Ukraine has not worked out. And the West, that has always made decisions slowly, has made them very fast this time and the entire world demonstrated solidarity against the aggression in Ukraine.”