Home » How Yulia Navalnaya could become Putin’s greatest critic

How Yulia Navalnaya could become Putin’s greatest critic

“Yulia is the rock on which Alexei stands,” Vladimir Ashurkov, one of Navalny’s closest aides, said at the time of his final arrest in 2021. “She’s got his back.” According to Yevgenia Albats, an old friend and political ally, “Navalny the politician is two people: Yulia and Alexei.” 

I saw the couple together on several occasions in Moscow. At a massive protest against Putin’s return to power on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt in December 2011 – probably the high water mark of open opposition to the regime – Navalny delivered a blistering speech to the 80,000 strong crowd denouncing Putin and his “party of thieves and crooks”. Wild applause kept interrupting him. After he came off stage he high-fived Yulia, who hugged him. Both were, understandably, beaming – in that moment it seemed that Russian history might be taking a different turn, led by Navalny’s vision of a democracy and justice. 

A few months later, after hundreds of protesters at subsequent meetings had been arrested and dozens of heads broken by baton-wielding OMON paramilitary police, I went to a private dinner with the Navalnys at the home of a journalist friend. Navalny continued to insist that his dream had not died, and instead spoke animatedly of his plans to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral elections. His enthusiasm, dismissing doubts that the authorities would allow him to run, was infectious. “Iron-clad optimism,” was Yulia’s wry comment. “You’ll never persuade him it’s time to give up.” Her manner was charming but guarded, her intelligence and protectiveness towards her husband evident. But Yulia could be spiky, too. When conversation turned to a formerly opposition-minded journalist, who had joined the State-owned propaganda channel Russia Today, she was uncompromising in her condemnation. “He takes the Kremlin’s money,” she said. “What more is there to say?”

The Navalnys met on holiday in Turkey in 1998 when Alexei was a young real estate lawyer from a military family in the Moscow region who was just becoming involved in opposition politics. Both were 22 (Yulia is six weeks older than Alexei). Yulia also came from a middle-class Moscow family. Her father Boris Abrosimov was a scientist, her stepfather a mid-level apparatchik in the USSR State Planning Committee. She studied International Economic Relations at Moscow’s prestigious Plekhanov Economic Academy, did a masters degree and worked at a bank. “He immediately felt that I would be his wife,” Yulia said in one of her rare interviews, with the Russian edition of Harper’s Bazaar. They were married in 2000, and the following year Yulia quit her job to raise their first child Daria. Their son Zahar was born in 2008. 

From the beginning of her husband’s political career, Yulia was always a hands-on partner in his political activity. For years, she acted as Alexei’s press secretary and gatekeeper, editing his articles and speeches. Yet in public she always insisted that she saw her main role as a homemaker. “My main task is to make sure that, in spite of everything, nothing in our family changes,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “So that the children can remain children, and the house a home.” 

Navalny’s family life became part of his political brand. In contrast to Putin, who divorced his wife Lyudmila in 2013 and who was widely rumoured to be in a relationship with gymnast Alina Kabaeva, Navalny was happily married and frequently posted informal selfie photographs of himself and Yulia on social media. Putin, Tsar-like, sought to project himself as the embodiment of the power of the State. Navalny and Yulia were an ordinary, middle-class, loving couple.