Yulia Navalnaya: She was the woman at Kremlin critic Navalny's side - now she wants to take his place

"Actually I shouldn't be here, someone else should actually be sitting here.

Yulia Navalnaya: She was the woman at Kremlin critic Navalny's side - now she wants to take his place

"Actually I shouldn't be here, someone else should actually be sitting here." This is how Julia Navalnaya begins a nine-minute video, which is actually a declaration of war. She means her husband Alexei Navalny. If she wants to follow in his footsteps, she may now have to follow.

Russia's most famous opposition politician died on Friday in a Russian penal colony behind the Arctic Circle. Navalnaya holds the Kremlin chief, Vladimir Putin, personally responsible for this death.

Navalnaya did not want to go into politics herself, she emphasized that again and again. She seems to have reconsidered this decision with the death of her husband. Putin took the most dear and valuable person from her, half of her soul and her heart, Navalnaya says in the video. But she wants to continue his work.

The message is designed in a Navalny style, accompanied by emotional music. Pictures of the family are shown, from happier times when all four were still together. The couple has two children together. In just 24 hours, around five million people saw the video on X alone, formerly Twitter.

The two met on vacation in 1998, married two years later and later had two children. Navalny pursued his path into politics - the economist, who studied economics, mostly looked after the two children, Daria and Zakhar, in the background. The fact that Navalnaya is now seeking her way into politics is in keeping with the tenacity that she has demonstrated time and again.

Navalny was poisoned and imprisoned several times, but she still accompanied him to protest events. Already after Navalny's first arrest in 2013, as the magazine "Politico" reports, she said combatively: "These bastards will never see our tears." She also supported his attempt to run for the 2018 presidential election. It was thanks to her that in 2020 Navalny was able to be flown out of Russia and treated in Germany after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.

When she learned of her husband's death at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, she briefly appeared before the press hours later. The reason: She was sure that Alexei would have done the same thing. With a trembling voice, she demanded before the world that Putin and his government should be held accountable for their treatment of her husband. An appearance that some people later interpret as a set-up, but which fits in with other speeches.

In doing so, she demonstrates a strength that seems to follow the family motto: Don't give up. In the video released on Monday, she says she has no right to give up. Navalny himself used almost the same words in 2021. In the Oscar-winning CNN film "Nawalny" he recorded an appeal to the Russian people - in case he was murdered. “My message is very simple: Don’t give up,” says Navalny. All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for the good to remain inactive: "So don't be passive."

Navalny returned to Russia after his poisoning in January 2021. He was arrested there before passport control at the airport. Afterwards, Navalnaya fought against oblivion - no easy task given the multiple crises since then. She wages this fight by meeting politicians, giving rare interviews, but also through private posts on social networks. Public vows of love between the two are a reminder that the Kremlin critic has a private, human side. In doing so, he consciously presents himself differently than Putin.

“You are a hero,” she writes under shared pictures on Instagram. He, in turn, blames her for the fact that he got well again after the Novichok poisoning. “Julia, you saved me,” he wrote on Instagram after his recovery. His last post on Valentine's Day is also a declaration of love to his wife.

The two had a kind of “telepathic connection,” is how a US employee from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation describes the couple’s relationship. "They didn't even have to talk to each other sometimes, they thought alike," Anna Veduta told Politico. Navalnaya shares the opposition's political attitudes and has had a decisive influence on them.

What Navalny personally stood for probably depends on the period of time being considered. Some classified him as a nationalist because he had taken part in Russian marches on a number of occasions where right-wing extremists were also present. He never publicly distanced himself from this. However, he began his political career in the 2000s with the liberal Yabloko party. In the past ten years he has focused primarily on the issue of corruption. In doing so, he temporarily mobilized masses in Russia.

But Alexei Navalny's public criticism of Putin had an impact on family life. The family was followed, the couple told a Russian journalist in 2021, bank accounts were frozen and raids were carried out on their home. According to the research network "Bellingcat", Navalnaya herself once showed symptoms of poisoning. But she doesn't seem to allow herself to retreat. In the same interview she says: "If I collapse, everyone will collapse."

Sometimes courage isn't enough. According to Russian authorities, Alexei Navalny is said to have collapsed while walking in the courtyard on Friday. Attempts at resuscitation that were apparently made were said to be futile. During the three years in prison, Navalny's team had repeatedly accused the authorities of torture, deprivation of food and cruelty. Unlike her husband, Yulia Navalnaya is not in Russia - and therefore not in the hands of the Kremlin.

Sources:  Instagram Julia Navalnaya, “CNN”, “Politico”, YouTube, Bellingcat, “Spiegel”, with information from news agencies