October 27, 2023 at 2:00 a.m. EDT
And yet Alexey Navalny is widely distrusted, if not despised, in Ukraine.
For Navalny, like millions of other Russians with Ukrainian roots, Putin’s war has been a blood-soaked tragedy. It has also put him in political quandary — compelled to change and clarify earlier statements that appeared to deny Ukrainian nationhood as he espoused the idea that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all one people, and that Crimea, annexed by Putin, was an integral part of Russia wrongfully given to Ukraine by a Soviet leader.
“Of course, it would be great if now we lived in one country with Ukraine and Belarus, but I think that sooner or later it will happen anyway,” Navalny said in 2011, expressing sentiments that could just as easily have passed Putin’s lips.
The remark encapsulates Navalny’s long and contradictory history with Ukraine, which has been a volatile issue in his Russian political career. A new review of his evolving positions also shows why it will be excruciatingly difficult to achieve any reconciliation between the warring neighbors. Many Ukrainians believe they are fighting not only Putin but an aggressive, imperialist mindset rooted deeply in the Russian population — even Russians like Navalny who want freedom and democracy.
Navalny denies such a mindset exists. But he has struggled to reconcile his views while trying to forge a role as a genuine alternative to Putin. “I myself am half Russian, half Ukrainian,” Navalny once said, swatting back an assertion that he harbored ethnic prejudices. “And I do not want to feel a bit like a second-class person.”
As much as he is trapped in prison, Navalny is trapped in his identities. He is horrified on a deeply personal level by a war in the country where he spent his summers as a child with his grandparents. He is also struggling to stake out positions that do not alienate him from the Russian voters he hopes will one day choose him as Russian president — an increasingly unlikely ambition as his health falters in the brutal prison colony where he is serving a 30-year sentence. Currently, he has a release date of 2051, the year he will turn 75.
Navalny was born in Solnechnogorsk, northwest of Moscow, and his mother is Russian. His father was born in Ukraine, in a village, Zalissia, just 15 miles from the future site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The town was abandoned after the nuclear disaster in 1986, and its residents, including Navalny’s grandparents, uncles and other relatives, had to relocate.
Until he was eight years old, Navalny spent virtually every summer in Zalissia, where his grandparents worked on the local kolkhoz, or collective farm. He would live for those months in their white cement house, with green-and-white wooden shutters, on October Street — surrounded by other children, swimming in the Uzh River, fishing, picking cherries, eating poppy-seed pies and the crescent-shaped Ukrainian dumplings called vareniky.
“My most vivid childhood memory is the Uzh River, which flows into the Pripyat — a high precipice and swallows’ nests,” Navalny once told Russian Esquire magazine. “I keep trying to get this swallow, I stick my hand in there, but I can’t get it.”
In Ukraine, Navalny’s grandmother took him in secret to be baptized in the Orthodox Church. “When I was three years old, my grandmother took me to be baptized among relatives in Ukraine, secretly from my father, because he was a Communist. They were afraid that he would be expelled from the Communist Party,” Navalny told an interviewer.
Relatives recalled young Alexey as a friendly kid who blended in easily and, by the end of each summer, conversed easily in the local Ukrainian dialect, which had some Belarusian mixed in.
But Navalny’s connections to Ukraine and the Chernobyl disaster are not merely a matter of boyhood memories and ancestral ties. They also cemented some of his defining personal and political beliefs. One of those convictions was that the Soviet Union was a debacle. Its leaders and authorities were alternatively cruel and inept and — even more infuriating to Navalny — a bunch of greedy, hypocritical liars.
That, too, is how he views Putin and today’s Kremlin power structure, which he denounces from prison as bloodthirsty and despotic.
Navalny has long expressed admiration for Ukrainians’ willingness to take to the streets to demand democracy, as they did during the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 and the Maidan Revolution in 2013-14. Navalny has often lamented that Russians never mustered a sustained uprising against Putin’s dictatorial rule.
In February 2014, Navalny was under house arrest, confined to his apartment in Moscow, when the Maidan Revolution reached its bloody climax. He was prohibited from using the internet. But he was following the news and, with his wife posting on the LiveJournal blog site on his behalf, Navalny voiced unequivocal solidarity with the protesters camped out in the Ukrainian capital, demanding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych who quickly fled to Russia.
“The mafia power of Yanukovych fell precisely because in Kyiv there were a sufficient number of people who were ready to patiently stand on the street in the cold for as long as necessary,” he wrote. “Without fear of arrests and detentions, they will not detain everyone. Whether such people will be found in Moscow is a question that only we ourselves can answer.”
On Feb. 22, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Putin’s soldiers quickly arrived in Crimea, and 10 days later, after the Russian parliament authorized the use of military force in Ukraine, Navalny’s political party, the Party of Progress, posted a statement calling on Putin to stop any military activity.
“Military aggression will lead to the violation of international treaties, the destruction of relations with Western countries, and to the international isolation of the country,” the party said “It’s not too late to stop this adventure.”
Putin, of course, did not stop.
Navalny, from house arrest, issued a long statement on political revolution and why Putin could not accept a democracy movement on Russia’s doorstep.
“The people have the right to revolt in conditions when other political methods of struggle have been exhausted,” Navalny added.
Navalny asserted that Putin could not tolerate the images of ordinary Ukrainians walking through Yanukovych’s abandoned and opulent residence, with its private zoo and a golden toilet — the type of extravagance that Navalny’s investigators alleged had been installed for Putin in his own palaces.
“We all understand that Putin is going to be president of Russia for life with the rights and lifestyle of an emperor sovereign,” Navalny wrote. “An uprising against a fellow thief-emperor in a neighboring country is a threat, a challenge, and a terrible example.”
But in his post, Navalny also repeated his long-held belief in a fraternal bond among Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians.
“You can call me a Slavic chauvinist, but I believe that Russia’s most important strategic advantage in this raging world is not oil, gas, or nuclear bombs, but friendly (and even fraternal, whatever) relations between Russians and Ukrainians and Belarusians,” he wrote. He described spending a week in jail with a Belarusian, an Azerbaijani, and an Uzbek — all “good guys”— but Navalny said he felt instant “unity and common cultural codes” with a Belarusian or Ukrainian.
“It’s just immediately clear: They are the same as me. I understand that this is a rather politically incorrect idea.”
He also voiced deep unhappiness that Crimea ever become part of Ukraine. “Crimea was handed over by the illegal voluntaristic decision of the tyrant Khrushchev,” he wrote, referring to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. But he also said that he opposed absorbing Crimea into Russia — a point that many Ukrainians who now disdain Navalny forget or choose to overlook.
“International agreements and Russia’s word must be worth something,” Navalny wrote.
During a radio interview in October 2014, Navalny offered a blunt but controversial update to his position, which set off a storm among Ukrainians.
“Is Crimea ours?” the head of the Ekho Moskvy station, Alexey Venediktov, asked Navalny.
“Crimea belongs to the people who live in Crimea,” Navalny replied.
“You will not escape answering. Is Crimea ours? Is Crimea Russian?”
“Crimea, of course, now de facto belongs to Russia,” Navalny said. “I believe that, despite the fact that Crimea was seized in blatant violation of all international norms, nevertheless, the reality is that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation. And let’s not fool ourselves. And I strongly advise Ukrainians not to deceive themselves either. It will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future.”
Venediktov pressed on, asking if Navalny would return Crimea if he ever became president.
“Is Crimea a bologna sandwich, or something, to be passed back and forth? I don’t think so,” Navalny said.
He was then asked if Russians and Ukrainians were the same people. “My opinion, as a person who spent a lot of time in Ukraine, with relatives, etc.,” he said. “I don’t see any difference between Russians and Ukrainians at all.” He understood the ramifications, adding: “I think that such a point of view will cause some kind of monstrous indignation in Ukraine.”
Indeed, Ukrainians have accused Navalny of embracing Putin’s concept of Russkiy Mir — a Russian world. “Being anti-Putin doesn’t negate Navalny’s imperialist and chauvinist views,” the Ukrainian journalist Ostap Yarysh wrote.
“Navalny doesn’t see ‘Russkiy Mir’ as anything bad. On the contrary he criticized Putin for ruining it. He didn’t blame Putin for trying to subjugate other nations and erase their cultural identity but for undermining Russia’s authority and influence.”
After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there was no longer room for any nuance — at least as far as millions of Ukrainians were concerned.
By then, Navalny was in a prison colony, and he continued to draw parallels to his situation and the persecution of Ukrainians.
In April 2022, after the liberation of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where Russian forces allegedly committed atrocities, Navalny noted that even in Ukraine, there were signs of the Kremlin’s animosity toward him.
“A passport with the surname Navalny lies next to the dead body on the ground,” he wrote in a statement posted on social media.
“This is one of the people killed in the Ukrainian village of Bucha. Ilya Ivanovich Navalny. Everything indicates that they killed him because of his last name,” he added. “I don’t know if he is related to me. He is from the same village as my father.”
In February, just before the anniversary of the invasion, Navalny posted a restatement of his opposition to the war and called — unequivocally — for respecting Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders as defined in 1991, including Crimea.
He did not mention the illegally annexed peninsula by name, but he also did not repeat his “bologna sandwich” remark about Crimea not being returned.
“What are Ukraine’s borders? They are the same as Russia’s — Internationally recognized and defined in 1991,” Navalny wrote. “Russia also recognized these borders back then, and it must recognize them today as well. There is nothing to discuss here.”
In his post, which he called “15 points from a Russian citizen who wishes the best for his country,” Navalny called for the withdrawal of Russia’s troops, for the investigation of war crimes and for Ukraine to be compensated using Russia’s oil and gas revenue.
Navalny reiterated his previous call for the reformation of Russia’s government as a parliamentary republic. And he pushed back on the view, increasingly prevalent in Ukraine, that all Russians want to subjugate neighboring countries.
“Are all Russians inherently imperialistic?” Navalny asked. “This is bulls—. For example, Belarus is also involved in the war against Ukraine. Does this mean that the Belarusians also have an imperial mind-set? No, they merely also have a dictator in power.”
“There will always be people with imperial views in Russia, just like in any other country with historical preconditions for this, but they are far from the majority,” he continued. “Such people should be defeated in elections, just as both right-wing and left-wing radicals get defeated in developed countries.”
Navalny, while blaming Putin, argued that most Russian people do not support the war — a point contradicted by public polls.
“The real reasons for this war are the political and economic problems within Russia, Putin’s desire to hold on to power at any cost,” Navalny wrote. “He wants to go down in history as ‘the conqueror czar’ and ‘the collector of lands.’”
Navalny reiterated the need to compensate Ukraine. “This would be ethically correct,” he wrote.
While such comments are applauded in the West, it is hard to imagine average Russians endorsing the idea of compensating Ukraine.
He concluded: “Recognizing our history and traditions, we must be part of Europe and follow the European path of development. We have no other choice, nor do we need any.”