Racist or revolutionary: The complex legacy of Alexei Navalny

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Copyright Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Sudesh Baniya
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Controversy surrounds some of what the Russian opposition leader - currently imprisoned in Moscow - has said in the past.


Alexei Navalny is a many-sided man.

The 45-year-old is a lawyer turned blogger, YouTuber, protest organiser, anti-corruption activist and face of Russia's opposition. 

He is currently in prison in Russia on charges of extremism, which supporters say are politically motivated. 

Speaking in court recently, Navalny added yet another face to his character by urging his fans to campaign against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

What identity is paramount depends on who you ask, explains Jade McGlynn a researcher specialising in Russian politics at King's College London.

For Russian supporters – mostly social media-savvy young people – Navalny is a rare figurehead for anti-establishment feeling.

Many outside Russia came to know him from the Oscar-winning, self-titled documentary based on the events related to his poisoning with a nerve agent in Russia and the subsequent investigation in 2020.

That helped cement Navalny's identity as a powerful opponent of Vladimir Putin and elevated him in the eyes of the West. The Russian president refuses to refer to him by name even to this day, typically calling him "that gentleman". 

'Not a Western liberal democrat'

Yet there is a darker side to him, some say. 

Navalny's 'ideal' image conflicts with his past remarks, McGlynn tells Euronews, pointing to his controversial views on Muslims in the Caucasus, Georgians and Central Asian migrants in Russia.  

"Immigrants from Central Asia bring in drugs [to Russia]," Navalny said in an interview in 2012, defending what he described as a "realist" visa requirement for "wonderful people from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan."

While he has reflected on some of these past remarks, they frequently re-surface, causing some to question if Navalny is what many in the Western world think he is.  

Navalny's controversial statements stem from his political origins in the nationalist movement, according to McGlynn. 

Evgeny Feldman/AP
Thursday, April 27, 2017, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny poses for a photo after unknown attackers doused him with green antiseptic.Evgeny Feldman/AP

"He used to attend the Russian march, a very far-right nationalist group generally behind the slogan of 'Russia for ethnic Russians'. Anybody who expects Navalny to be an ideal Western liberal Democrat has been mistaken," she tells Euronews. 

His ultra-nationalist sentiment was prominent in a video dating back some 17 years filled with xenophobic comments. 

"Everything in our way should be carefully but decisively removed through deportation," Navalny said in the video dressed as a dentist, comparing immigrants to dental cavities. 

Amnesty International stripped the opposition leader of the "prisoner of conscience" status based on this clip. It reversed this decision in 2021, recognising an "individual’s opinions and behaviour may evolve over time” in a statement.   

Kremlin cheerleaders have also sought to discredit Navalny, with Russia's state-owned RT channel publishing a thread by freelance columnist Katya Kazbek that blasted him as an "avowed racist" and accused supporters of "whitewashing" his nationalism.


'Nobody in Georgia cares what he thinks now'

Navalny has apologised in the past. But this has not been good enough for some groups outside Russia, particularly Georgians. 

"The Georgian public felt betrayed by Navalny after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war," says Kornely Kakachia, Political Science Professor at Tbilisi State University. 

"Everyone expected Navalny to be anti-Putin and anti-imperialist, but he supported the invasion." 

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, accusing its neighbour of committing genocide against Russian speakers in the border regions. Others say Russia actually invaded to further its geopolitical interests and assert regional dominance. 

The European Court of Human Rights later penalised Russia in 2023 for human rights abuses, including civilian murders, looting, illegal detention and torture, during the fighting. 


Kakachia says the Georgian public now perceives Navalny as in the same bracket as Putin, largely due to his support for the war and calling Georgias "rodents". 

Navalny's lack of criticism of Russia's imperialistic policy has further bolstered the sentiment and "nobody in Georgia cares what he thinks", according to Kakachia. 

"Georgian national interest is not wanting to be part of any new empire that derives from the old Soviet playbook. Navalny's comments indicate he's not against the regime in that regard," he adds. 

His incendiary comments on immigrants and Georgians re-surfaced when Navalny's daughter, Dasha Navalnaya, was invited to speak at Georgetown University in May 2023. 

Students filed a petition against the speaker selection, calling for a meritocratic appointment and that "being anti-Putin doesn’t imply being a pro-democratic, anti-war, and liberal leader." 


Following the backlash, two new speakers were added by the university to diversify perspectives, refusing to "disinvite" Navalnaya. 

Anti-corruption and the route ahead

Navalny's political ideology, however, doesn't impact his popularity within Russia, since his stance against corruption and oligarchs strikes the chord, McGlynn says.

"Not all Navalny supporters are pro-West. In fact, many of them are very angry, with countries like the UK and the US for facilitating that top-level corruption," she adds. 

Despite the criticisms against him, Navalny's efforts to challenge Putin – an act that almost got him killed - is laudable, according to McGlynn.  

"It was heroic to go back and investigate topics that are completely off limits relating to Putin's wealth and the wealth of the elite," she says.  


Navalny has repeatedly accused Putin and his inner circle of "sucking the blood out of Russia," by developing Russia into a "feudal state." 

Putin, on the other hand, has continuously dismissed Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), terming the movement a "boring pseudo-investigation." 

The future route for Navalny in Russian politics depends on his release at a personal level, but the broader movement is what matters, McGlynn insists. 

"There is definitely a populist streak [behind Navalny]," she says. "That means we are missing some other important actors and the political movement as a whole."

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