MOSCOW—Alexei Navalny had just gotten out of jail, again, when he sat down with The Daily Beast for an exclusive interview.
Giant crowds join his anti-Putin rallies in cities all over Russia, but you won’t see his face on state television. Millions watch his YouTube investigative reports that expose the shocking corruption of high-profile Russian officials, but you won’t hear President Vladimir Putin pronounce his name publicly. Until recently, the Kremlin’s strategy was to jail Navalny periodically while ignoring his existence in public statements.
That changed radically in September when Putin’s former bodyguard, General Victor Zolotov, threatened to beat up the country’s most prominent opposition leader. In a strange video posted online, using language so macho it seemed ludicrous, Zolotov told Navalny: "I promise to turn you into a juicy pounded steak in a few minutes."
Navalny had investigated corruption in the National Guard, a law enforcement agency Zolotov commands—hence the general’s ire. He said he’d punch Navalny, he’d pound him, he’d spank him! And then, via YouTube, he challenged Navalny to a duel.
Now, in Russia, where the assassination season never ends, such a call from Putin’s longtime friend, a commander of more than 340,000 National Guard troops, sounds like a call for violence. In February 2015 Navalny’s friend and political ally Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow. One of the convicted assassins, Zaur Dadayev, was a deputy commander of internal forces, now called National Guards.
"A couple hundred of Putin’s buddies hate me with their guts for exposing their corrupt business deals and property,” he said. Some consider him “a traitor” for not embracing the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. “But Zolotov was the first one to show physical aggression like that,” Navalny said. “Putin and Zolotov must have agreed that I have become too brazen, that it was time to show me my place."
The 42-year-old lawyer and former Yale University fellow is a deft analyst of the Kremlin, and the dark promises of the men in power amused him. "They seriously thought that I would get scared," he said.
Although Navalny speaks as if he were a presidential candidate, he was barred from running against Putin earlier this year, and the next elections aren’t until 2024. That doesn’t prevent him from campaigning. But unlike most Russian politicians, stiff in their navy blue suits, when we met he was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and jeans.
He seemed safe here at his Anti-Corruption Foundation office, in a shiny modern office building surrounded by his young, thoughtful team.
If the conversation between Putin and Zolotov actually occurred, the two miscalculated the public effect. The threat boosted Navalny’s popularity. Even those who never paid attention before were now googling him, curious to know who is this man so hated by the general.
Russian culture is full of stories about noblemen killing one another in duels. Every school kid knows the strict rules: the weapons should be matching, and agreed on in advance. That was the case with the great Russian poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, both of whom died in duels defending their honor. They turned into legends almost two centuries ago.
But that is hardly the case for a 21st century general supported by a powerful army and administrative resources while the man he challenged to the duel was in jail, under arrest for protesting against Putin.
It did not take long for bloggers to mock Zolotov. A rock musician, Garik Sukachev, speaking on TV Rain, compared him to a bandit from the 1990s and what have become known as “the criminal wars” among the thugs vying for massive shares of the Russian economy.
Humiliations rained on the general's gigantic epaulettes. Navalny’s wife, Yulia, posted a selfie on Instagram with their two children and said: "I despise him for being a thief and a coward."
When Navalny got out of jail he posted a sharp-edged video flatly accusing Zolotov himself of shocking corruption. As in many of his investigative reports, Navalny presented video to support his claim that Zolotov and his family members had immense investments in country homes outside Moscow. Navalny said he was ready for the duel, but instead of a physical fight, offered the general a chance to defend his honor in public debates on state TV. Zolotov rejected the challenge. As another opposition politician, Ksenia Sobchak put it, Navalny publicly "slapped Zolotov on both cheeks."
But what solace is that? “If they decide to rub me out, nobody will be able to save me,” says Navalny. That was the case with Nemtsov, who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin wall.
“I respect Navalny for his courage, as today any nationalist — or even a pro-western assassin — can kill him for this or that political agenda,” pro-Kremlin ideologist Sergey Markov told The Daily Beast. “If he wants to prove his patriotism, he has to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, otherwise he is a betrayer of Russia, working for American special services.”
Navalny knows the risks he’s taking. At a demonstration in May 2011 I saw two policemen grab him as soon as he picked up a megaphone. More police came on the scene, flanking him so no supporters could come to his rescue. One of the police kept twisting his arm until his wrist broke. But he kept shouting to his supporters, "Do not leave the square!"
Today, Navalny does not have bodyguards, but they and he took the subway to the interview and on the way several people asked to take selfies with him, which was his “biggest reward,” he said.
"Navalny demonstrates pure courage,” says journalist Tanya Felgenhauer, the victim of an assault herself. “He is not afraid of taking responsibility, he always comes out to face the crowd alone, all over the country, while Putin comes out to well-prepared and guarded crowds."
In Navalny’s shoes, most anybody would have given up, escaped abroad to operate from exile. Nearly every day Navalny’s supporters face persecution. Police search their homes, officers confiscate electronic devices, make them pay huge fines. In late October Russia’s only opposition magazine, The New Times, faced a $340,000 fine and closure after its editor-in-chief, Yevgenia Albats, interviewed Navalny about Zolotov on Echo of Moscow radio.
“The decision was made in a day, as if the call came from the very top of the Kremlin,” Albats told The Daily Beast. Navalny and his foundation are planning to support the magazine, although the Kremlin often blocked their fundraising projects.
In his YouTube letter Zolotov wonders where people like Navalny come from and with what goal in mind. The general answers his own rhetorical question: “You are all products of the same American test-tube, you are all clones, puppets.”
In fact, Navalny, who is 24 years younger than Zolotov but grew up in military towns, was—the same as Zolotov—a product of the Soviet Union.
He remembers drunken military men hanging out in the streets, and random images of petty corruption come back to him: a parked BMW with a local thug inside. “I remember his feet in white socks sticking out of the window.” Navalny dreamed of becoming a cop raiding mafia joints.
“I suffered a lot from not having the choices that kids had in big cities; our games might sound shocking: we made friends with soldiers, exchanged some pins for bullets,” Navalny remembered.
Today he would never want his two children to spend their childhood in a place where "a kid’s biggest dream was chewing gum."
Modern Russia and the Soviet Union grew from the same soil, he said. “This evil is called hypocrisy—as a kid I realized that if the Soviet Union could not even provide me with chewing gum, there was something wrong.” Once a teacher told him that foreigners hid razor blades in chewing gum given to Soviet children.
In the USSR, he said, “On the one hand you were surrounded with military men whose actions were limited by the ideology, on the other hand you saw the same men bow down before everything foreign made—nothing has changed.”
As somebody who grew up with a father in the military, Navalny easily finds common language with soldiers. “Rosgardia officers I speak with are on my side,” he told us. “Zolotov’s wealth makes them hate their commander. Besides, I don’t think that many men in the system liked Zolotov’s bullying.”
Weeks pass, but none of Zolotov’s supporters stepped forward to speak in his defense, so far. “I believe that most of his 340,000 national guards laugh at the way he addressed me,” Navalny said. “When it comes to obeying commands, they will carry out some against me, of course.”
He could not remember how many times police grabbed him at rallies, how many days and nights he has spent in jail.
Whenever he is out of jail, Navalny is unstoppable, publishing reports about “The Life of Tsars at State Corporations” or introducing Russians to the palaces that Putin’s cronies have abroad: Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov’s palace in London: a dacha right on the border with Finland that belongs to Gen. Nikolai Kozik, deputy head of the State Security Service (FSB). Navalny links Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika to mobsters who carried out a notorious massacre.
"Our country is absolutely ready for liberation, for becoming a normal European state, a parliamentary republic,” said Navalny. “We should just put the key criminals on trial and the rest of the system will fall in line with the new government."