Transcribe your podcast

From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. Last week, the Russian authorities announced that Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia's opposition movement, had died in prison at the age of 47. Navalny was Vladimir Putin's most audacious and relentless critic. His fight against corruption resonated far beyond liberal Moscow. And his central message to Russians, Do not be afraid because our fear is their power. That was how Navalny lived his life, thumbing his nose at Putin's regime in the face of poisoning, prison, and ultimately death. Today, his friend, Yevgeny Albats, on how Alexey Navalny became such a singular political force and what it means for his country that he's gone. It's Thursday, February 22nd.


Can you hear me?


I can. Can you hear me? Good.


Yes. What's up lately? How are you doing?


I'm okay. I'm okay. How are you doing?


I don't know how to answer this question to be honest with you.


After the death of Alexey Navalny, I called Yuvgenya Albats, who goes by Xenya. She's a Russian journalist and academic. She studies political science. She knew and worked with Nadia Navalny for decades. She now lives in exile in the United States.


I'm divided between two languages. I constantly think in English and in Russian, and I also listen to podcasts and YouTube shows in Russian and in English. I think I live more inside Russia than I live inside the United States, except when you have your primers. Then I'm in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and I'm waiting for this Super Tuesday.


Zine, tell me about the first time you met Alexey Navalny. Remember back for me, where were you at that moment?


I was in Moscow. It It was 2004. I started teaching at university as a professor of political science. I thought that I was done with journalism, so I decided to collect the group of young politicians, democratically ramped young politicians, and try to teach them grasswork politics. And so they started coming to my house in Moscow on Lesnay Street each Tuesday. There were some 20 young people. I was cooking the Modena, chicken and potatoes. And we were sitting around the table and We were discussing, what can we do?


The people who showed up to Zhenya's apartment, many of them have since gone into exile or been jailed in Russia. But back in those days, they all came to talk about politics and figure out how do grassroots organizing in Russia, a country that had very little experience with that.


Well, it started preparing credits, protest credits.


One of the people who walked through her doors for one of those Tuesday get-togethers was Alexey Navalny.


And so he came. He was 27-year-old back then. He was tall, handsome. He was slightly stuved. He a bad hair count. She said a beer belly.


A beer belly? Yes.


A beer belly.


And Xana, what was your first impression of him? What did you think? I mean, remember back for me.


Smart, very attentive, very good in fulfilling tasks and getting things done. But, Nivalny was not exactly a very good speaker.


When Zanja first met Nivalny, he was working a desk job for an opposition party. Zanja said he wasn't very happy and he wanted something more. At the time, he wasn't the polished political leader that we know today. And I was mumbling something, and I was watching him.


I was thinking, God, it's so unfair. He's so handsome, so good-looking. He's a pure politician with this beautiful Slavic face, but he's unable to speak.


But she quickly realized he had promise. When the two of them went out to canvas on behalf of a friend from those Tuesday dinners who was running for a local office in Moscow.


We came to speak to people in the courtyard, and they were babushki.




Grandmothers, exactly. We were trying to ask them what are their concerns, and they were resentful. They didn't to speak to us. Who are all these young people who are asking them all this ridiculous questions? And then I saw Navali, who came forward and he smile And then he said some joke, and he helped one grandma to get to the bench, and he took another grandma under her arm, and he started talking. And he started talking, and all of a sudden, it was like a miracle. All of them, they were listening to him. They were looking at him. They were totally in love with him. And that That's the first time when I thought, he's a born politician. That's his talent, his amazing ability to get people on his side, to talk to them.


So he had charmed these his resentful grandmothers.


He was not just charmed. He became their son, really, who was capable to help them. I see Navalny had a lot of great qualities in himself, but he was lacking education. And he himself realized that pretty early in his life.


And then what was- Navanja He grew up in a military town outside of Moscow. Zheña says that the schools he attended there were pretty bad, with a narrow Soviet curriculum. But Navalny was hungry to learn. If he was going to have a real political future in Russia, he needed to do more than just charm grandmothers in courtyards. And so in 2009, he had an idea.


Navalny came to my office and he said, Zhehny, I want to go to Yale University. I really think I need to spend the year in the good university, take classes. And he got into this world leaders program at Yale University. And trust him for Miles. He started all things related to American Party politics. It was very important to understand for him what system of check and balances was built in this country, the role of the Supreme Court, but also how do you win elections? That's what he was looking for first and for Miles.


So it was important for his political education.


Exactly. He was looking and he had to learn how to do it, how to win.


Zheña says he became a voracious consumer of all things politics.


But also, these famous famous TV series, The Wire.


Even TV shows.


Remember, season three and four, there are election campaign for the mayor of Baltimore. Everything that had to do with politics. He was watching or reading, and he was picking up different tools.


And he started trying out some of the things he was learning.


He told me that he put chairs for the elderly people who came to his rail. He precisely saw that They could see it comfortably. He said, You know what, Jeanne, I saw it in the House of Cards. I saw it in the House of Cards, and I thought, That's a great idea.


He saw in the House of Cards, the television show with Kevin Spacey, he saw that political leaders would put chairs for elderly people because that was something you were supposed to do as a politician. Nivaldi did that.




Meanwhile, he wasn't just studying up on American politics. He was also teaching himself how to use YouTube, building a following online, and he was studying public speaking.


He came up on the stage, and that was brilliant speech.


His political activity and his speeches started getting more polished.


. Asking this 100,000 strong crowd standing in front of him. Who is the real power in this country? We. Are we going to give up our inspiration to take our country back? No.. There was huge energy which was coming out of him. He was very sincere, and you felt like he was talking directly to you.


Okay, so Navalny is getting a education. He's becoming a more polished speaker, and he starts to run for office. So he runs for mayor of Moscow in 2013. He gets a pretty significant share of the vote by Russian standards, right? 27 %. 27 %, okay. And then in 2018, he makes a big move. He takes on Putin himself. Tell me about that.


Navalny decided to run for the presidency. By then, everybody in Russia already recognized that the only guy who was capable to challenge Putin was Alexei Navalny. Navalny started traveling around the country. Russia is a huge country. It's the biggest country in the world, 11 time zones. So he was going from Ural Mountains to the Russian Faris, from the Faris to Magadan, from Magadan to the White Sea, and et cetera. And he was running a campaign pretty much the way that campaign is run in the United States. And Navallny spoke for the roof of the garages, from the stairs of different buildings. He spoke from the rooms of the apartment buildings. He would speak from the lampe was. We should. We must live better. But we don't because they've stolen everything from us and they steal from us every day. Critics say the opposition- He said, Let's go to the Kremlin and get our power back. Power should be in our hands, not in the hands of those crooks, of those cheaters, of those people who stole the wealth of the country.


He called the people in the Kremlin crooks and cheaters and said, They had stolen your money, in fact, Russia's money, that they were thief, basically.


Exactly. People were coming by thousands to listen to him. And a friend of mine wrote to me that he was impressed to see how people who were pretty much resentful about Navalny, who considered him to be a populist and was afraid of his populism, at the At the end of the meeting, they gave him a standing ovation. They were so impressed. And so it was important to bring politics from Moscow down to the provinces, to the regions of the Russian Federation, and bring people there to recognize that they need him as a president because he was going to make life of their city, their town, their region better, more more prosperous.


And Jean-Jo, what were you thinking as you were watching all of this unfold? I mean, he's doing this very unusual thing for Russia, right? This thing that to an American audience is just meat and potatoes, political campaigning, but in Russia was a revelation.


Yes. I was thinking that I was afraid that they were going to kill him. It was already after Boris Niemzorg was killed, back in 2015.


This is another important opposition leader who was killed, not far from the Kremlin, actually, in a political assassination.




Did Nivalny himself worry about being killed? Did he talk about this with you?


No, I wouldn't say that he talked. But whenever I was bringing about the question of his security or getting people who would at least protect him, he kept saying that basically it's impossible. I think he just didn't allow himself to think about that.


Zheanya, did you have any personal conversations with him about why he wanted to run against Putin in the presidential election? Why he wanted to do that?


Because we knew that Putin was very dangerous. That it was important to stop him because already the majority of democratic institutions in the country were subverted. Courts didn't exist. Judiciary didn't exist. Putin's subordinates from the FOSB in all this check as they were grabbing people's property, kicking out people, putting them in jail, making them to go in exile. So it's already it was clear that Putin was preparing for some awful development and they had to be stopped. And it was clear that the only one who was capable to stop Putin was Aytse Navalli. Nobody else had goals to do that. As simple was that. It was not that we discussed whether he should or should not. It was clear that he had to.


We'll be right back.


Election officials in Russia have banned opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running for President. The country's election commission has barred the Kremlin critic from standing in the march vote, citing a controversial embezelment conviction, Navalny says was politically motivated. We. Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has called for a boycott of next year's election after the country's Central Election Commission rejected his bid to take part. Well, Alexei Navalny believes that if he ran against Vladimir Putin in what he deemed would be a free and fair election, that he could beat Vladimir Putin. And he actually thinks that Putin is afraid of him, afraid of Alexei Navalny.


When the effort to get him on the ballot failed, what was Navalny's reaction?


He was extremely upset. He was very, very angry.


But he doesn't relent in his political activities, right? He continues to speak out against Putin, and eventually, Putin tries to take Navalny out. He poisons him. And Navalny ends up convalescing in Germany, where he recovers. This This is a very dramatic part of his life. He makes at that point an interesting decision, which is that he's going to leave his family in Germany and return to Russia, where it seemed like he was pretty much certainly going to be arrested and put in prison. And yet, he goes back.


So why?




To be honest with you, I think that he didn't have any other option to the turn back. You cannot ask people to be brave and to resist and to reject the regime sitting in the luxury of the European capital articles. You have to be with your people. And that's exactly what he said, I am Russian politician, so I have to be in Russia, he said. And he had to demonstrate to people that it was possible to overcome any fear. When he was on trial, he had a piece of paper and he wrote on it, I am not afraid, and you shouldn't be afraid as well. When he gave his interview to the director of this movie, a documentary, Navalny, and he was asked, What's going to happen? What people should know if you get killed? And his answer was, If If I get killed, my only message to you, and he said this in Russian, Don't give up.. That was his slogan. That was the main principle of his life. Don't give up. Don't be afraid. It's important, Sabrema, to understand that Soviet KGB, and nowadays Putin's FOSB, this political police, which are running the country, its power is based on people's fear.


They're capable to control the country because people are afraid. And so Navalny was trying to send this message, Don't be afraid. We have to fight this people. This is our country, and that's what we have to do.


So really more than any other political issue, his fundamental message was Because our fear is their power. Don't allow them that. Don't give it to them. That's what he was saying to people.


Exactly, 100%.


I realized it sounds like, Zheanya, he didn't think he had any other option. You don't think potentially he had any other option. He had to go back because that's who he was. But I wonder if you think now, was that the right decision to return to Russia?


Yes, it was the right decision to return back to Russia. Yes, he gambled. Yes, he thought that Putin, he wouldn't dare to kill him because he was well too famous. And he returned back after he exposed Putin's henchmen. And he wrote to me in one of his letters, I know that I'm going to sit in jail as long as Putin is alive. He knew that. It's very difficult to get into someone else's head, but I just think that he felt humiliated to be afraid of Putin or anybody else. He had the sense of mission. He was running a good fight, and he had all the intention to win this fight. If you think That you're going to get killed or you're going to start to pity yourself. Like he wrote to me, Stop being upset. Everything is okay. It's just a historical process. Russia is going through this historical process and we are going along with it. Everything is going to be okay. And even if everything is not going to be okay, we can console ourselves. We will get in the fact of having lived honest lives, of being honest people.


Zine, it strikes me that Nivalny's true superpower was that he was not afraid. He had this incomprehensible lack of fear, this confidence that he could win despite what it looked like from the outside, and that that gave him this ability to thumb his nose at the system, to make fun of it. It and show people that in the end, it's just a bunch of idiots trying and failing to poison his underwear. The system was nothing but that. It wasn't that scary. But now that he's dead, it's like that magic trick, it disappears. The death itself seems to teach a different lesson, that people should be afraid, that the system is that scary. What do you think of that?


I'm not afraid. If you look at those in Russia, thousands of people come and they mourn and grief navally. Almost 400 people were arrested. People were beaten by the police. But people keep coming and coming and coming. When you look at their faces, you see that these are predominantly young people. He presented their future to them. Are they going to give up on their future? Are they going to go into exile, all of them? It's not possible.


But they may stay quiet and do nothing, which is what he advised against, right? I mean, you say, Xenya, you're not afraid, but you're in the US in exile, right? It's frightening this regime, and it's a natural response to be afraid of it. I guess I'm just wondering, what is his legacy? What's left? He's gone. Is there anything that survives him?


I think his legacy is his belief that Russia is not doomed, that Russia will become a normal, civilized, democratic, free, peaceful, and prosperous country. I think that his belief and his courage and the fact that he sacrificed his one and the other life for the future of Russia, that's what will become an inspiration for millions of young Russians. I cannot stand the thought that his death wasn't vain. I think that his wife, Yulia Navajna, she's going to defend and to carry on the fight that Navajna tragically failed to accomplish because he was killed.


Zheña, what are you going to miss most about your friend, about Alexey?


His smile. I'm going to miss his smile. I'm going to miss our conversations. I'm going to miss the friend who was ready to give his hand, even from jail. I'm going to miss a politician who was capable to turn my country into a normal democratic, free and peaceful country. I still, I sometimes, I just walk around my apartment and I say out loud, Ayesha, where are you? It's still hard to comprehend that he's no longer with us. I'm going to miss my friend. That's why he was my friend of 20 years. The last time I saw him, it wasn't in his penal colony. It was in the summer of 2022. He came and he hugged me. I told him, Don't worry about your parents. I'm taking care about them. Then I saw how he walked out of this hole. He was getting into the door that led to this prison barrack. A minute ago, he was smiling and he was saying something funny and encouraging, et cetera. I saw how his face became dark. I was thinking, God, now? What are they doing to this brilliant human being? How long will he be able to extend all the torture and humiliation?


Now, of course, I think how he died. And it makes me sick to think that he died alone, surrounded by all these dirty little people And I'm so sorry for him. He was just 47-year-old. And I think that it is so unfair that an evil guy, an evil person, he lives in comfort, even though he brings no good to anyone around him. And Navaymi is laying somewhere In the morgue, in the Arctic circle. And there is no sun.


Xenya, thank you for talking to me.


Thank you, Sabrina.


Good night, Jane.


Good night.


The Russian authorities have yet to give Navalny's body back to his family. On Tuesday, his mother, Ludmilla Navalnyah, stood in front of the Arctic prison where he was being held to demand her son's release.


She said, I ask you, Vladimir Putin, let me finally see my son.


The decision is entirely in your hands. We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. Alabama's Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos in test tubes should be considered children, a decision that sent shockwaves through the world of reproductive medicine. The ruling issued late last week, stemmed from appeals cases brought by couples in Alabama whose embryos were destroyed in 2020. On Wednesday, the ruling was already having a profound effect. The University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System announced that it was pausing in vitro fertilization treatments while it evaluated the court's ruling. And the Times reports that President Biden is considering executive action that could prevent people who cross illegally into the United States from claiming asylum. The extraordinary action would put into effect a key policy in a bipartisan bill that Republicans thwarted earlier this month. It is similar to a 2018 effort by then President Donald Trump to stop migration, which was eventually blocked by federal courts. But even if Biden's effort gets stopped in court, a legal fight could allow him to try to neutralize one of his biggest political vulnerabilities, the chaos at the Southern border. Today's episode was produced by Rob Zypko Mujdzeidi, Ricky Nowetzky, and Sydney Harper.


It was edited by Lisa Chou, fact-checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Marion Lozano, Alicia Buitube, and Pat McCusker, and translations by Milana Mazaeva, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of Wunderly. Special thanks to Anton Trinowski. That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.