The two men now locked in a historic struggle over the future of Russia have very little in common, but their political careers have run in parallel. At the turn of the millennium, Navalny joined the weak and divided Russian opposition. Putin was hand-picked to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russian president at the same time.
Almost nothing was known about Putin. He’d been a low-level spy in Dresden, a fixer for the mayor of St Petersburg and briefly head of the KGB. There was a feeling that he was an accidental president, the Chauncey Gardener of the Kremlin. He might even be a closet democrat. Some even argued that the fact that he was ex-KGB might actually be a good thing, given its reputation for efficiency and pragmatism – like getting an ex-partner from Goldman Sachs to fix the country.
But Yevgenia Albats, a political activist and writer who mentored Navalny during the Noughties and remains very close to his family, had deep misgivings about Putin from the outset. She’s written a history of the KGB and gone deeply into its traditions and mindset. To her way of thinking, Putin’s presidency was the start of the re-Sovietisation of Russia. “I was terrified,” she told me recently. “It’s not just one man who was coming to power. It was the most repressive institution of the Soviet Union.”
Albats’s fears were disregarded at the time. But one of Bellingcat’s lead investigators, Christo Grozev, told me that he’d learned that the Bulgarian umbrella used to murder the dissident Gyorgi Markov in London in 1978 was developed at the same lab that supplied the chemicals to poison Navalny. Back to the USSR indeed.
What might surprise casual Western observers is that Navalny is far from universally liked or admired in Russia. Many older Russians find his style too abrasive and his core followers too messianic. Furthermore, a century of turmoil has made many fearful of anything that might lead to another revolution.
But Albats, the Cassandra of Russian politics, fated to be correct but never believed, is confident of Navalny’s ultimate destiny. “I’ve been saying this for quite a while,” she says. “Aleksei Navalny will become president of the Russian Federation. He will become the leader who is going to turn Russia back on its democratic path.”
The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill is on Channel 4 on Wednesday, September 15, at 10pm