MOSCOW – On the night of Monday, Dec. 5, blogger, anti-corruption activist, and budding politician Alexey Navalny was one of 500 people arrested at a protest denouncing fraud in the previous day's parliamentary elections. Surrounded by some 6,000 people -- an unheard-of number for a protest in the center of Moscow, a dozen years into the apathetic Putin era -- Navalny had delivered an angry, guttural, less-than-diplomatic speech. "We will cut their throats!" he proclaimed, then tried to lead a march down the street to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the powerful successor to the KGB known by its Russian initials FSB. This had not been permitted in advance, so he was bundled up, stuffed into a police van, and shuttled around nighttime Moscow to keep his supporters from picketing his detention. The next day, he was given a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders.
By the time Navalny came out in the early morning hours of December 21, he was received with a hero's welcome. "I went to jail in one country and came out in another," he told the cheering journalists and supporters who had braved a blizzard to catch a glimpse of him.
It was true: Russia had changed while Navalny was in jail. He had missed the huge rally on December 10 on Bolotnaya Square, when the numbers who came out in peaceful, euphoric protest -- an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 -- made the original demonstration at Chystie Prudy look like a civic sneeze. Navalny had missed Vladimir Putin's stuttering, insulting response, and the energetic, often fractious and messy planning for the next protest, which took place -- with Navalny front and center among the 100,000-plus who turned out -- on Dec. 24.
It was particularly ironic that Navalny had missed the first mass demonstration in recent Russian political history.
Navalny has been in opposition politics for nearly a decade, but in the last two years, he has become the man to watch, becoming the first of his opposition colleagues to turn rhetoric and abstract principles into concrete action. First, Navalny (trained as a lawyer) started taking corrupt state corporations to court and blogging about it. Then he created a site called RosPil that crowdsourced the work of exposing questionable government deals. When he asked his supporters to donate money for the cause -- and for hiring lawyers to work on the project -- the Russian web responded, delivering double the amount he asked for. "People donating money is extremely significant, given Russians' cynicism," Aleh Tsyvinski, a Yale economist who has become a sort of mentor to Navalny, told me when I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in the spring. "Writing to Navalny is, in some ways, a way of exercising power. He is tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement."
In effect, Navalny trained a set of thousands of Russian Internet dwellers to do something concrete with their disaffection. And by the time the election season kicked off, in March, Navalny's mantra of "vote, and vote for anyone but United Russia" found a deep resonance among his following, and quickly spread. His alternative title for Putin's ruling United Russia party -- the Party of Crooks and Thieves -- became a sticky meme, with one-third of Russians now identifying the party in this way, just three months after the phrase flew out of Navalny's mouth on a radio show.
So when the huge crowd gathered in Bolotnaya on Dec. 10, it was his crowd -- a largely white-collar crowd, and the crowd that his campaign had driven first to vote (an unusual activity for this set), then to come out and protest. (When I asked him, a year ago, if he was scared, given the fates of previous dissidents like jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, in taking on the regime, Navalny trotted out his trademark pluck. "If tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly, we'd live in a different country," he said. "Starting tomorrow.") The protest was a game-changer, and it was, to a large extent, the fruit of his political labors.
And yet, it was a crowd whose size and support he -- and everyone else -- had underestimated. Most of the people I spoke to at the protests have come to see Navalny as not only the most viable opposition politician, as well as the one most representative of their views. But there's one big caveat: his nationalistic views. Navalny had joined the scarily nationalistic "Russian March" in November, alienating many in his core constituency of the urban bourgeois, who fear Russian skinheads -- the most violent in Europe -- almost as much as they worry about Putin's plans to return to the presidency for another 12 years.
Now that he is out of prison and back in the game, what is his plan? How does he view the most recent Kremlin attempts at placating the street? How does he visualize his own political future? We spoke as the euphoria of December's protests fades into exhaustion. "I hope to go somewhere for a week in January, and not have to answer emails," he said. He paused and added, "Not that I've been answering them for the last three weeks anyway."