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Alexei Navalny, the change agent?

In a photo from video, Russian opposition leader

In a photo from video, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a hearing in Moscow City Court on Feb. 2. Credit: AP

While America is in search of political unity and healing, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, cracks in the edifice of artificial unity are a sign of health. This may be happening right now as a powerful new wave of protests rises in response to the tribulations of anti-corruption activist and blogger Alexei Navalny.

In August, the 44-year-old opposition leader was taken violently ill while flying from Moscow to the Siberian city of Tomsk. He was hospitalized and later flown for emergency treatment to Berlin; suspicions of deliberate poisoning arose, and doctors in Berlin found traces of a deadly nerve agent in, and on, Navalny’s body. The respected investigative journalism site Bellingcat concluded that Russia’s secret police, the FSB, was behind the attempted killing. In a spy thriller-worthy twist, Navalny got one of the suspected operatives on the phone while posing as a superior — and recorded a de facto confession. (The Kremlin dismisses it as a forgery.)

The charismatic Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for years with his exposés of corruption at the top. Blunt and energetic, he has a knack for connecting to ordinary Russians (despite being a Yale-educated lawyer). In 2013, he got 27% of the vote in the Moscow mayoral election running against Putin crony Sergey Sobyanin.

Navalny is barred from running for office until 2028 because of a fraud conviction widely regarded as political (and condemned by the European Court for Human Rights). But as an activist who is good at organizing the opposition — among other things, to pool forces against the ruling United Russia party — Navalny is still a danger to the powers that be.

Returning to Russia last month, Navalny was promptly arrested for violating the terms of his probation. On Feb. 2, his suspended sentence was changed to imprisonment in a penal colony for two and a half years.

Starting on Jan. 23, Russia has been rocked by massive protests demanding Navalny’s release and Putin’s resignation — spurred not only by Navalny’s persecution but also by his latest online documentary, on the construction of a $1.35 billion palace for Putin in the Krasnodar region. Thousands have been arrested, and footage of brutality by riot police has caused widespread outrage.

Can Navalny be a catalyst for change in Russia, where a referendum recently approved a constitutional amendment allowing Putin a new presidential term in 2024? Data from the Levada Center, Russia’s foremost independent polling agency, show a complicated picture. Navalny’s favorability rating has grown from 6% in 2013, when nearly 60% of Russians had never heard of him, to about 20% today; but his negatives (56%) still substantially exceed the positives. Among Russians 18 to 24, Navalny’s activism now enjoys 36% approval — but 43% disapprove.

While a quarter of Russians have watched "Putin’s Palace" and some 70% have heard of it, it doesn’t seem to have changed many minds. And Kremlin propaganda’s attempts to smear the protests leaders as child exploiters who encourage teens to put themselves in danger have been effective — even though the rallygoers have been overwhelmingly adults.

Even so, the protests are a force against apathy. Russia, where normal channels for political opposition existed briefly in the 1990s only to be systematically destroyed, is a country where "resistance" is not just a romantic buzzword but a vital necessity. Whether Navalny, behind bars, will be able to galvanize a large enough portion of the public to make a difference, only time will tell.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.