Interview with Yulia Navalnaya "It Is Putin Personally Who Is Keeping Alexei in Prison"
Yulia Navalnaya has been unable to visit her husband for 13 months now. On Sunday, a documentary film about the Russian opposition leader won an Oscar. In an interview, she discusses the dangers Alexei Navalny faces in prison and her hopes for Russia's future.
Alexei Navalny, 46, Russia’s most famous opposition figure, was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in an attack in the summer of 2020. He was flown out to Germany for treatment and barely survived. Researchers with the investigative platforms Bellingcat, The Insider and reporters with DER SPIEGEL succeeded in identifying a commando from the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB that is believed to have carried out the attack. Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021, where officials arrested him at the airport in Moscow. He has remained in custody ever since. The documentary film "Navalny" by Canadian director Daniel Roher, won an Oscar in Los Angeles last Sunday. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, 46, attended the awards ceremony. Two days later, she met with DER SPIEGEL for a rare interview.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2023 (March 18th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Navalnaya, what was going through your mind when you heard the words, "And the Oscar goes to – Navalny"?
Navalnaya: To tell you the truth: In the first moment, I felt nothing. I heard the name of the documentary, which also happens to be my last name. I got up, I knew I had to go to the stage now. We had agreed on this before with the team.
DER SPIEGEL: What does this award from what might seem like another world mean to you?
Navalnaya: Two days later, I can say: I am very happy for the team, for Alexei. It is a well-deserved win, because it is a very good documentary. I have seen the film a lot of times, and I enjoy it every time. It feels like I am speaking to Alexei when I watch it.
DER SPIEGEL: You are attending a glamorous ceremony while your husband is sitting in prison. Does that not feel weird to you?
Navalnaya: This is a strange feeling, yes. It's a very strange feeling. On the other hand, it's probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You stand surrounded by a large number of famous people you've only seen in movies. They come up and say words of encouragement and support. I, of course, am very grateful to them for that.
DER SPIEGEL: Onstage, you said that your husband is in prison for telling the truth. How has your view of Russia changed in recent years?
Navalnaya: I wouldn’t say it has changed that much in the last decade or so. We were married the same year Putin became president. A year later, our daughter Dasha was born. Alexei started his political activity that year. We knew Putin wasn’t the right man for Russia, for democracy, for human rights, for freedom of speech. Today, Dasha is almost 22, and every year has seen a deterioration with regards to human rights and democracy.
DER SPIEGEL: The suppression of the opposition is getting more and more aggressive.
Navalnaya: Alexei was detained for the first time in 2011 and given 14 days in jail. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Only the overwhelming support of the people who came out into the streets helped to free him. For us, it was always clear that the longer Putin stays in power, the worse it would get. Putin will stop at nothing to keep power and money. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I think it became obvious to everyone. It can’t be forgiven. He even has gone so far as to threaten the world with nuclear weapons.
Yulia Navalnaya on her husband, politician Alexei Navalny: "My husband is opposition leader, he’s in jail and I support him and draw attention to his situation."Foto: DCM Cabel News Network Inc.
DER SPIEGEL: Since your husband’s arrest, there has been speculation that you would enter politics yourself. Has the thought crossed your mind?
Navalnaya: I don’t think this is an idea I want to play with. Of course, I’ve read a lot of articles that deal with this question. But my understanding is that in order to participate in an election and become a politician, you have to want to do this. There is not much sense in thinking of it in terms of replacements: My husband goes to jail and I replace him.
DER SPIEGEL: Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took over after her husband wasn’t allowed to run in the election.
Navalnaya: I admire her for what she is doing. But as I said: You have to want to be a politician to do it. And I have made a different choice: My husband is opposition leader, he’s in jail and I support him and draw attention to his situation.
DER SPIEGEL: What does your life look like these days?
Navalnaya: Letters, letters, letters. I try to write to Alexei every day, although I know that the mail is censored. I write about everything: the weather, children’s studies, books, TV shows. I haven’t managed to write him about my impressions of the Oscars yet.
DER SPIEGEL: But he knows about the award, right?
Navalnaya: Yes, his lawyer told him he had won an Oscar. Alexei said: "Come on, it’s not me. It’s a movie about me."
DER SPIEGEL: Let’s get back to your everyday life …
Navalnaya: ... I’m trying to live a normal life. But there’s more to do now, of course. I’m in constant contact with Alexei's lawyers. I’m a member of the board of directors of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. And, of course, I try to take care of the children as usual.
DER SPIEGEL: The reports about Alexei’s state of health have recently caused concern around the world. Is he sick?
Navalnaya: It started in January. It could have been the flu or COVID – they don’t do tests in the (penal) colony. But it was more severe than the usual illness and it lasted longer – for a month or so. Alexei was not given any medical care and was not hospitalized. They sent this man who had been infected to his prison cell to make him even worse.
DER SPIEGEL: A man who suffered from tuberculosis. Do you think that was intentional? Was the intent to infect your husband?
Navalnaya: It happened several times. It is difficult to explain to people from Germany or the United States. How could this happen? But this is the way the Russian prison system works. They treat some people as tools. In Alexei's case, they try to make his conditions unbearable by any means they have.
DER SPIEGEL: How is he doing in the meantime?
Navalnaya: Of course, after the poisoning (in 2020), his health isn’t fine. He says all the time he’s OK. But I know I’m probably the last person he would tell that he’s not OK. So, when he says publicly that he’s not doing great, I know he feels really bad. For instance, during the hunger strike in April 2021. At the time, I felt that the situation was critical.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe his life is in imminent danger?
Navalnaya: He spends much of his time in solitary confinement without proper access to health care. In conditions like that, when you have health problems, they don’t get better, they get worse. He has problems with his hands in the morning, one of his legs feels numb, and he has problems with his back. He is constantly in danger because he is in the hands of the people who tried to kill him with poison. So, he’s in big danger every day and it worries me a lot.
DER SPIEGEL: When did you last see your husband?
Navalnaya: A year and a month ago. Ever since, we have had maybe two or three phone calls. The last one was in March of last year. Last summer, they put him into a maximum security prison under harsher rules – and there he is forbidden to make any phone calls.
DER SPIEGEL: And you can’t visit him either?
Navalnaya: According to the law, he was allowed to see me or close relatives once every six months. But when the time came, he would be sent to punishment cell. In that case, your visit cannot take place. And in January of this year, he was transferred to a cell-type facility in solitary confinement permanently, so he is prohibited from having any visits.
DER SPIEGEL: Several governments, including that of Germany, have called for his release. Given how Putin is acting in Ukraine, what can appeals from the West achieve, anyway?
Navalnaya: We’re in a situation where we don’t know what helps. But stopping the appeals certainly won’t help. We must do whatever we can. I appreciate German Chancellor Olaf Scholz asking for Alexei’s freedom in Putin’s presence, making this big video statement, as he did last summer. I also appreciate the German Finance Minister Christian Lindner's tweets about Alexei almost every week, and many other politicians are also promoting his cause.
DER SPIEGEL: Is the German federal government doing enough to get Alexei released from prison?
Navalnaya: I am very grateful to the German government, the German people and the German doctors for saving Alexei’s life. We are very grateful to Germany. Angela Merkel helped us get Alexei out of Russia for treatment.
DER SPIEGEL: You haven’t really answered the question.
Navalnaya: Of course, any kind of assistance could help.
DER SPIEGEL: Some people already mention your husband in the same breath as the South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. What do you think of the comparison?
Navalnaya: Nelson Mandela. What a huge compliment for Alexei.
DER SPIEGEL: Mandela spent 27 years in prison.
Navalnaya: Alexei has already been sentenced to nine years. Very soon, he will have a new trial in which he faces up to 35 years in prison. But these figures don’t really mean anything, because they have nothing to do with the law. We all understand that it is Putin personally who is keeping Alexei in prison, and as long as he stays in power, it is hard to imagine that Alexei will be released.
DER SPIEGEL: At the Oscars, you said you dreamed of seeing your husband and your country in freedom again soon. How do you keep that hope?
Navalnaya: I do not hope, I believe. Nothing is difficult when you are in love. I have loved Alexei since the first days we met. Nothing has changed in my feelings since then.