The day after his arrest and jailing, Navalny and his team of investigators published a feature-length investigation of Putin’s secret personal palace. The investigation was as highly theatrical, minutely produced, and perfectly timed, as the return to Russia had been. It included a detailed paperwork trail derived from internet sleuthing of which oligarch and business entities legally owned which part of the massive palace compound and adjoining vineyards, as well as records of the numerous bribe schemes that had paid for $1 billion in construction fees. Navalny had symbolically broken into Putin’s private sanctum and took the Russian population through a guided tour of its secret ballrooms, underground tunnels, and tastelessly decorated bedrooms, all while mocking Putin, his psychological failings, and his aesthetic choices mercilessly. It was his storming of the Winter Palace.
The hybrid political regime that Putin has constructed has allowed a great deal of space for all sorts of ambiguity and blowing off steam. It has accounted for professional and personal accommodation. People are allowed to grumble and complain and engage in private affairs as long as they do not challenge the system directly. But Navalny has challenged the system directly and is forcing it to make a decision about how to deal with him that it has no interest in making. Stepping over the line to go after Putin’s private wealth has never been done so brazenly by a Russian dissident before, and even previous Navalny investigations of members of the Putin retinue had avoided such direct assaults on the president and his family. There is no going back now. The Russian hybrid regime has never been challenged by anyone as directly as it has been by Navalny. He has thrown himself at the regime with an implicit ultimatum that he will never stop until he is either imprisoned or killed. Or perhaps killed after being imprisoned.