Then there is Alexei Navalny himself. He fits the bill for a Western-style hero to perfection. He is handsome, charismatic and indisputably brave – not just in his decision to return to Russia, but when he began his anti-corruption blogging, as a lone voice, around 15 years ago. He has pioneered the use of the internet and social media to garner support among a post-Soviet generation of Russians who are among the most ‘connected’ in the world.
His appeal to the English-speaking world is obvious, and resulted in an invitation to spend four months in the United States in 2010 on a world leadership programme at Yale. He has the looks and the manner that could have made him an excellent living as a television presenter, had he not found a calling in political opposition. His latest videos – a two-hour expose of a vast seaside estate that he calls ‘Putin’s Palace’ or ‘the largest bribe in the world’, and a phone-call purported to be with an agent involved in the operation to poison him – show a knowing self-publicist with a sardonic wit at the very top of his game.
As such, it might be easy to dismiss Navalny as the West’s latest great white hope for Russia, someone who plays more strongly abroad than he does with his home constituency. Someone who is doomed in what should be his prime to a chequered procession from prison to courtroom to camp and back again, and whose influence, always limited to a small circle of well-connected aficionados, will fizzle out. Someone who, it is also worth noting, might quickly lose his appeal beyond Russia’s borders if he ever did touch real power, given the distinctly nationalist and populist tinge of his political views, insofar as they are known in any depth.