MOSCOW — While waiting out the coronavirus lockdown in his two-bedroom apartment last spring, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny seemed uncharacteristically idle, with his most potent weapon against the Kremlin — street protests — off the table.
And yet, Mr. Navalny felt that President Vladimir V. Putin’s grip on power might be slipping. Operating from his living room, rather than the slick Moscow studio he had used before, he cranked out videos haranguing Mr. Putin for failing to manage the coronavirus crisis and leaving Russians struggling as the economy suffered. Confirming his hunch that the pandemic could become a political catalyst, the audience for Mr. Navalny’s YouTube videos tripled, to 10 million viewers per month.
“Putin can’t handle all this madness, and you can see that he is totally out of his depth,” Mr. Navalny said in an interview by Zoom in May. “We are continuing to hit them where it hurts.”
Methodical and uncompromising, Mr. Navalny, 44, has spent almost half his life trying to unseat Mr. Putin. Often deemed rude, brusque and power hungry, even by other Kremlin critics, he persisted while other opposition activists retreated, emigrated, switched sides, went to prison or were killed. It increasingly became a deeply personal fight, with the stakes — for Mr. Navalny and his family, as well as for Mr. Putin and all of Russia — rising year by year.
sentenced this month to more than two years in prison for violating parole on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Europe’s top human rights court ruled was politically motivated.
Even in custody, though, he has seized the moment. Two days after his arrest at a Moscow airport last month, his team released a report about a purported secret palace built for Mr. Putin that was viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. Two weeks later, from his glassed-in prisoner’s box at Moscow City Court, Mr. Navalny predicted that Russians would eventually rise up and prevail against Mr. Putin, a “thieving little man,” because “you can’t lock up the whole country.”
An independent poll found that while 80 percent of Russians had heard of the protests that swept the country last month calling for his release only 22 percent approved of them.
“Putin and his regime spend millions of man hours on strengthening their power,” Mr. Navalny wrote last year, criticizing some of his fellow opposition figures as insufficiently hard-working. “We will only take them down if we spend tens of millions of man hours.”
Mr. Navalny has rarely shirked from confrontation or let himself be scared off course by the Kremlin’s security apparatus. In recent years, a pro-Putin activist threw an emerald green chemical in his face, nearly costing him the sight of one eye; his younger brother served three and a half years in prison in a case widely seen as a punishment against Mr. Navalny; and he nearly died in last year’s poisoning, spending weeks in a coma.
All the while he was building up a social media audience in the millions and a nationwide network of regional offices — an unparalleled achievement in a country dominated by security services beholden to Mr. Putin.
drawing 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 election for mayor of Moscow — Mr. Navalny grew more angry at Mr. Putin, people close to him say, and even more determined to bring him down.
covered Mr. Navalny extensively. “He was just radiating that anger.”
Mr. Navalny, the son of a Red Army officer, grew up in the 1980s in closed military towns outside Moscow, a world away from the intellectual and political ferment that gripped the capital in the last years of the Soviet Union. His father despised Soviet rule, and his mother, an accountant, became an early devotee of the liberal Yabloko party in the 1990s despite its perpetually dismal electoral results.
As a boy, he hated being told what to do. When he got in trouble with his teacher, his mother, Lyudmila I. Navalnaya, once recalled, he refused to go to school the next day, saying: “I don’t want anyone to force me to learn.”
He studied law and finance, worked as a real estate lawyer, and joined Yabloko in 2000, the year Mr. Putin was first elected president. He looked for ways to organize grass-roots opposition to the Kremlin at a time when the established opposition parties were coming to play only a theatrical role in Mr. Putin’s tightly choreographed political system known as managed democracy.
bought stock in state-owned companies, using his standing as a shareholder to force disclosures, and railed against Putin-supporting business tycoons on a blog that was widely read in Moscow’s financial circles.
a video report about the hidden wealth of Dmitri A. Medvedev, the prime minister at the time. Overruling his aides’ skepticism over whether those who watched the video would take to the streets, he called for protests, and thousands rallied in more than 100 cities.
The Kremlin tried its best to muzzle Mr. Navalny through constant harassment, but it never entirely squelched him — both to avoid making a martyr of him and to provide a way for society’s discontents to blow off some steam. That approach already seems to have been discarded in favor of greater repression; state television, which long mostly ignored Mr. Navalny, now dedicates lengthy reports to painting him as an agent of the West.
Besides the 2014 conviction for embezzlement, Mr. Navalny endured many smaller humiliations, Ms. Albats, the radio host, recalls: among them ubiquitous, privacy-destroying surveillance and the gratuitous cruelty of confiscating his daughter’s beloved iPad. She said that the support, endurance and conviction of his wife, Yulia B. Navalnaya, kept him going. And his fight against Mr. Putin became ever more personal.
“He had this choice: stay in politics, and keep creating trouble for his family, his brother’s family, his parents,” Ms. Albats said. “Of course, it leads to the hardening of your heart.”
The authorities barred him from running in the 2018 presidential election, but he still crisscrossed the country, opening more than 80 regional offices and agitating for a boycott of an election he saw as rigged to give Mr. Putin a fourth term. He organized nationwide protests and poll-watching efforts, and built up an investigative team that pored through public records and social media to document the questionable dealings of the Russian elite.
mass protests gripped neighboring Belarus as well as Russia’s Far East, pointing to growing risks for Mr. Putin.
Then, in August, Mr. Navalny collapsed on a flight over Siberia, screaming in pain. Western laboratories later determined that he had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent — Mr. Putin denies any involvement — and survived thanks to the pilots who made an emergency landing and the medical workers who first treated him in the city of Omsk.
He was airlifted to Germany for treatment. Soon after coming out of a coma, he re-engaged with the world’s political debates. He slammed Twitter’s decision to silence then-President Trump’s account as an “unacceptable act of censorship.”
And in recent weeks, Mr. Navalny has done his best to exude optimism.
“Everything will be OK,” Ms. Albats said he wrote to her from jail. “And even if it won’t be, we will console ourselves with the knowledge that we were honest people.”