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.