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The IT Whiz in Charge of Bringing Down Putin

With Alexei Navalny locked up in prison, it’s up to his Jewish right-hand man Leonid Volkov to keep Russia’s fractious opposition moving forward

by
Vladislav Davidzon
January 11, 2022
Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
Leonid Volkov speaks during an interview at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, December 2021Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
Leonid Volkov speaks during an interview at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, December 2021Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has become a comfortable perch for all sorts of political exiles. Operating in Russia and Belarus has become more difficult for political dissidents, and so much of the democratic opposition movement’s infrastructure and leadership have made new homes in the pleasant Baltic capital. Among these is the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee Minsk after rigged presidential elections in the summer of 2020 ignited a mass protest movement, which was summarily crushed by the Belarusian security services.

In May of 2021, I flew to Vilnius to see Tsikhanouskaya and to spend several days with Leonid Volkov, the close confidante and campaign manager of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. With the fearless and charismatic standard bearer of the movement now imprisoned in a penal colony, his party outlawed, and the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation legally shuttered, the opposition is in the meantime led by Volkov, a former IT executive. Volkov is known as a brash communicator and talented strategist who stewarded the movement through Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, but as the 2024 presidential elections approach, it remains to be seen if he can fill Navalny’s shoes and advance his life’s mission: to take down Vladimir Putin.

As it happened, Vilnius was very much the place to be while I was there in May. Another exiled dissident who was due to return to his new home that weekend was 26-year-old Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich. The slim and baby-faced tech guru had been deeply involved in covering the abortive Belarus revolution through his work for the influential Nexta Telegram channel. Protasevich had been at the frontline of developing the digital infrastructure that simultaneously organized and chronicled the uprising, and even in Vilnius he remained a tempting target for the security services of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko back in Minsk.

On the morning of Sunday, May 23, as he was returning from a conference in Greece, Protasevich boarded Ryan Air flight 4978 to Lithuania. This would turn out to be a careless decision, as the flight was due to cross Belarusian airspace on its descent into Vilnius. Belarusian KGB agents had been trailing the young activist in Athens for some time. Around noon, as the plane was about to reach the safety of Lithuanian airspace, Lukashenko dispatched an armed MiG-29 fighter to intercept the Ryan Air plane and force it to make an emergency landing in Minsk. The air traffic controllers there—one would later defect to the West and provide critical details of what transpired to Polish investigators—had falsely claimed that there was a bomb aboard the plane. Though the pilots suspected that they were being misled, they had few options when the MiG trained air-to-air missiles on them. The Ryan Air flight landed in Minsk airport, and Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend. As the plane made its final descent, he’d frantically informed his fellow passengers that upon landing he would be arrested and perhaps killed. European ministers declared the incident a case of “state hijacking” and an “act of state terrorism,” and the other passengers on the flight—mostly EU citizens—spent their Sunday held hostage by the North Korea of Eastern Europe. The incident led an enraged Brussels to ban Belarusian carriers from entering EU airspace.

That same afternoon, I paid a visit to the office of the talented Mr. Volkov. The opposition headquarters is located in an inconspicuous, two-floor duplex on a tree-lined street in one of Vilnius’ residential neighborhoods. The offices are lean, minimalist, and sparsely occupied by young Russians dressed in white T-shirts or Moscow hipster attire. They would not look out of place in a Palo Alto or London startup. Volkov, 41, greeted me affably. He is a physically imposing and gregarious bear of a man with a symmetrical oval face, and a prominent forehead supported by high puffy cheeks. His dark hair is precisely barbered in a subdued undercut, while his curly beard is of a different, reddish hue. The combination gives Volkov a somewhat piratical visage.

A senior member of a Washington, D.C. think tank that had hosted Volkov for a talk described his intense eyes to me as “literally fiery—as in no joke, they are on fire.” Volkov’s sense of style straddles the divide between elite Moscow hipster and the slovenly Siberian IT guy that he clearly is at heart. He favors checkered or solid-colored button-down shirts, schlubby sweaters, good quality shoes, and a well-tailored jacket or sharply cut raincoat. In photos he is often seen wearing a backpack.

But unlike the stereotypical IT specialist, Volkov is also an unapologetically combative alpha male. In his comportment, he alternates between deploying the precise and correct manners of a man raised in a proper intelligentsia family (he reflexively apologizes when he catches himself twirling my pen) with the swagger and informality of a political knife fighter. Irreverent, brusque, funny, and bluntly direct—Volkov is renowned among his peers in the Russian opposition for his arrogance—he is manifestly and unapologetically a Russian Jewish muzhik. (I am too, it should be said, which allowed us to get on well enough.) When I arrived for our second meeting that fateful Sunday in Vilnius, Minsk had yet to free the Ryan Air plane from captivity. Volkov proposed that the Europeans needed to launch a modern day “Operation Entebbe.”

In the summer of 2020, the Russian security services attempted to assassinate Navalny, the handsome and intense leader of a major fraction of the Russian opposition whose singular innovation was to focus the movement’s fight against official corruption.

Navalny collapsed from the effects of the Novichok neurotoxin during a flight between Tomsk and Moscow. The military-grade poison—the world would soon learn it had been smeared inside his underpants by security agents assigned to trail him over the course of two years—is a truly fearsome chemical weapon. Novichok was crafted in a Russian military lab with the express goal of melting the neurotransmitters inside of a human brain. Appearing to bow to the demands of the international community, but perhaps simply calculating that Navalny was unlikely to survive, the Russian authorities allowed him to be airlifted to Berlin for emergency treatment. Miraculously, Navalny recuperated from the effects of the poisoning and was discharged from the hospital a month later. He was forced to painstakingly relearn to use the muscles in his mouth to speak and those in his hand to hold a pen.

Unlike other political exiles who have found themselves in the same circumstances, however, and aware of the tendency of Russian émigré dissidents to fall into irrelevance, Navalny had no intention of remaining a refugee in Europe. He was determined to return to the Russian political fray and to take part in the parliamentary elections in September. From Berlin, he partnered with the investigative outfit Bellingcat and called one of his would-be assassins on the phone, posing as a superior. Unaware of who was actually on the other end of the call (and that he was being recorded over an unencrypted phone line), the feckless agent walked Navalny through the particulars of the assassination attempt. This was vintage Navalny, showcasing the way that publicly available crowd-sourced information could level the playing field against the intelligence agencies of a nuclear superpower.

In a theatrically staged gauntlet thrown in the face of the Kremlin, Navalny then flew home to Moscow in the full knowledge that he would most likely be arrested and sentenced to a lengthy term in a brutal penal colony. He was duly arrested at the border control of a Moscow airport as the international media captured every second of the drama—including the heartrending moment Navalny kissed his wife goodbye.

In January of 2021, as Navalny was being tried by a Moscow court on nonsensical charges of violating parole (he was still recuperating in Berlin at the time), his investigative team had released a long-gestating investigation into Putin’s massive presidential palace, a $1.35 billion monstrosity near the Black Sea. The release of the video broke the central taboo of Russian political life: criticizing Putin for personally benefiting from venal corruption (as opposed to just tolerating it among others). The opposition called for massive street protests to take place all across Russia. The point was to demonstrate that the movement had the capacity to put large numbers of activists on the streets and to spark a showdown with the government, even with Navalny out of the picture. It was the most serious political mobilization of the Russian population in at least half a decade, with many sectors of society coming out to vent pent up grievances. The Kremlin struck back against the protesters with calculated fury and a merciless crackdown. Its strategy was to deploy enough random violence to dissuade any further escalation—without inflaming the protesters into a full blown revolution.

Thousands of arbitrary arrests and beatings followed. Dozens of Moscow Metro employees who attended the marches and were identified by surveillance footage were sacked a week later. The police visited protesters at their homes in order to intimidate them. The opposition continued the protests successfully for a couple of weekends, but finally called them off in deference to the harsh winter weather and the overwhelming force deployed by the state.

 Alexei Navalny, at center, his wife Yulia Navalnaya, left, and Leonid Volkov, right, attend a mass march marking the one-year anniversary of the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, on Feb. 27, 2016, in Moscow

Alexei Navalny, at center, his wife Yulia Navalnaya, left, and Leonid Volkov, right, attend a mass march marking the one-year anniversary of the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, on Feb. 27, 2016, in MoscowMikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

But Putin wasn’t finished. As the protesters returned home and Navalny awaited his verdict, the government moved to legally neutralize the opposition’s structures across the country. Outlawing the movement and dismantling its infrastructure, the Kremlin used what some observers referred to as the “nuclear option.” In June, a Moscow court issued a ruling that designated Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as an “extremist” organization. This was effectively a death sentence for the group and required the dissolution of all its regional offices. That the ruling had long been expected by activists and movement leaders did little to soften the blow. They would now be legally and practically prevented from contesting the September parliamentary elections.

Navalny, 45, now imprisoned in the IK-2 penal colony in Pokrov, has become the most famous political prisoner in the world. In February 2021, Amnesty International caused an uproar when it bowed to social media claims that Navalny was a racist (based on xenophobic nationalist comments he had made a decade and a half earlier) and stripped him of his status as a “prisoner of conscience.” The organization later reversed its decision after an avalanche of international criticism, and three months of intense debate over the issue. In October, the European Parliament awarded Navalny the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

It seems obvious now that the Kremlin is terrified of the risk that Navalny posed and might still pose to the carefully constructed but brittle Russian political system. As such, there is little chance that he will be released by the Russian authorities in the near future. Since his imprisonment, the opposition has been beset by what Mark Galeotti, a British academic and keen observer of Russian politics, described to me as a “Navalny-sized hole in the movement.”

By banning Navalny and his movement from taking part in Russian elections, raising funds, and campaigning, the Kremlin has spurred the opposition into a process of tactical and technological evolution. The result has been increasing dependence on internet-based technological warfare. When I arrived at the office in Vilnius, it was just in time to observe Volkov taping one of his pre-election Sunday night talk-show programs. The theme that evening was a general appeal to the Russian population to learn how to use virtual private networks (VPNs) and crypto currencies—I was informed that the movement is funded mostly by small donations—in order to sidestep government surveillance. Volkov delivered the 20-minute-long monologue in a single extemporaneous take. Afterward, the sound operator inquired about trying a second take.

Volkov declined: “No, no. It was fine.”

Spending any amount of time with Volkov—who is seen as intensely loyal to Navalny, according to movement insiders—makes it obvious why the two men are friends and comrades-in-arms. An undeniably commanding presence, Volkov’s self-confidence and blunt manner suggest that choosing the leadership of the Russian opposition is mostly a process of natural selection, the law of survival of the fittest. The Kremlin has spent years systematically co-opting softer and more compromise-oriented opponents, removing them from the Russian political arena.

When I ask Volkov a question that he considers to be based on a stupid criticism made by his opponents, he brusquely responds: “I do not answer questions from idiots.”

Is that statement on the record? “Of course it is.”

Both of his parents are professors in his native Yekaterinburg, and the family was, by his own description, “a classic example of the Soviet scientific-technical intelligentsia.” His father Mikhail is a renowned mathematician who taught at Ural State University, which Volkov would later attend himself. His mother teaches information technology at the Ural State Pedagogical University. He is the oldest of two boys, and his younger brother is an architect. Volkov followed his father into mathematics from an early age. “Our mathematics faculty was certainly the second best in the country after that of St. Petersburg,” he proudly informed me.

As a teenager, he attended 10th grade in Dresden, where his father taught for a year as a visiting professor; at the time he spoke better German than English (the latter is now fluent, colloquial, and very precise: He spent a semester in 2018 at Yale as a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs). That year in Germany was a formative experience. One day in 1996, his German classmates earnestly tried to convince him that Mikhail Gorbachev would win the Russian presidential election. How could such a historic figure lose? But even at 15, it was obvious to Volkov that no one in Russia cared about Gorbachev any longer and that he would be crushed. He was right: In the first round of voting, the last Soviet leader received 0.5% of the total. Volkov relates the anecdote as his first experience of the ineffable and transient nature of Russian politics.

At 17, Volkov began working in the IT sector and continued to do so throughout his time at university. His employer was Kontur, one of Russia’s first private IT firms, which produced one of the country’s earliest examples of accounting processing systems—a sort of early Russian version of TurboTax. A few years later, Volkov was already a project manager. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had 300 to 400 employees answering to him, a pair of secretaries, and several company cars. By the time he left to pursue politics full-time after 12 years at the firm, Volkov was a senior executive in charge of company operations and a member of the board. He was simultaneously working on his Ph.D. dissertation at Ural State University, on “Models and algorithms for information processing in software systems for electronic document management.” “I was working on proving a certain nice little theorem in graph theory,” he recalls fondly.

At the time, Volkov also started writing an internal company newsletter, a weekly analysis focused on business issues. But during the 2007 Duma elections, he often found himself writing about politics more and more often. It was on the cusp of a seemingly hopeful time, a “thaw” under the new supposedly liberal president, Dmitri Medvedev, when a different Russia seemed possible.

During the 2007 vote, Volkov’s younger brother, then a 21-year-old student, signed up to be an election observer, and Volkov tagged along to see what was happening.

“I saw a lot of trash during that election,” he recalls with disgust.

He eventually started publishing his political analysis on LiveJournal, a social media site that has long served as an influential platform in Russia. (Russian social media is an extremely lively world and has launched many serious political careers.) He steadily built a committed readership, and it was not long before one of his readers proposed to him that he run for the Yekaterinburg City Council in 2008. By his own admission, he was still young enough to “not fully understand the risks of going all in.” At the age of 28, he won the election after a hard-fought campaign as the dark horse candidate, and went on to serve as the only independent out of 35 city councilmen.

At a certain point, Volkov’s fledgling political career started to cause obvious headaches for his company. Soon enough, the inevitable transpired: He was forced to choose between business and politics. “Eventually, I had a conflict with the company shareholders over my political activism,” he explained. Volkov left the company that had tolerated his political interests and “caprices,” and which had even backed his city council campaign. He sold his shares back to management for a hefty sum and exited on civilized terms. He continues to speak fondly of the company and his friends there, following the ups and downs of the business and rooting for them like a fan of a college basketball team.

The young city councilman would soon come to the attention of the Navalny camp and become involved in politics at the national level. In 2010, “there was this moment when the democratic politicians could all still get together in a big hotel conference hall in Moscow and no one at that point thought to mess [with] such a gathering,” he said. Volkov was asked to attend as a representative of regional opposition politicians, of whom there were very few. One member of the Russian opposition who is very critical of Volkov’s strategic choices nonetheless admitted to me that he “was just simply extremely talented, simply head-and-shoulders above the other regional politicians in his capacities.”

By September 2013, Volkov’s city council term was set to expire. He decided to forgo reelection in favor of moving to Moscow to work for Navalny’s 2013 mayoral campaign.

The mayoral race would be run in the typically Navalnian fashion: hard, fast, uncompromising, and insurrectionary in style. Though he outperformed all predictions, Navalny narrowly missed the second-round runoff due to what the Russian opposition claimed was unfair meddling by the authorities. It was the last time the government would allow Navalny to even register to officially compete against it in an election. Volkov made the case to me that, in every historical instance of a challenger advancing to the second-round runoff in such a vote, the incumbent lost. The consensus among Russian opposition members, of course, is that Navalny would likely have won that election had it been fair.

By the time Navalny threw his hat into the 2018 presidential race, Volkov had been promoted to his chief of staff. Yet the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register Navalny as a candidate, and the majority of the opposition would ultimately boycott the vote.

Volkov had by this time become an important enough aide to Navalny and leader in his own right to merit the targeted state repression that the Russian government routinely directs at the opposition. He had received 20 days in jail for the organization of an unsanctioned meeting of people against pension reform in September of 2018. After that he was given another 15-day sentence—he refers to his sixth and seventh arrests as “routine,” and he calculates that he has spent a total of 120 nights in jail.

During his last arrest, in May of 2019, he was on the way to a synagogue.

“At the time I was living outside of Moscow,” he told me “and every day I had a choice of driving into the city either at 6 in the morning before the start of rush hour traffic or after 10, when rush hour was over. It was too early to be in the office but the synagogue had morning lessons for us early birds.” Around 6 a.m. the taxi he was traveling in was intercepted by the security services. Another two-week stint in detention followed.

Volkov finally fled Russia on the last day of July in the summer of 2019, a month and a half after that final arrest (he describes that time of prosecution as an understandably nerve-wracking period). The government was opening a serious case against him for having taken part in “mass public disturbances,” which had “allegedly” taken place during the protests of the summer of 2019. It was time to go, and like many other Russians in the time before the Minsk events of 2020, Volkov fled the country via the Belarusian border for exile in Lithuania.

Having a Jewish ‘background’ is not so remarkable for someone as prominent in Russian public life as Volkov has become; what is unusual for someone of his stature is that Volkov is a practicing Jew.

Having a Jewish “background” is not so remarkable for someone as prominent in Russian public life as Volkov has become; what is unusual for someone of his stature is that Volkov is a practicing Jew. Discussing Judaism clearly fills him with pleasure, and he smiles broadly as he talks about keeping Shabbat, and the perils of losing weight after the holidays—another piece of common ground between us. He peppers his comments about religion in general with specific Jewish references (in Hebrew) and clearly has a deep sense of identification with the tribe. He sees religion—to which he turned in his mid-30s—as an “integrated moral-ethical system” that is wholly compatible with his rigorous scientific education.

“It is a very long story and a continuing dialogue that I have had with myself and with my family. As someone who came from a typical and totally atheist Soviet family background, it was clearly a long process of learning and transformation,” he explained. “My wife at some point told me that she was interested and that she wanted to undergo a giyur [conversion process], and we began to study and began to understand that the practice of Judaism gave our family a great deal of strength and solidity.”

It is undeniably amusing that Navalny, who has continually faced criticism for his nationalist positions over the years, has a proud Jew running his headquarters. This dynamic has led to some humorous moments, like the time Navalny tweeted out a photo of a government dossier that accused Volkov of allegedly embezzling funds from the FBK. In the “family background” portion of the dossier, the prosecutor’s office noted that “Volkov was born into a halachically Jewish family.” Navalny promptly trolled the authorities for being antisemitic: “They are focusing our attention on the most important thing!” he tweeted.

I half-jokingly pointed out to Volkov that both Navalny’s defenders and his antagonists can legitimately point to the Jewish identity of his right-hand man to buttress their respective arguments. (The Kremlin has insinuated that Navalny is an antisemite on multiple occasions.)

“That is neither here nor there, and there are several different ways of reflecting that argument,” Volkov answered with a laugh. “If I was a Kremlin propagandist, I might reply that this is the favorite argument of racists. As in: ‘What sort of racist can I be if I have my one Black friend?’ So what sort of antisemite can Navalny be if he has his Jewish friend? We do not try to put out counter-propaganda against that line in order to prove that he is not an antisemite. I personally laugh at those arguments, but it never occurred to me to try to argue on their level.”

For Volkov, those sorts of arguments are in line with the almost decadelong official disinformation campaign targeting Navalny. “The Kremlin has invested tremendous resources into this sort of propaganda. Even as far back as the Moscow mayoral campaign, they planted a false story in the Jerusalem Post about Navalny being an antisemite—which the Post later had to retract and take off the web site—after we investigated and proved to them the way in which it had been faked and that the citations were fake. Yet it continues to do the rounds of Russian media. Also the French media for whatever reason.”

That discussion naturally brought us to the continuing criticism of Navalny’s controversial past statements and nationalist commitments, such as when he allegedly referred to Georgians during the 2008 war as “rodents” (the Russian words for Georgian, “gruzin,” and rodent, “gryzun,” sound alike and sort of rhyme). Navalny was at that moment attempting to forge political alliances with various sorts of Russian nationalists, a process that was, in retrospect, mostly a failure, and created serious long-term liabilities for his reputation as a liberal.

Volkov views the younger Navalny’s positions and statements of a decade-and-a-half ago as belonging to a mostly forgotten political environment that has since passed. Navalny has evolved since that time, he says, and in any case, people simply “do not understand the Russian political context and atmosphere of 2007.”

In 2007, Russia was in the midst of a tremendous economic boom, enjoying annual GDP growth of 8.5% (the economy had been contracting at minus 5.3% as recently as 1998, a period of total economic collapse). But at the same time the economy seemed to be moving at warp speed, the Russian population was in the midst of an ongoing demographic decline. The country had a tremendous labor shortage and badly needed immigration.

“Pay was something like 10 times higher in Russia than it was in Tajikistan at the time for the same work,” Volkov explains, “and so naturally there was mass immigration into Russia. For a wide swath of badly educated Russian youth in the inner cities, this seemed to be a big problem.”

Russia had a visa-free regime with Tajikistan, which in turn had a porous border with Afghanistan. Russia was also a hub for international narcotics traffic, and the government was seen as not doing anything about any of it. Volkov explains that the Russian authorities’ messaging of that time aimed to manipulate widely held social fears. And indeed, “the presidential administration even discreetly organized murderous far-right groups,” which Volkov alleges in effect “stimulat[ed] the creation of armed paramilitary organizations who went out and killed numerous immigrants from Central Asia.” The official “instrumentalization” of these organizations by the Russian security services was, for Volkov, much more cynical and immoral than the “instrumentalization” of chauvinistic arguments by a young activist and politician who opposed the government.

Volkov mentions the gang leader, lawyer, and radical nationalist blogger Vasily Fedorovich, who operated in Volkov’s hometown of Yekaterinburg, as an example. The gang he led had been tolerated by the authorities while it was engaged in the murder of at least 14 (but perhaps more) Central Asian migrants; they only handed Fedorovich a 22-year prison sentence when the gang “accidentally killed an American citizen thinking that he was of Azeri ethnicity.”

With the Russian security services attempting to co-opt and even deploy such groups, and the political environment so charged, Navalny’s message at the time was part of a campaign to “influence the minds of a large number of nationalist-oriented individuals in that atmosphere” and to defuse the situation, Volkov argues.

In a now-infamous 2007 campaign commercial, a youthful Navalny is dressed up as a dentist in a white coat and tie and compares the clinical fight against tooth decay to the methods needed to deal with illegal immigration: “No one needs to be beaten, everything that bothers us needs to be correctly and solidly dealt with, using deportation,” he explains. Navalny’s argument was that jingoism needed to be supplanted by legal forms of mass deportation, lest it metastasize into fascism. The whole ad, which featured both Nazi and Soviet imagery, is quite weird and somewhat disturbing.

“That video is, of course, very unpleasant to watch now, clearly, in 2021,” Volkov admits. “Yet at that time, in 2007, it was very well understood to be part of a context of Navalny fighting the Kremlin and trying to influence young people who were at that moment entering into Russian politics.” Volkov explains that the message of that video was, “Do not kill people, fight illegal immigration, send illegal immigrants back.” The theme of illegal immigration would make a return as a central plank in Navalny’s 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign, but he retired it by early 2014—right around the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea, when immigration suddenly became a secondary issue in Russian politics.

I asked Volkov why Navalny wouldn’t placate his critics in the Russian democratic opposition by simply walking back his previous chauvinistic comments about Georgians. Volkov instantly corrected me and explained that Navalny had already done so on several occasions in various interviews, but that no one had taken much notice. I was skeptical, but having looked it up later, he was right.

“The main law of Russian politics, my dear Vladislav” Volkov said as he rhythmically tapped his hand on the table, “is that people read with their ass.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I asked.

“Of course you can.”

“The Russian voter has the memory of a goldfish,” he continued. “After 2008, Navalny gave a hundred interviews in which he was asked about topics like Crimea, and the ‘rodents’, et cetera. [There are interviews] in which he explained the context of the statements and apologized yet again. In fact, we put together a collection of those sorts of statements for Amnesty International when we had our dialogue with them about his status as a prisoner of conscience.”

“Every time and in every single conversation, it is like it is the first time. No one reads any of those interviews and no one cares. I have come to the conclusion that this is just how it works in Russian politics: People have a totally fragmentary and episodic memory. Yet that fact is a fact. Sadly no one remembers anything and every campaign begins at point zero.”

It remains to be seen whether supporters of the Russian opposition among the population can be taught to contribute to it in crypto, or to use VPNs to elude surveillance by some of the most technically sophisticated intelligence agencies in the world. Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London and co-author of the recently published Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?, underlines the dynamics of a generational transition. “It is interesting to speak of Volkov as the head of the ‘Shtab’ (headquarters), and it is not at all surprising that the head strategist of the movement comes out of an IT background,” Noble pointed out to me shortly after the book was released.

The Russian security apparatus is at least as adaptive and technically canny as that of the opposition movement, and the two are engaged in a classic technological arms race. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal communications agency, has resorted to blocking the movement’s websites.

Last summer, having legally neutralized the opposition within the country, the Kremlin pivoted to pressuring Western tech companies operating in Russia into censoring the opposition’s access to internet forums, global messaging platforms, and mobile applications, including a demand that Apple delist the opposition movement’s Smart Voting application from its App Store. The Russian Foreign Ministry even summoned the U.S. ambassador in September to issue a formal complaint over alleged interference in Russia’s elections by U.S. tech companies. Shamefully, Apple and Google both agreed to remove access to the “Navalny” voting app on the eve of the elections. Volkov would tweet, “The invasion of censorship into global IT platforms has long since acquired the character of an all-out war.” (At the end of December, a Russian court would slap google with a $100 million fine for allegedly failing to delete content that the Russian government has deemed illegal.)

Among the various Russian opposition movements, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation had always been able to count on particularly effective local infrastructure. Indeed, the FBK distinguished itself from other opposition groups (with the important exception of the Communists) through its highly organized network of activists operating throughout Russia’s vast and numerous regions. The challenge that Volkov and his comrades now face, however, is that with its leadership imprisoned and exiled abroad, the movement will necessarily have to pivot toward becoming more “international” in character. As a result, one of the most serious criticisms now leveled at Volkov and other exiled Russian politicians is that they continue to direct young Russians, especially those outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, to keep taking personal risks while much of the leadership is comfortably ensconced in the European Union.

Volkov at the opening of Navalny's election campaign office, 2017

Volkov at the opening of Navalny’s election campaign office, 2017Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images

Volkov is well aware of that criticism and informed me that the risk factor for every individual activist is assessed continually. The movement has gotten particularly vulnerable individuals out of Russia on numerous occasions, he said. He also admitted that there had been instances when the organization has not been able to act in time to prevent activists from being arrested.

The Kremlin has repeatedly attempted to decapitate the movement by selectively degrading its leadership through the repression, imprisonment, and exiling of its senior officers. The most visible, competent, and charismatic leaders have all been targeted and jailed, often under comically bizarre legal pretexts. Those who are based outside of Moscow tend to be more vulnerable, being further afield and thus out of view of the national media and rights organizations that can create publicity scandals. That reality has been exacerbated by the shuttering of regional opposition offices.

“Yes, it is true that many of our leaders are now abroad,” says Vladimir Ashurkov, an executive director of the FBK and a political refugee based in the United Kingdom, “but our DNA remains entirely Russian and we will, of course, continue to work on the ground.”

Ashurkov defends Volkov against criticism that he is terminally arrogant (which was also said of Navalny before him) or too far from the real action. “He speaks, thinks, and writes well and has all the organizational skills of a leader,” Ashurkov tells me. “We are very lucky that a man with such qualities is at the head of our organization. He has many character traits of a real leader, including the capacity to see and analyze the big picture.”

Ashurkov also pointed out that the movement’s technical competence and track record of innovation represent its core strength: “We have a large, cohesive, and active team.”

For critics, the diffuse nature of the movement and the concurrent lack of organizational structure makes it hard know how many activists and volunteers it actually has. It is, by necessity, smaller than a major opposition movement might be in a liberal democracy, and it is clearly not structured like a political party. The hope of people like Ashurkov and Volkov is that a deep bench of technical prowess and committed volunteers may make up for the lack of organized layers of leadership and traditional party machinery.

Still, can a loose international network of activists and IT whiz kids led by often exiled leaders and united through podcasts, vulnerable mobile apps, and volatile crypto platforms ever really hope to rival the Russian state? Some Russia watchers have speculated that Navalny overplayed the opposition’s hand by returning to Moscow from Berlin, and by perhaps wrongly assuming that a groundswell of public support would deter the Kremlin and protect him from being carried off to a penal colony. Navalny seems to have been well aware of the most likely endgame, but his stunning act of bravery has nevertheless left the movement without a face for the foreseeable future. During our last conversation, Volkov confirmed to me that in Berlin, Navalny had estimated his chances of being imprisoned upon his return to Moscow as highly likely.

Which leaves the leadership of Russia’s most dynamic and sophisticated group of political dissenters—the most serious threat that Vladimir Putin has faced in to his two decades in power—in the hands of a Jewish IT prodigy from Yekaterinburg.

Ben Noble wonders whether Volkov could potentially serve as a unifying leader were the Kremlin to keep Navalny in prison indefinitely. “Their characters are indeed somewhat similar,” he says. “The question, of course, is whether Volkov has got that special X factor.” He acknowledges that Volkov is a skilled strategist and communicator. But Noble is still unsure whether he can transition to being the frontline personality for the movement.

“Of course no one doubts Volkov’s skills as a driving force and strategist, but you have a situation where the lead vocalist of the group is now off the stage for a while, and the manager … is now being called upon to take center stage. On the other hand, whether he would be able to transition to be the face of the movement is uncertain, including in terms of whether he would want to be the ‘new’ Navalny. I also think it is most likely that we are watching the transition of the system to a sort of ‘Navalny 2.0 system’ of collective leadership in steering the movement.”

There are others in Navalny’s circle who could potentially emerge to represent different segments of his base of support, such as the lawyer Lyubov Sobol. Whether Volkov can, more broadly, make progress in unifying the often bickering factions of the Russian opposition (relations with the liberal Yabloko party are famously fraught) also remains to be seen, Noble suggested.

For his part, Volkov does not always appear to take his peers in the opposition very seriously.

Can a loose international network of activists and IT whiz kids led by often-exiled leaders and united through podcasts, vulnerable mobile apps, and volatile crypto platforms ever really hope to rival the Russian state?

“Let us not use the term ‘political party,’ as that is a misleading way of looking at things. Russia currently has no existing political parties in the Western sense,” he corrected me, when I asked him about the relationships that his movement maintains with other opposition forces inside Russian politics. “This system bears no relationship to the European political order, and Russian political parties are not actually parties in any real sense. Rather, they represent a collection of people who possess the capacity to sell off or distribute mandates—that is, party seats.”

“These are actually business structures that can sell or distribute quotas of their ‘franchises’ to local elites—these can be oligarchs, local bankers, land owners, or whatever in local regions. But they cannot formulate politics or policy in Russia, which are only driven by two political forces—by the Kremlin and by us.”

The September 2021 Duma elections were a test run for a post-Navalny movement. Not being able to field its own candidates, the opposition instead released a “smart voting” strategy of creating circumstantial alliances with the strongest anti-government candidate in every one of the country’s electoral districts. Volkov and his cadre would recommend a candidate for opposition-minded voters to back in each district regardless of the individual candidate’s party affiliation, politics, worldview, or ideology. The only standard for the smart voting alliance’s pick was whether the candidate had any reasonable chance of beating the Putin-backed candidate of United Russia (what a given candidate thought about America, Stalin, or the church was immaterial). A mobile app was released so that Russian voters knew which candidate to back wherever they lived. It was widely seen as a serious challenge to the Kremlin’s ambitions for retaining its parliamentary supermajority, and the government spent several months attempting to obstruct voter access to the Smart Voting app.

But when the parliamentary elections did take place over the course of three days in the middle of September, they were largely farcical anyway. The authorities simply threw mountains of forged ballots into the ballot boxes and crudely falsified voting and counting protocols. During the counting process, numerous technical tricks, including several “revotes,” were used to strategically reallocate the needed number of votes to Kremlin-backed candidates. The Kremlin cheated by a large enough margin to nullify the estimated 5%-6% bump that independent researchers estimated a Smart Voting endorsement was supposed to give a candidate. Multiple Moscow districts that had been projected for opposition-supported candidates went instead to Kremlin picks as soon as the electronic votes were added to the final tallies. On podcasts and online programs, Volkov postulated that the election results were the least fair since those of the infamous 2011 election. In the liberal opposition strongholds of Moscow and St. Petersburg especially, he claimed, the outcome of the vote should be totally discounted.

Out of the 225 constituencies in which the opposition had backed specific candidates, around 15 candidates selected by the Smart Voting strategy won their races, a success rate of less than 7%. More than a hundred candidates to whom the opposition had given support came in second place within their district. Volkov alleges that the Kremlin’s meddling cost the movement around 25 seats (this figure includes the alleged eight stolen seats in Moscow and another five in St. Petersburg).

In the end, Putin’s United Russia achieved its desired supermajority: 325 seats out of 450. But while the Kremlin had received over two-thirds of Duma seats, it had done so with a significantly smaller share of the vote, which was more fractured than in the previous election. Many more of those seats also had to be pulled out of the proverbial electronic magician’s hat. Some statisticians went so far as to speculate that if the vote had been honest, United Russia might have received slightly less than half of the seats in the Duma.

Immediately after the elections, multiple respected Russian news organizations were issued the crippling legal status of “foreign agent.” Western tech companies, which had previously resisted coercion from the Russian government, either partially or totally surrendered when their local staff in Russia fell in the crosshairs of the authorities. The post-election mood of the Russian opposition was understandably grim—though there were also some surprising outbursts of resistance.

Perhaps the most unexpected of these came from the traditionally servile and pro-authority Communists. Many of the Communists’ own real parliamentary victories had to be erased and reallocated to United Russia in order for the Kremlin to achieve its desired electoral result. To near universal surprise, the most “bought and paid for” of all Russian political parties—which was until very recently still being led by ossified Homo Sovieticus fossils who served the state’s interests by providing a harmless emotional outlet for older voters—began to organize street rallies under the leadership of a new generation of young activists. The Communists even refused to recognize the results of the vote count at first, though they eventually succumbed after Putin stated that “the Communists have always been trusted with government positions,” a transparent public threat.

Volkov had fully supported the Communists in their decision to take to the streets to protest their stolen votes while “demanding freedom for Navalny”—though he pointed out that Communism remains a “crap economic and political system, and so do stay away from it, kids.”

But Communist party lawyers soon began to be detained, and the prominent Marxist academic theoretician Boris Kagarlitsky was handed a 10-day jail sentence for promoting unsanctioned protests online. The irony of throwing people in jail for being Communists was not lost on the Russian internet.

A a week and a half after the votes had been counted, Volkov made the rounds of the post-election internet talk shows and podcasts to claim a sort of strategic and moral victory for the movement. He also rebuked those who thought that the opposition strategy had proven fruitless.

Many of his allies in the opposition, however, found less cause for hope: After Navalny’s personal sacrifice, and after several months of vote wrangling and devising and rolling out the voting app, the system had merely returned to the status quo. Some even think it’s gotten worse, with multiple activists, press outlets, and political and social organizations having being declared foreign agents by the state.

Volkov views that sort of thinking as a form of misguided defeatism. When I asked him which side the movement was on in the old Russian distinction between the dissident and the revolutionary, he replied matter of factly that it was neither. The opposition, he posits, has always been in it for a much longer haul.

“The changes that are taking place now are taking place on a more subtle level,” he explains. “The Russian authorities have wasted their political legitimacy—which is a statement that should not be made lightly—and which is, in fact, an outcome of the elections. Political legitimacy is a subtle political concept. You can’t really measure it or feel it with your hands. That feeling of a ‘lack of legitimacy’ will not permeate everywhere immediately.”

In an interview that Volkov recorded a month after the election, he admitted that his movement had spent the previous six months concentrating all of its energies on the Smart Voting strategy. There was not necessarily a backup plan ready to be deployed, and Navalny’s team would have to take time to think through possible alternatives. The Russian political system had been transformed by the most recent elections, Volkov said. There is no way to know when the present system will collapse, and Volkov does not waste time making promises or predictions about Putin’s longevity (“anyone who claims that Putin will be gone next year is a charlatan”), but he is confident that eventually things will change; Putin was rattled by the actual outcome of the election, says Volkov, and having been shaken he will surely continue to make the kinds of mistakes on which the movement intends to capitalize.

Since the elections, the government has continued its attempts to wear down the opposition. On the last day of November, Putin announced that he had not yet decided if he would be running for reelection in 2024, but that doing so is his right, and that fact ensures the stability of the country’s political system. In December, the authorities reportedly found a way to block Tor encryption, a protocol that traditionally ensures privacy of data and communications on the web, thus gaining the upper hand in the domestic surveillance war once again.

What can the opposition do now to stay afloat? Perhaps it will focus on being a force for technological innovation, by designing, for instance, an unhackable VPN for all Russians to use. Or maybe it will revert to old-fashioned low-tech solutions, piping information into Russia via pirate radio stations. Volkov suggested both approaches in a post-election interview in which his overriding message was that he and his people are in for a long-term war of attrition and technical competition against one of the world’s most sophisticated machines of repression. Volkov’s revolution may not be televised, but if he has his way, it will still be streaming in a corner of the web beyond the reach of the Russian state.

Vladislav Davidzon is a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

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