For one hour each week, imprisoned Russian dissident Alexey Navalny is allowed to send and receive messages with the outside world.
Navalny’s hand-written missives are transmitted through his lawyer to his staff in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, who work to share his calls for action against Russia’s war in Ukraine, expose Kremlin corruption and push back on disinformation and propaganda.
“He’s still very much involved in the functioning of our organization despite being in prison,”Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in an interview with The Hill.
Navalny’s messages, written in a distinct voice – described as defiant, sarcastic, witty and still upbeat – are published to tens of millions of followers across social media.
A thorn deep in Vladimir Putin’s side, Navalny authored the Russian president’s profile in Time Magazine’s recent list of the 100 most influential people, calling him an “an evil madman with an army, nuclear weapons, and membership in the U.N. Security Council” who the world must stop.
Ashurkov describes communication with Navalny as a “trickle… but still effective.”
“He’s in good spirits and he is raising his voice against the war, even from the harsh conditions of Russian prison.”
Ashurkov spoke to The Hill in Washington, where he was meeting with members of Congress to raise the issue of efforts to break through Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine.
Navany and his team have one of the most popular Russian-language YouTube channels, which has racked up hundreds of millions of views on investigative videos exposing Putin’s lavish lifestyle and his inner circles’ hidden wealth.
Ashurkov says they have struggled to reach a broader audience with factual information about the war in Ukraine since tech giants were forced to shut down much of their operations in Russia.
Google, which owns YouTube, and Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, have had to scale back or end advertisement sales on their platforms there, limiting the reach Navalny’s video’s and posts. Google’s Russian subsidiary filed for bankruptcy last week after its bank account was seized by Russian authorities.
Navalny has issued a call for more resources to break through the propaganda blackout, with a post on his Twitter account last month calling it the “informational front” in the battle against Putin.
“Truth and free information hit Putin’s insane regime just as hard as Javelins,” read the tweet. “One shot from [a] Javelin costs $230,000. For the same money we would get 200 million ad views in different formats and provide at least 300,000 link clicks or at least 8 million views on a video with the truth about what is happening in Ukraine.”
The Anti-Corruption Foundation is also lobbying the Biden administration to sanction 6,000 Russians that the group has identified across the government, and individuals in business and culture that they say contribute to the propaganda supporting the Kremlin’s war.
The U.S., U.K. and European Union have issued hundreds of sanctions against individuals and businesses – including Putin, his family members and top Russian officials and their families – since Feb. 24, when Russia launched its invasion.
Ashurkov said their list focuses on the “next level of officials,” with an average age of 45, that they say still have a choice in abandoning Putin’s war.
“We want to create a motivation for them to step out, to not support the war, to raise their voice against the war. And that’s what we have been talking to people in the Capitol and in the government about,” Ashurkov said.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told The Hill that they “will take a very close look” at the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s sanction request list.
“We very much appreciate the efforts on the part of organizations, like Mr. Navalny’s, to shine a spotlight on corruption, to shine a spotlight on injustice, to shine a spotlight on repression in Russia and around the world,” Price said.
Navalny’s place in history as one of the most prominent Putin-opposition figures appears rooted in a fearlessness against the overwhelming power of the Russian state.
“A lot of us thought or worried that once Navalny was put away into a gulag that he would be forgotten, and that was the idea,” said Izabella Tabarovsky, senior program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
“But he continues to speak to people, clearly his spirit hasn’t been broken, and his influence, I think, continues to remain strong,” Tabarovsky said.
A lawyer by training and a former politician, Navalny, 45, gained prominence in the early 2000s rallying an anti-Putin political movement that brought out tens of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow.
He was frequently targeted and imprisoned on criminal charges – of fraud, corruption, embezzlement – that he and his supporters have condemned as politically motivated. His reach and influence grew with the rise of social media while his efforts exposing and publicizing government graft, theft and corruption made him a target for intimidation and violent attacks.
In August 2020, Navalny nearly died from a chemical poisoning attack and was flown unconscious from Russia to Germany for treatment amid international outrage and concern over his survival.
He spent a year recovering in Berlin and, during that time, rooted out the alleged Russian Federal Security (FSB) service agent who carried out the assassination attempt. He even spoke by phone to the agent, who explained in detail the operation before Navalny revealed himself as the target they failed to kill.
Ashurkov called Navalny’s story “epic” and “miraculous.”
“It’s gained [a] biblical scale over the last two years,” he said.
Navalny is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for parole violation for leaving the country – despite the fact he was unconscious when he was first flown out of Russia.
He was convicted in March on further charges of fraud and contempt of court and sentenced to nine years. He is expected to be transferred to an even more isolated maximum security prison.
His appeal was rejected on Tuesday, drawing international condemnation.
“The denial of Navalny’s appeal is another example of the Kremlin’s quest to suppress dissent and civil society,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “We respect the brave citizens of Russia who protest their government’s brutal war and endemic corruption, despite threats, criminal charges, detentions and poisonings.”
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borell denounced the Russian court’s decision deplorable and the charges politically motivated and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
“His transfer to a strict regime colony is another step to silence a critical voice,” Borell tweeted.
In his final appeal to the court, Navalny called the conviction and sentence against him “pointless.”
“You might intimidate someone in the short term… but in general, what you are doing, what your people are doing, is just historical nonsense,” he told the court. “And you will surely all suffer a historic defeat. Just like you will suffer a historic defeat in this stupid war that you started, that your Putin started, because it has no purpose and no meaning.”
His supporters and long-time observers say Navalny’s commitment to being outspoken and heard is critical to the movement he has built.
“One of Navalny’s messages has always been, ‘do not be afraid’ — this is why they’re doing such daring things,” Tabarovsky said.
“He’s at Putin’s mercy, yet here he is sending an article to Time magazine about Putin – to me that’s a very powerful message, he’s saying ‘I’m not afraid and you shouldn’t be afraid either.’ I think that’s very, very powerful and very important.”