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'Quietly Having Me Killed': Interviewing Navalny Before He Became Navalny

Aleksei Navalny poses in his office in Moscow in March 2010.
Aleksei Navalny poses in his office in Moscow in March 2010.

I first met Aleksei Navalny in the winter of 2009 in his sparsely furnished Moscow office. This was before he had broken onto the national scene in Russia as an opposition leader -- that would happen around two years later when he became a visible face of resistance amid massive public protests against fraud-plagued parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.

Navalny had essentially abandoned formal politics after being banished from the liberal Yabloko party a couple of years earlier for his flirtations with right-wing forces. Instead, he had opted for a roundabout way into politics: buying shares in state-owned companies and then using his shareholder status to raise a ruckus over mismanagement and corruption.

"My activities are directly aimed at changing the political situation in the country. I don't participate anymore in politics. I don't vote. But my battle for the oil-export market to belong to our Russian companies -- and not to a Swiss offshore company -- is essentially politics," he told me in that 2009 interview.

Navalny was like a Bizarro Putin: tall, gregarious, freewheeling, and completely at ease speaking off the cuff. I ended up publishing pieces in two separate publications based on that interview -- a "double-dip" in freelance-journalist parlance -- and I recall telling one of my old colleagues at The Moscow Times afterward, "That dude could be president at some point."

Rereading those two articles today, after reports of his death in an Arctic prison -- where he was incarcerated only after returning to Russia after recovering from a poisoning in which the Russian state was implicated -- I was struck at how relevant the issue of his personal security was even back then, when he was mostly unknown outside of Russian business circles and among hard-core political junkies.

Asked to comment on accusations at the time that his shareholder activism -- thoroughly and often hilariously chronicled on his LiveJournal blog -- was just a scheme to get payouts from the companies, Navalny told me it would be "simply impossible" to use such a grift on state-owned energy giants like Rosneft or Gazprom.

"Any attempt by me to get some money out of them will end in the best-case scenario with a few law enforcement agents jumping on me, screaming 'bribe!' and immediately arresting me, or in the worst-case scenario with someone quietly having me killed," Navalny told me.

He acknowledged the personal risks, though he mostly seemed to brush them off with a grin and a quip. I recall him smiling when he told me that the most common question he's asked is, "Who's paying you to do this?" and then, after that, "When are you going to be killed?"

The question of Navalny's personal safety also came up when I spoke on the phone to Sergei Guriyev, a prominent liberal Russian economist who is now the incoming dean of London Business School. At the time, Guriyev served as an independent director of the supervisory board of state-owned lender Sberbank, and he expressed both support for Navalny's corporate activism and worries over its potential repercussions.

"My concern is that some of these guys may be pretty ruthless. In that sense, Mr. Navalny is very courageous," Guriyev told me.

Navalny and I kept in periodic touch by e-mail over the next two years, although we never met in person again. As his political profile rose -- along with the number of criminal cases launched against him -- he faced a lot more demands for his time from the media.

Around a year after my face-to-face interview with Navalny, Russian journalist Oleg Kashin was savagely beaten on the streets of Moscow and barely survived.

I sent a note to Navalny about the incident. He replied: "I’m f****ng stunned. It was Kashin who always told me to be more careful."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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