The Russian political opposition’s fight against non-democratic regime – How has Alexei Navalny remained Russia’s yet alive opposition leader?

This article analyzes political opposition theory and applies it to the Russian political opposition environment. Analyzing this theory helps to understand the role of Alexey Navalny’s character in Russian politics and his purposes to change the regime. The article examines the challenges Russian opposition politicians face in Russia as well as Navalny’s political persona, and tries to answer the question – How has Alexei Navalny managed to emerge as a Russian opposition leader and what has the Kremlin’s response been?

Political opposition theory and the Russian political opposition spectrum

The poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was in Germany for treatment, was arrested on his arrival in Russia and was sentenced 2 and a half  years for participation in corruption activities. He was arrested on landing and international organizations have demand his quick release.

The argument of the article is that Kremlin’s response to Navalny’s political activities is nondemocratic and points out that Russia is a form of totalitarian regime. In order to reinforce this argument in the article, two types of political opposition are discussed.

There are two types of political opposition – sensu largo and sensu stricto. Through the understanding of these concepts the article will answer the above-mentioned question. These concepts are seen in the  “Political Opposition in Theory and Central European Practice” by Michal Kubat, where he mentions Polish theoretician Tomasz Krawczyk, who explains opposition sensu largo as “organized and citizen-expressed disagreement with specific political decisions of the ruling body or a criticism of the existing constitutional order and political practices within a nation.”[1] Furthermore, according to  Lonescy and De Madariaga, from the same book, sensu stricto can be in democratic political systems – “the term should be used of [for] situations where an opposition is not merely allowed to function, but is actually entrusted with a function.”[2] According to Krawczyk, in Kubat’s book, political opposition in a democratic country is opposed to the government, while in a non-democratic country it is opposed to the regime. In a democracy, political opposition has to change the cabinet and in a non-democracy it is the regime itself which must be altered. [3]

 As regime is mentioned here, the article is not going to mention all types of regimes but only totalitarian regime because the totalitarian regime is what exists in today’s Russia (It will be explained further in the text). “The Political Regimes Project”, article by Mark J. Gasiorowski, recalls Carl Friedrich who defines a totalitarian regime as a condition which is driven by a “totalist” ideology that means that the regime is under one political party’s control, under one secret police and has a dominance on mass communication and all societal entities.[4]

The Kremlin’s response to opposition leaders clearly shows that Russia is governed by a totalitarian regime wherein opposition leaders are being imprisoned and tortured. Before discussing the Kremlin’s fears, to examine why the regime is totalitarian, an analysis of Navalny’s persona and his appearance in politics can show why the country is actually a form of non-democracy and how this particular opposition leader fights against the ruling party. Furthermore, we will see in the article the characteristics of a totalitarian regime that are being used against Navalny.

Navalny as a political opposition leader

In 2009, Alexei Navalny started working as an adviser to the regional governor of Kirov. He was responsible for the city’s forestry company, Kirovles, that was owned by the state. When he started working in this company, he was contacted by his friend Petr Ofitserov with whom he was a part of the liberal Yabloko party, to get involved in the timber industry. In this period and the year that followed, Navalny gained a reputation of anticorruption activist who exposed illegal deals of the top Russian state companies. In 2010, Navalny uncovered that Transneft, a state-owned oil company, had stolen 4$ billion.[5]

Navalny started writing blogs about corruption in 2008. He wrote that Transneft spent more on charity them on capital investments. Navalny contacted these charity organizations in Russia and all of them denied receiving donations from the company.[6]

This was the beginning of Navalny’s birth as an opposition leader. One who would start fighting against corruption and against the non-democratic regime. This political opposition can be sensu largo since Navalny started his career as an opposition leader for the purposes of changing the regime (in the next chapter the state’s response to these accusations will be discussed separately).

Another case where Navalny reinforced his reputation as a fighter against corruption was the Chaika case. In 2015 Navalny was exposed to the corrupt business dealings of Russian prosecutor Yuri Chaika’s children. In the film Chaika, Navalny said that the prosecutor’s son, Artem was “continuosly exploit(ing) the protection that his father, the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, gives him to extort from and steal other people’s companies.”[7]

As already mentioned, authoritarian regimes do not allow freedom of speech, and this is a very important indicator as to how regimes can be called totalitarian. Navalny has become a leader because of his activity in social media. He had no support from the state media. Navalny’s colleague and Chief of Staff, Leonid Volkov, in an interview with Fletcher Forum, speaks of how important a role Social Media has played in this process. He reiterates that social media is the only tool for opposition in Russia available, to communicate with the people – “these are the only ways the opposition can communicate with the voters. Putin’s Kremlin is in control of all the other possible media – TV, radio, newspapers – so we can’t get any kind of access to the television. The only thing we can do is reach out through social media, YouTube, mailing lists, all approaches that require a lot of information technology.”[8]

Volkov, as a part of the leadership of the main Russian opposition, clearly identifies himself as a member of the opposition in a non-democracy because he openly names what they face with the regime.  “Every time there is a new round of sanctions, they open a lot of champagne bottles in the Kremlin. What do these sanctions mean? The regime can blame everything on the sanc-tions, they can steal money without any problems because the population will not blame another year of economic decline on them but will blame it on sanctions. So why is life getting worse? Not because we managed to launder another $50 billion of this country, but because the whole world is against us with more and more sanctions.”[9]

Kremlin’s response to the opposition

 Banning opposition in Russia is not anything new. In 1921 Lenin directly said that he was going “to put the lid on opposition.” Bolsheviks had a very exact opinion about people who would go against them. They were against any differing opinion and would not take any criticism of their socialist party. Suppression of opposition was an ordinary thing. Lenin showed ruthless intolerance towards the opposition of that time.[10]

In today’s Russia the situation has not changed dramatically. The Kremlin does not show any tolerance to the opposition. This chapter will show the Kremlin’s response to Navalny’s activities.

No evidence has been found against Navalny for wrongdoings. However, in May 2011, a criminal case was opened for theft, although nothing was subsequently found. Later an investigative committee reopened the case and blamed both Navalny and Ofitserov for embezzlement of forestry goods. Navalny was sentenced to five years but the next day both were released as protests sparked. [11] In 2010 elections, Navalny held a massive rally at Bolotnaya and said that “Politics has finally been born in Russia in these elections! An opposition has been born!”[12]

The Kremlin’s fears and intolerance to the opposition was very focused in 2017 when the Central Elections Commission of the Russian Federation refused to receive Navalny’s application for president. The reason why they refused the application was his conviction in corruption and embezzlement. Another example of how the Kremlin tries to silence opposition and its supporters is through the use of detentions.[13] On March 26, 2017, the largest ever rally was held where people demanded investigation of the accusations against Dimitry Medvedev. In that rally many were Navalny’s supporters as well.

There were mass detentions as the police claimed that the protesters breached the law. Again, Russia’s intolerance towards an opposition is seen in a 2018 situation when, on Putin’s inauguration day, there was also an event called “He is not our Tsar.”

On August 20, 2020, Navalny was poisoned. He was transferred by a German air ambulance to the Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The German federal government made a statement about this case: “At the request of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, a specialist Bundeswehr laboratory carried out toxicological tests on samples from Alexei Navalny. The results of these tests have revealed unequivocal proof of the presence of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.”[14][15]

The President of the Russian Federation publicly states his opinion that Navalny is a foreign agent:

“Слушайте, мы прекрасно понимаем, что это такое. И в первом, и в этом случае это легализация, это не какое-то расследование, это легализация материалов американских спецслужб”[16]

“Listen, we very well understand what this is. First, this is legalization, this is not an investigation, this is the legalization of materials of American intelligence services.”


Alexey Navalny is in prison today for invented allegations.  This paper tried to show how the Russian government is totalitarian and how Russia reacts to the opposition’s activities. Navalny’s appearance in politics has changed many aspects of politics in Russia. Today, Navalny has many supporters including the new president of the US who called Russia “one of the biggest threats” to the US and has told Russia to release Navalny. This paper has showed why and how totalitarianism still exists in Russia, through the Kremlin’s perception of opposition as a threat. Moreover, it demonstrates intolerance to opposition, as a main indicator of a non-democracy. Quite evidently, Putin too, “is putting a lid on opposition”.

Author: Ana Patsatsia


 Enikopolov, Ruben, Maria Petrova, and Konstantin Sonin. “Social Media And Corruption”. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 10, no. 1 (2018): 151.

 Gasiorowski, Mark J. “The Political Regimes Project”. Studies In Comparative International Development 25, no. 1 (1990): 111. doi:10.1007/bf02716907.

Kubat, Michal. Political Opposition In Theory And Central European Practice. Frankfurt: Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften Frankfurt am Main, 2010

 Lipman, Maria. “How Putin Silences Dissent: Inside The Kremlin’S Crackdown”. Foreign Affairs 95, no. 3 (2016): 38

 Schapiro, Leonard. Political Opposition In One-Party States. Macmillan, 1972

Savenkov, Roman. “The Social Movement Of Alexei Navalny”. Politeja 16, no. 562 (2019): 196-197. doi:10.12797/politeja.16.2019.62.11.

“Statement By The Federal Government On The Navalny Case”. Archiv.Bundesregierung.De, 2021.

Volkov, Leonid. “How To Survive In Russian Opposition Politics”. The Fletcher Forum Of World Affairs 43, no. 2 (2019): 57.

Weiss, Michael. “Rights In Russia: Navalny And The Opposition”. World Affairs 176, no. 4 (2013): 73.


“Путин Заявил О Поддержке Навального Со Стороны Американских Спецслужб”. РИА Новости, 2021.

[1] Michal Kubat, Political Opposition In Theory And Central European Practice(Frankfurt: Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften Frankfurt am Main, 2010).

[2] Ibid.,19.

[3] Ibid.,54.

[4] Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The Political Regimes Project”, Studies In Comparative International Development 25, no. 1 (1990): 111, doi:10.1007/bf02716907.

[5] Michael Weiss, “Rights In Russia: Navalny And The Opposition”, World Affairs 176, no. 4 (2013): 73.

[6]  Ruben Enikopolov, Maria Petrova and Konstantin Sonin, “Social Media And Corruption”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 10, no. 1 (2018): 151.

[7] Maria Lipman, “How Putin Silences Dissent: Inside The Kremlin’S Crackdown”, Foreign Affairs 95, no. 3 (2016): 38.

[8] Leonid Volkov, “How To Survive In Russian Opposition Politics”, The Fletcher Forum Of World Affairs 43, no. 2 (2019): 57.

[9] Ibid.,65.

[10] Leonard Schapiro, Political Opposition In One-Party States (Macmillan, 1972).

[11] Michael Weiss, “Rights In Russia: Navalny And The Opposition”, World Affairs 176, no. 4 (2013)::75

[12] Ibid.,76.

[13]  Roman Savenkov, “The Social Movement Of Alexei Navalny”, Politeja 16, no. 562 (2019): 196-197, doi:10.12797/politeja.16.2019.62.11

[14] “Statement By The Federal Government On The Navalny Case”, Archiv.Bundesregierung.De, 2021,


[15] Note: The chemical nerve agent Novichok is banned by chemical-weapons treaty

[16]“Путин Заявил О Поддержке Навального Со Стороны Американских Спецслужб”, РИА Новости, 2021,


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