Yulia Navalnaya: Who is the widow of vocal Putin critic Alexei Navalny?

Yulia Navalnaya. Credit: AP

By James Gray, ITV News Multimedia Producer

Yulia Navalnaya might not have been a name many people were familiar with at the start of 2024.

But the death of her husband - prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny - has very much changed that.

Previously a woman who tried to stay out of the limelight, Ms Navalnaya has become a prominent opposition voice to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past month.

But who exactly is she? And how influential could she grow to become within the Russian political sphere? ITV News explains.

Who is Yulia Navalnaya?

Yulia Navalnaya is the wife of the now-deceased Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. She was married to Mr Navalny for more than 20 years and the couple share two children together.

Ms Navalnaya has a background as an economist and previously worked as a banker in Russia. She became a stay-at-home mother after the birth of their first child.

As her husband rose to political prominence in Russia - leading the biggest protests in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union- Ms Navalnaya was a constant presence at his side.

Where does she live?

Ms Navalnaya currently lives in exile outside of Russia, although where she permanently resides is unknown.

On Sunday, she spent more than five hours waiting in line at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, as Russia held its presidential election last weekend, waiting to cast her vote.

Russia's Central Election Commission said that overseas voting would be allowed at 288 polling stations in 144 countries for 2024's vote.

Ms Navalnaya told reporters that she wrote her late husband's name on her ballot.

She fled Russia after her husband was arrested in 2021, upon the couple's return from Germany - where Mr Navalny received treatment for suspected nerve agent poisoning.

Heightened security concerns mean Ms Navalnaya is unlikely to travel to Russia in the foreseeable future.

Yulia Navalnaya and her husband, Alexei Navalny, pictured in Moscow in 2013. Credit: AP

Was she prominent in politics before her husband's death?

Although Ms Navalnaya went with her husband to protests and rallies, her political activity was very limited until recently.

She once said in an interview with the Russian edition of Harper's Bazaar that her "key task" was caring for the couple's children and home.

Ms Navalnaya even told the German publication Der Spiegel last year that she was not going to enter politics to "replace" her husband.

Has she taken over from her husband?

The death of Mr Navalny appears to have changed Ms Navalnaya's mind about her future involvement in politics.

Shortly after his death, she released a video saying: "By killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul.

"But I still have the other half, and it tells me that I have no right to give up."

Audiences with US President Joe Biden and the European Parliament in the past month have only served to grow expectations that Ms Navalnaya has decided to succeed her husband in his campaign work.

Ms Navalnaya used the recent Presidential Election as an opportunity to call on supporters of her husband to stage protests on the final day of voting.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, she thanked those who took part in the demonstrations, saying: "Thank you to all of you who came out in every city around the world.

"You are my support and support. I love you all very much."

How influential can she be?

While Ms Navalnaya has received much international interest and praise for stepping in to fill Mr Navalny's shoes, she is living in exile.

If she returned to Russia and continued to oppose Putin's regime, she would likely face imprisonment or even death - a fate thrust upon other prominent critics.

But Ms Navalnaya might not be able to gain real political headway if she does not return to Russia.

Meanwhile, leading a movement from abroad could be used by her enemies as evidence that she is merely a puppet of foreign governments.

Although Mr Navalny was Russia's most famous opposition leader, he almost never appeared on state television, which carried only the briefest mention of his death.

The Kremlin is likely to adopt the same approach to Ms Navalnaya, effectively cutting her off from the Russian people via a state-backed information blockade.

Pundits on Russian state television have already tried to discredit her, suggesting she was wearing too much makeup and that she should have covered her hair to mourn Mr Navalny, in line with Russian Orthodox tradition.

Why might her life be in danger?

If Ms Navalnaya chooses to become a more vocal opponent of Putin, then the threat to her personal security, regardless of whether she returns to Russia or not, is likely to grow.

Putin has led a fierce crackdown on critics of his regime in recent years, particularly since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began.

Most of Russia’s opposition is now either dead, scattered abroad in exile - like Ms Navalnaya - or in prison at home.

The Russian state has been accused by Mr Navalny's allies and Western leaders of foul play in the former's death.

Earlier this month, a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader, Leonid Volkov, was hospitalised, after being attacked by an unknown assailant with a hammer. Mr Volkov claims Putin's "henchmen" were behind the attack.

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