Alexei Navalny has not yet gotten used to people calling him Russia's next President. It's been happening to the blogger a lot lately at protests, in restaurants, on the street. When he hears it, he forces out a smile that looks more like a wince. Driving through traffic after it happened again in late December, this time at a courthouse, he tried to dissociate himself from what he calls the Navalny cult of personality. "People hate politicians," he says. "And I can understand why." Outside the window, the street was snarled by a convoy of black Mercedes, blaring their sirens as they ferried Russia's real politicians through Moscow. "I'm only sort of a politician," Navalny says.
He's not even running for President despite the clamor around him. Navalny, 35, has never held office and does not belong to any political party. He is not rich, famous or well connected. He does not appear on Russia's main TV channels and lacks the kind of polish one expects from a politician. But he rules an entity that has only begun to discover its power Russia's political blogosphere and has about 1.5 million readers of his own each month. The power he's inspired was in evidence when Navalny was arrested in early December after protesting election results. "The jail was full of corporate executives from various fields IT, retail, you name it," says Andrei Oryol, a film producer, who was Navalny's cellmate. Only a couple of them had ever attended a protest, but they followed Navalny online and then they followed him into jail. In early January, Boris Akunin, one of Russia's most popular and acclaimed novelists, described Navalny as "the only relevant politician in Russia today."
So far, Navalny has been able to unite an opposition that ranges from tree-hugging liberals to vitriol-spouting nationalists. A lawyer by training, he almost never wears a suit, not even in court, and often slips into the kind of slang you would expect from a frat boy. "Comparing pricks," he likes to say, is what candidates do in elections. If Russia's opposition movement gains momentum, Navalny may be compelled to run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's paramount leader.
The anti-Putin movement, which some of its organizers have perhaps too brazenly begun to call a revolution, held Navalny up as its leader during the uncanny wave of demonstrations that swept through Russia last month. The protests were sparked by the parliamentary elections of Dec. 4, when Putin's United Russia party was accused of rigging more than 10 million votes in order to hold on to its majority. The day after the ballot, about 7,000 people took to the streets of Moscow to demand a revote, chanting "Out with the party of crooks and thieves" Navalny's viral nickname for United Russia. From the stage, Navalny screamed into the microphone, "I'll chew through the throats of those animals," referring to United Russia. He was arrested afterward, when he tried to lead a column of protesters in the direction of the Kremlin, and was sentenced to 15 days for disobeying orders to desist.
If this was an attempt to silence him, it backfired. Navalny became a cause cé lè bre. Supporters held vigils outside the jailhouse and sent him care packages, including 7 kg of chocolate. Within a week, the protests spread to more than 70 Russian cities, and on Dec. 10 the opposition pulled off another record-breaking rally, with more than 50,000 people gathering in Moscow. Putin was derisive. During a live call-in show on Dec. 15, he said the symbol of the protest movement a white ribbon looked like a "dangling condom" and likened the protesters to Bandar-logs, the unruly monkeys from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
After Navalny was released and took over the protest-organizing committee, the opposition stayed the biggest demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union. More than 100,000 people gathered on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue to call for democratic reform. Every stratum of Russian society was represented, but most of all the young, educated middle class. Looking out onto a sea of protesters that day waving hand-drawn signs and chanting "Russia without Putin!" it was hard not to wonder: Where have they been all this time?
Since at least 2004, when Putin began his second term as President, there has been no secret about the patronage system he has built. Gubernatorial elections were canceled that year to allow the Kremlin to handpick regional leaders. Election laws were changed to make way for what amounted to a one-party state. Political competition became extinct, and no one was all that surprised when Putin announced this September that he would return to the presidency in March for at least another six years, and possibly another 12. So why only after the faulty vote held on Dec. 4 have Russia's citizens ceased to be a silent, apathetic mass?
Navalny calls it the "76-82 effect," referring to the Russians who, like him, were born sometime from 1976 to 1982. "This is the Moscow baby boom," he says, "and they have come of age." During the Cold War, they were too young to soak up the Soviet culture of absolutism. "They understand that our existence is not defined as a conflict between East and West," Navalny says. They are old enough to have traveled around, forming mature political opinions, but young enough, he says, "to feel at home on the Internet." That is where Navalny has worked under the radar of mainstream Russian politics. Senior officials have tended to dismiss him as a chat-room gadfly. They clearly underestimated his ability to sting.