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.