What Leonid Volkov, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s right-hand man, was up to in a small office in central Vilnius on the eve of the recent Russian parliamentary elections.
When Leonid Volkov orders a cappuccino in a cafe in the Panorama shopping center in Vilnius, he doesn’t look like someone whose boss survived a murder attempt and who narrowly escaped arrest himself. His blue sweater, which has seen a few washings, and the gray cap pushed low on his forehead are more reminiscent of an ordinary Russian tourist who has arrived in the capital of Lithuania to poke around a bit – but that decidedly is not part of his plans. Volkov has a great deal of work to do in Vilnius. “I’m leading the fight to defeat Putin from here,” says the man in whom all the hopes and all the threads of the current opposition in Russia were converging in the run-up to this month’s elections to the Russian State Duma. “I have no doubt we will succeed,” he adds. “In time.”
The Panorama offers a view of all of Vilnius. On one side the church spires of the Old Town protrude; on the other, glass-walled skyscrapers grow heavenward. For a year, one of those has housed the headquarters of the head of the Belarusian opposition in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. While she and her large team take up two floors, Volkov has leased just one small office and frequently holds court in cafes like the one in the Panorama.
Unlike Tsikhanouskaya, Volkov is not an elected president on the run. Leading Western politicians do not pay him visits, and therefore he doesn’t need presentable spaces for his work. He mainly serves as the right-hand man of another person with presidential ambitions, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, for whom he maintains the densest network of organizations involved in politics that anyone has managed to build during the 20-plus-year administration of President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny himself is doing time in a prison colony. When agents of Russia’s secret service attempted to murder him with Novichok nerve toxin last year while he was on a political tour of Siberia in August, his family arranged for him to be brought to Berlin for treatment in an all-but-hopeless state. They did save his life there; and upon returning home he was immediately arrested. In February, Navalny was sentenced to three years for not having reported to authorities in Moscow while getting treated in Germany, as required by the conditions of his parole for a 2014 suspended sentence for alleged embezzlement.
Volkov, a father of three, mathematician, and IT specialist, has been on Navalny’s team since 2010 and thanks to his organizational abilities has always been considered an important man, but after his boss went to prison his role has grown to be even more significant. He has fully taken over directing dozens of local branches of Navalny’s opposition movement – the so-called regional staffs that advise critics and opponents of Putin on how to choose candidates from regional candidate lists and vote not according to personal preference but based on their chances of defeating delegates from Putin’s party, United Russia. Navalny has named the strategy Smart Voting, and sees it as a big chance to disrupt Putin’s regime.
The journey is decidedly not easy and there is no guarantee of success, as Navalny, Volkov, and company saw most recently when Russian authorities accused their network of extremism, and they had to officially dissolve it. “We won’t leave our friends in the lurch just because of that,” Volkov says. “We’re used to complications; they don’t bother us, and we are able to deal with them. Right now is when it’s about to get interesting.”
Living On, Normally
After several days of intense rain, the dark sky above Vilnius is clearing, and morning rays of sunshine are falling on Volkov’s constantly blinking mobile phone. New reports from his colleagues in Russia are popping up there every second. He shields the device with his hand and calmly reads them. He says nothing about who is writing to him or what the news is. The banned regional branches have taken new names; some have added to what had been exclusively political portfolios a cultural or social-issue agenda so they could continue opposition work under that cover.
Russian authorities have not completely oriented themselves in the regrouped network, but any connection with Volkov undertaken via telephone and computers by Volkov’s co-workers is highly risky for all involved. Police could use the extremism law to arrest them and send them to prison for their political activity.
Volkov may be coordinating the opposition activities from Vilnius, but not even he can be certain of anything. The Russian secret services have carried out attacks on critics of the Kremlin repeatedly in recent years inside the European Union. In 2019 they attempted to poison double agent Sergei Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent in Great Britain, and in Germany one year later they shot dead an opponent of Putin, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili of Georgia, who fought the Russians in Chechnya and South Ossetia. Volkov could be next. “It’s clear to me that for Putin and his government I am one of their biggest enemies,” he says. “I’m not afraid though; that would paralyze me.”
Departing for Lithuania has been the main measure he has taken for his protection, Volkov says. He moves freely in the city, driving a car or taking public transportation, and he came to his meetings with me without any security. “Naturally, I’m careful; I stick to some principles to protect myself,” he says. “But I also don’t want to completely give up a normal way of life.” He depicts his choice of Lithuania as intuitive – a decision made quickly. “I was here the year before last for a conference, and when I returned to Russia, they began a tendentious investigation of me for inciting youth to attend demonstrations. Putin, in his crusade against us, got tougher then; he locked many people up, and if I had also ended up in prison, I would have been no use to the movement. So I left as quickly as possible and went back to the place where I had just been, and which I already knew.”
It is also a fact that Lithuania is the most accommodating EU country with respect to the Belarusian and Russian opposition. Its government was the first in the EU to offer asylum to opposition figures from those countries. And Lithuania has the smallest Russian minority of the Baltic states, which could make activists like Volkov feel safer there. The secret services apparently will be making sure nothing happens to them, and they are one of the best in Europe at combating Russian threats.
Everybody’s Staring at It
As already noted, Volkov is no newcomer to the political ring. He got into politics more than 10 years ago through the rapidly developing IT field, which he joined after finishing school, then working his way to the Russian pinnacle. He and political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov co-authored the book Cloud Democracy, in which he analyzed how, with the aid of technology, political processes can become more logical and how to foster the greatest degree of political participation.
Volkov was not just theorizing; in 2009 he convened a demonstration in his native Yekaterinburg against the building of a new church in a local park because it bothered him that city hall was doing it against the will of the people protecting local greenery. In response to his suggestions, a crowd gathered for the biggest demonstration in the city since the fall of the Soviet Union. At that same time, the star of opposition leader Navalny began to rise as he managed to perfectly strike a chord with the mood of some dissatisfied members of the public in Russia by saying omnipresent corruption was the country’s main problem and that it was corroding society. He began to voice enormous anger over this.
“I don’t get why everybody isn’t doing what I do,” Navalny said at one public appearance. “What is happening in our country is like a gang of young thugs robbing a grandmother in the street. Everybody’s just staring at it when they should be coming to her rescue.” Volkov had an opportunity to hear those words in person in 2010 when, as part of Navalny’s initial journeys around Russia, he also visited Yekaterinburg, where the two met and felt a mutual sympathy.
This was not just about holding similar opinions. According to their friends, Volkov impressed Navalny because he has a similarly lively temperament, uses a pointed vocabulary, and makes striking appearances. Mainly, however, Navalny saw in him somebody whom he “needed as much as salt” in the team he had built: a young IT specialist who would help him reach younger voters. That was something Volkov knew how to do; he advised Navalny on how to reach young people through the growing social media world. The opposition politician began posting videos on YouTube, castigating the regime with his amusing comments. Unlike ordinary, obese, post-communist politicians in Russia, Navalny made an energetic, fresh impression in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, and people began talking about him more and more.
More tangible results of this approach arrived comparatively early. In 2013, the authorities in Russia allowed Navalny to run for the office of mayor of Moscow, mainly to awaken the impression in voters that the elections were free: Somebody from the opposition could run against Putin’s “horse,” Sergei Sobyanin. That candidate’s concept of the contest was like Putin’s – he never participated in public debates, was not visible anywhere, and relied on invincibility as the Kremlin’s politician. However, Navalny unexpectedly made things hot for Sobyanin, and again, Volkov played a crucial role.
From his repeated working visits in the West, Volkov knew what scored the most points with voters was when politicians were unafraid to directly reach out to them. Therefore, he sent Navalny into the streets. Muscovites could see him in the squares or in the metro, handing out promotional leaflets; he came to their attention on social media; he was literally everywhere. The opposition candidate won an unexpected one-third of the vote – the first time anyone had succeeded against one of Putin’s people. Sobyanin was declared the winner because of the electoral fraud committed in his favor, but his victory was not a dazzling one. Navalny was still in the saddle; Volkov withdrew for a time.
“I was still in contact with the opposition movement, but I also wanted to begin making more money, to develop my own IT business more,” Volkov recalls. “I moved to Luxembourg for work and did my best to combine politics more with my life as a professional.” Of course that didn’t last long. And the definitive, watershed moment was brought about by the murder of the charismatic leader of the opposition in Russia, Boris Nemtsov, who was fatally shot two years later near the Kremlin by an assassin for hire. “That was a genuine shock,” Volkov says. “I realized I had to fully invest myself in my efforts to change my country. Putin had stolen many years of our lives; murder had become his instrument for problem-solving. I couldn’t just watch that happening from afar.”
The Leader Won’t Survive the System
During the next few years, Volkov fully joined the work of Navalny’s team in Russia. He helped the opposition politician bring his Smart Voting system to life, with which they subsequently celebrated partial success in various elections. Navalny was lobbying for Smart Voting among voters when the counterintelligence services, the FSB, poisoned him. Volkov already was in exile in Lithuania. He recalls how the message about Navalny’s poisoning reached him early one morning.
“At first it didn’t seem so bad; we were informed that Alexei could quickly recover. But after several hours it was clear the situation was critical,” Volkov recalls. He began looking into air ambulances in various European countries, as it was clear that if Navalny wanted to be cured, he had to receive high-quality medical care outside of Russia. Volkov located an appropriate crew in Nuremberg, Germany. He then drove his car through the night from Lithuania to Berlin. Navalny was to be transferred to the Charite clinic there, one of the best. Volkov met his friend, who was in a coma, at Tegel airport.
According to Volkov, Navalny’s current condition is much better. After his subsequent imprisonment in Russia, his attorneys spoke of him as being “extremely unwell” but apparently that has changed. “Under the circumstances I don’t have any bad news about him,” Volkov says. He is unable to speak with Navalny directly but is in regular touch with him through lawyers, who deliver their correspondence. Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya and their children are the only ones who can visit in person. They can see him every two months, and a few times a year are able to spend three consecutive days with him in prison. (His wife last visited him that way in August.)
Navalny’s imprisonment has doubtless complicated the opposition movement’s plans, as their most visible candidate cannot run for parliament as he might have before and wage political battle directly in the field. Volkov, however, sees a positive in this new, most difficult round of repression. The movement previously never wanted to raise money for their activity outside of Russia so the authorities would not accuse them of collaborating with foreign powers. Now that opposition figures have been arrested and some have gone into exile, that has changed. Navalny’s people have reassessed strategy and now accept financial gifts from everywhere. The influx of money is helping them boost their technology.
“Before, [because] police in Russia always confiscated our recording equipment every two months, we were unable to invest in it,” Volkov says. “Now we have built a big studio outside of Russia; we are filming even more anti-corruption pieces, anti-propaganda, political videos. We hope to make an even bigger impact on the public. Putin will eventually regret his ever more repressive moves.”
Volkov describes the movement as a marathon. “President Putin keeps 12 close advisors around him who are constantly at each other’s throats, and he moves them around like chess pieces. He keeps them anxious, uncertain; they are weaker than he is. The system, therefore, is not very stable; Putin will not survive. We don’t want to wait for his biological death, or for internal strife to arise among the people around him; our strategy is to constantly attack the regime, to make them nervous, uncertain. This takes different forms, from building up candidates in the opposition, to protests, to warning people of corruption. The current election is just one of many such opportunities to do this, and we are doing it to the fullest.”
Ondrej Kundra is deputy editor in chief of the Czech weekly Respekt, where this article was originally published. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.