Two years ago this week, the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, flew into Moscow knowing that he faced certain arrest and imprisonment. It was an extraordinary act of courage and leadership. He had only just recovered from an attempt on his life after collapsing on a plane poisoned with what was later found to be the nerve agent novichok. He was not meant to survive.
“There was no way he wouldn’t have gone back to Moscow,” the investigative journalist Maria Pevchikh tells me. “That wasn’t even on the table.” As the head of investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the organisation founded by Navalny, Pevchikh worked alongside him for a decade and was with him in Siberia when he was poisoned.
“We prepared for it very well,” she says of Navalny’s absence. And then hesitates. “It’s just a very noticeable loss. We’re fully functioning, probably better than before. But we lost a lot of our spirit. We do our work because we’re angry.”
So much has changed since Navalny returned to Russia. He was arrested and he was imprisoned, sparking some of Russia’s biggest ever protests, with demonstrations across the country. Months later, the Anti-Corruption Foundation was labelled an “extremist organisation” and its staff had to leave the country overnight. Just over a month ago and after weeks of negotiation, I’d finally persuaded Pevchikh to give me a tour of their new home, a spacious, light-filled office in Vilnius, Lithuania. And although I’ve met her several times by this point, and we know various people in common, she has agreed to give the tour with extreme reluctance, and still eyes me with suspicion.
The office, with its recording studios, floating shelves and potted cactuses, looks like the kind of hip media startup you might find in Brooklyn or Shoreditch or LA, and in another life, Pevchikh might have been a high-powered media executive in one of those places. But in this one her boss is in a punishment cell in a jail outside Moscow and this is the headquarters of the Russian opposition. “We behave as if we were in Moscow. We are on Moscow time. We could be anywhere,” she insists, and her suspicion is grounded in an entirely rational understanding of the world in which she operates.
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Navalny, the most influential Russian politician for a generation, is currently serving two separately imposed prison sentences – two and a half years for a parole violation and nine for fraud and contempt – in a maximum-security penal colony four hours east of Moscow. And he’s about to go on trial again, this time for creating an extremist organisation, and faces an additional 30 years in jail. A charismatic, funny, wise-cracking lawyer who has relentlessly lampooned Vladimir Putin, Navalny’s refusal to be afraid of the Russian leader was contagious, and for a moment in 2021 it felt like the country could be on the brink of change. But the invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. The latest photos of Navalny show him gaunt and emaciated. He’s currently in solitary confinement and being refused medical treatment for a fever and bad back. The outlook is almost unbearably bleak.
Last spring, Pevchikh had told me about the frenetic diplomatic efforts being made in London, Brussels and Washington on his behalf. “Every morning I wake up and think about what I can do to get him out,” she said. The foundation was lobbying for his release to be part of any negotiated settlement. But that seems an even more remote possibility now. Protest has been ruthlessly squashed across Russia and, in Ukraine, anger towards the Russian public and their perceived passivity has grown. Even Navalny himself, though he has condemned Putin’s war in Ukraine, has been accused of equivocating over whether Crimea should be returned to Ukraine. The efforts to release him are ongoing, but when I ask Pevchikh about this again on the phone last week she says: “You can say that I refuse to discuss it. One day maybe I’ll write a book about it, but there’s too much at stake right now.”
One of the foundation’s main objectives at the moment is simply to keep Navalny in the news. Inside Russia, they’re doing so via a whole new slew of YouTube channels, bringing news of the war to the public via the one channel that’s still available to them. And in the west, they’re doing it via a documentary, Navalny, an independent feature released last year that’s been nominated for a Bafta and shortlisted for an Oscar. Awards season is in full swing and for months Pevchikh and Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, have been flying back and forth to America to talk and appear on panels and meet the great and the good. “I honestly don’t know where we would be without the documentary,” Pevchikh says. “It’s mentioned in every meeting I have with ministers or their staff. Everybody knows who he is because of it. And who I am.”
At the heart of the film is an indelible scene. A few months after Navalny’s poisoning, Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev, the lead investigator for the international investigative collective Bellingcat, had come to the house in the Black Forest in Germany where Navalny was convalescing. He believed he had identified his poisoners. What’s more, he had their phone numbers. The film shows Grozev meeting Navalny and Pevchikh, and then the electrifying moment when Navalny – using the alias of a high-ranking aide in the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) – speaks to one of his poisoners on the phone.
“I had no idea what was being said,” the film’s director, Daniel Roher, tells me, “because I don’t speak Russian. But then I clocked Maria’s expression and saw her jaw unhinge and she put her hand over her mouth and I thought ‘holy shit’. I knew something extraordinary was happening.”
Navalny had got an FSB agent to confess on camera and describe how he’d been part of the clean-up gang, sent in to remove any traces of novichok from Navalny’s clothes.
Navalny does not blink or miss a beat. He just piles on the pressure and insists on more details. “On which piece of cloth was your focus on? Which garment had the highest risk factor?” he asks. And the answer comes back: “The underpants.”
The FSB had tried to kill him with his own underpants.
Afterwards, he’s shown uploading a new film about the investigation to his social media channels, “Privyet!” he says. “Eto Navalny.” “Hi, it’s Navalny.” It’s his signature phrase. In Russia he is known for the blend of chutzpah, charm, forensic investigation and social media savviness that has fearlessly debunked the idea that Putin is a brilliant, all powerful mastermind who cannot be challenged, one mindblowing revelation at a time. The entire episode feels like a parable for the brutality and absurdity of Putin’s regime.
It was Bellingcat that brought the investigation to Navalny. But it was Pevchikh who checked it out and did the due diligence not just on the facts, but also on Grozev and the film-makers. What was your first impression of her, I ask Daniel Roher. “Scary,” he says. “Intimidating. Navalny was exactly like he was in the film, open and friendly. She was the gatekeeper.”
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The last office Pevchikh takes me into at the foundation is where her investigations team works. It’s small, its tightly packed desks occupied by a handful of young men who look up with expressions suggesting a mixture of respect, fear and affection when we enter. Pevchikh’s expression is, as usual, unreadable. She is not someone you’d want to play poker with. On the wall is a poster of Navalny – “a birthday gift from the design team,” she says – bearing the words “Be Scared of Nothing”.
In Vilnius, I’d spent the evening before our interview observing Pevchikh and her team in action. In a grand 19th-century apartment, they were shooting a film for YouTube about a corrupt deputy finance minister, and there was no doubt that she was the boss in this a roomful of slightly dishevelled men, a rather fabulous boss with coiffed hair, perfectly applied red lipstick, red nails and an inscrutable expression.
In Navalny’s absence, she now co-presents the YouTube investigations with her colleague Georgy Alburov. The investigations unit is arguably the nerve centre of the organisation, which Navalny launched in 2011 to expose Putin’s ruling party as what he called “a party of crooks and liars”. Banned from forming a political party, it was a route, he hoped – still hopes – that would one day lead him to power in a free and open Russia.
Anne Applebaum, the American author and academic, has been on the foundation’s advisory board since it relaunched last year as an international group and she describes it as “a really innovative form of opposition politics”. “It was the first ground-up political organisation in Russia since the early 90s,” she tells me. “It’s always had these two things: a huge grassroots organisation and these investigations with this Hollywood-style storytelling.
“Navalny, from being an anti-corruption investigator/blogger, managed to create the biggest opposition organisation that was independent from the Kremlin. And he managed to do this by recruiting and training a lot of people. He was innovative in crowdfunding and he made a very important move from blogging to YouTube which made his anti-corruption content more and more readily available and in an entertaining form. It’s a political party created off the back of a media organisation.”
The YouTube investigations were groundbreaking. I didn’t know who Maria Pevchikh was before seeing the documentary but I’ve been a long-time fan of the work because, early on, Pevchikh and Navalny cracked something that no western news outlet has mastered: they made investigations into financial corruption exciting.
“Navalny’s idea was that investigating corruption was a way of shifting the narrative, that it would open up opportunities,” says Pevchikh. “Investigative journalism in Russia was dead at that point. We tried something new with each one. Before there were drones, for example, we would fly a guy in a paraglider over these oligarchs’ houses to get footage.”
Navalny made it look easy: he was a master storyteller with the laconic informality of a late-night US chatshow host. “He was actually so, so bad when we started,” says Pevchikh, affectionately. “He was like, ‘You want me to talk to the camera?’ He was embarrassing. And then he just trained himself, he studied. That’s the way his personality works. He’s good at learning new stuff.” Above all, he was entertaining. He relentlessly, simply and endlessly took the piss. His refusal to take Putin seriously is at least part of the reason he’s now in a maximum-security prison.
The work now carries on without him. Within hours of Navalny’s arrest, Pevchikh and her team released Putin’s Palace, their most ambitious investigation to date, a feature-length film about Putin’s secret Black Sea super-mansion. An astonishing piece of work that used satellites, drones and 3D software to render the mansion’s jaw-droppingly grotesque interiors, which included a pole-dancing bar, it has now been viewed by 125 million people.
“We kept it real, but we tried to make it ugly,” she says. “A year later, actual photographs from the palace were leaked and they were so much worse than even we’d imagined.” Much of what they do, she says, is “trying to find those moments and just squeeze everything out of it to show how ridiculous he is.”
In her view, Putin is “a frat boy”. What do you mean? “He’s just quite basic. Putin is not some great thinker and strategist. He’s not exceptionally intelligent. His interests are very shallow. He just likes expensive things.”
That’s why she believes that, despite the hopelessness of the current situation, there is still hope. “I stopped trying to analyse video recordings of him. It’s pointless. He’s not subject to any logic or rational thinking. He does whatever is convenient to him on the day that he does it. And there could be a day where it’s convenient for him to release Alexei. And we just need to not miss that day.”
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Navalny had just emerged on to the national stage when Maria Pevchikh met him in 2011. She was still in her early 20s. She’d grown up in Moscow and, she says, her grandfather instilled in her a hatred of the FSB. Otherwise, her family was not political; her mother worked for Nissan and her father managed a chain of hotels. Aged 15, Maria won a place to study sociology at Moscow State University.
That’s so young, I observe, but she bats away the comment. “It was completely fine. I was 15. But my mental age was 45 and I started to suspect something was wrong because our department was the most corrupt department in the most corrupt institution that ever existed in Russia. It was insane. Everyone was taking bribes. It was like $200 to pass an exam. And it actually ended up in the first student protests since for ever.”
She decided to leave because she wanted “an actual university education” and moved to London and the London School of Economics. It was when she returned to Moscow that she saw an advert on Navalny’s blog. “He said he was looking for a lawyer to study procurement contracts for him so, being quite arrogant I guess, I just sent him a note saying, ‘I don’t have anything you need but here’s my résumé anyway.’ I was, like, 22, and he got back to me five minutes later with a joke saying that I had the perfect résumé of an MI6 spy.”
She began as a volunteer, researching bits and pieces for him. He’d started investigating state-run firms through a form of shareholder activism and one of her first tasks was researching the UK land registry for him to find details of oligarchs’ property transactions. She still spends a lot of time in London, has a flat in the city and a group of friends from university. Does Britain’s role in facilitating Russian kleptocracy make you angry, I ask. “It does make me angry… What’s happening in Ukraine, you know, mass rapes, mass killings, and all of that, it’s like with any illness, if you don’t treat it at the early stage, this is how it develops… Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares that Putin withdraws the troops from Ukraine, and some of the sanctions have been lifted and he gets away with it. That just cannot be allowed to happen.”
Navalny preaches an Obama-esque message of hope. And Pevchikh echoes it. “In Russia, there’s this very common way of thinking that nothing can change. But I’m convinced that we can change things.”
It’s partly, she says, because she’s old enough to have known a different Russia. “I grew up in the 90s. I had that glimpse of freedom. It was a different society. There was a band called t.A.T.u that represented Russia at Eurovision with two girls pretending to be lesbians. And everyone loved it. There was no homophobia like there is now. Nothing prevents Russia from being prosperous and rich and happy. I don’t think we have a corruption gene.”
Odessa Rae, the producer of Navalny, describes Pevchikh as “a fighter” and recalls seeing her go “toe to toe in challenging [Navalny]”. And at the moment, she’s focused on getting Navalny out of jail. But in the future? “Oh,” says Rae, “I think there’s no doubt that if Navalny ever formed a government, she’d be attorney general or the head of some ministry.”
Navalny’s poisoning was a defining moment, for the foundation and for Pevchikh. She had been in the Siberian city of Tomsk with Navalny when he was poisoned, and there’s another scene in the film in which she goes into his room and puts objects in bags in case they’re needed as evidence. It’s later revealed that there were traces of novichok on one of them.
“I remember standing,” she says now. “We had to wait before they opened the room for us. I remember when they did, I was standing at the doorway thinking: I could go home now. I could fly to London. And this would be perfectly fine. No, I will have no trouble. Everything will be OK. And I’ll be out of this nightmare. Or if I go in? That will be the end of my life as it is now.”
She went through the door.
Vera Krichevskaya, the co-founder of the Dozhd, or TV Rain, which was the last independent TV station in Russia until it too was forced into exile, has known Navalny for years. She describes his courage as “historic”. But his absence has created a black hole. “The Russian opposition doesn’t have anyone. It’s empty. There’s just darkness and emptiness.”
But his colleagues remain “true believers”, she says. “I don’t know how they do it but they believe change is possible. They have an expression, ‘Beautiful Future Russia’. Recently that has sounded like a joke. For most of us in exile, it’s getting darker every day but they refuse to believe that. They are true optimists.”
Is it journalism, I ask her, the YouTube investigations? Or activism? “It’s politics. Navalny is a politician. They all are. They just found this niche and this really specific language to make these investigations accessible to a very wide audience.”
According to Krichevskaya, Pevchikh has the same steel as Navalny. “Sometimes I think she is not human because she doesn’t have fear. I saw her many times in Europe, walking alone. I understand her power, her influence, how they hate her. That story she just did about the deputy defence minister? In her place, I would live in a bunker after that story.”
Navalny’s main message, the one that’s on the poster in Pevchikh’s office, is “Be scared of nothing”. It didn’t come naturally to her, she says. “At first I would behave more courageously than I actually felt. But then with time you absorb it.”
On the phone a couple of weeks ago, Pevchikh tells me about a new Bellingcat discovery and suddenly it feels like the risks she’s taken have become all too real: Christo Grozev had found evidence that the FSB poisoning team had also visited her hotel in Tomsk. “And their theory is that they were going to set me up. Navalny was meant to die on the plane. And then I’d have been arrested. What freaks me out is that I know it would have worked. Even if Bellingcat proved it wasn’t me, it would have always existed as a conspiracy theory. Even my colleagues would have wondered.”
Pevchikh rarely shows emotion but now I can hear it in her voice. If Bellingcat’s theory is correct, she would be trapped not just in a Russian prison but in a lie. “Be scared of nothing” seems about as implausible as a “beautiful future Russia”, but if Navalny’s model really is to instruct by example, he seems to have succeeded.
• Navalny is available to stream on various platforms
• This article was amended on 24 January 2023 to clarify that where the interview says “efforts are ongoing”, this refers to previously mentioned diplomatic efforts to release Alexei Navalny.