History hands Navalny’s widow a leading role

Dan Perry
5 min readMar 8, 2024

On International Women’s Day, let’s consider a possible new figure on the world stage

Rare is the successful person who appreciates that circumstances helped their elevation. Top skills and a strong work ethic are important to be sure, but whereas many possess those, a select few among them are rightly positioned when the hand of history reaches out to offer a speaking part. So it may be with Yulia Navalnaya.

The widow of Alexei Navalny, the courageous Russian opposition leader who was murdered by Vladimir Putin’s goons and was buried in Moscow last week, is a charismatic and sympathetic woman, as knows anyone who saw her at the Munich Security Conference in the days after his death. There are millions of such women around the world — but Navalnaya is the widow of a true martyr dispatched by our era’s most dangerous dictator.

So now the 47-year-old economist pledges to take up the mantle of her husband. Before we celebrate, though, let us carefully reflect — for the instinct against dynasties and nepotism is a healthy one. There’s no particular reason to expect that a great leader’s spouse will also be great. Hillary Clinton, for example, was a fine thinker but lacked her husband’s pernicious charms, which killed her electoral prospects.

There are some precedents, though.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike made history as the world’s first female prime minister when she succeeded her assassinated husband, Solomon Bandaranaike, in Sri Lanka in 1960. Corazon Aquino became president of the Philippines in 1986, after inheriting the mantle of her assassinated husband Benigno Aquino, who was a prominent opponent of President Ferdinand Marcos (whose own wife Imelda Marcos held roles in his government). Isabel Perón became the first female president in Latin America following the death of her husband, President Juan Perón, in 1974 (an earlier wife, Eva, also achieved some independent prominence before her untimely death, and ended up being played by Madonna). And Sonia Ghandi (despite being Italian) had huge influence on India after the assassination of Rajiv. More recently, Cristina de Kirchner in 2007 succeeded her husband Nestor as president of Argentina.

While not all of these are models of elevated statecraft or even decent governance, it obviously can work sometimes.

As to the matter at hand, Russia is a something of a case apart. Because its dictatorship is technologically advanced enough to truly control the media, and in fact possesses a world-class army of zombie bots, there is little room for new figures to gain fame. In such a situation, a person with fame in hand is worth two in the bush.

That goes double when the previous most prominent Russian opposition figure who is still living seems cowed into circumspection: former energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed for a decade after daring to challenge Putin, seems strongly inclined toward prudent reflection in his comfortable London exile.

That is a far cry from Navalny, whose death in an Arctic Circle penal colony was announced on Feb. 16. He barely survived a screwball effort in 2020 to kill him by poisoning his underwear — and then returned to Russia laughing at danger in the face.

During their marriage of more than 20 years, Navalnaya was mostly in the shadows, though she certainly was present at her husband’s side as he helped lead the biggest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She attracted public attention after the underwear poisoning when she successfully demanded Navalny be released to Germany for treatment. Navalny later posted: “Yulia, you saved me.”

In January 2021, the couple flew back to Russia. After Navalny was detained at the airport, Navalnaya said: “Alexei said that he is not afraid, and I’m not afraid either. And I urge you all not to be afraid.” Now she vowed in Munich: “I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny.”

His death seems somehow both needless and preordained; he was the ultimate anti-Putin. Putin’s regime has killed countless rivals, real and imagined; longtime loyalist oligarchs have lately shown clumsiness around precarious windows. But Navalny’s death ends any discussion. Even by Russia’s fantastically high bar, Putin is one of its vilest-ever thugs.

In a move that showed some dramatic flair, Navalnaya in recent days met with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of Belarusian opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was jailed in 2020 in the runup to a presidential election and whose exact fate remains unknown. She ran what is widely believed to have been a successful campaign in his place and fled to Lithuania after Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ longtime “president” and accomplished vote-rigger, declared himself the winner.

“We understood each other without any words,” Tikhanovskaya said of Navalnaya. The two make a striking contrast to their nemeses, the loutish Lukashenko (in power since 1994) and the reptilian Putin. In both cases, of Russia and Belarus, the widows’ role could be critical for projecting defiance against authoritarianism.

Theirs are narratives that can galvanize support from the international community, provide moral authority, and inspire grassroots movements, civil society organizations, and political activists to unite in common purpose. I find myself calculating the odds that, in a decade’s time, they will be the leaders of their countries. It would be a better world.


Navalnaya’s challenge would be enormous. The opposition is fractured and there is no clear game plan for removing a leader who rules by force through the secret police and its criminal offshoots. Indeed, Putin is on a path to serve another six years after a sham election later this month. His war in Ukraine seems to have made him, if anything, even more determined to smother dissent. That’s the message of the Navalny killing (the authorities claim natural causes, but let us not pretend).

Alexei Navalny is said to have returned to Russia because he felt it would be impossible to be seen as a legitimate opposition leader while living abroad. To me, that kind of courage borders on madness. Ayatollah Khomeini lived abroad; Russian communist leader extraordinaire Vladimir Ilych Lenin lived abroad. Here’s hoping Yulia Navalnaya stays far enough away; history has had its fill of martyrs. Putin will one day be brought down by people who are alive.



Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.