Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Yulia and Alexey Navalny with the politician’s closest associates: Leonid Volkov and his wife Anna Biryukova, Maria Pevchikh, and Kira Yarmysh. January 2021.

‘The main risk is that they’ll kill us all’ How Navalny’s team worked while he was in prison — and what changed after his death

Source: Meduza
Yulia and Alexey Navalny with the politician’s closest associates: Leonid Volkov and his wife Anna Biryukova, Maria Pevchikh, and Kira Yarmysh. January 2021.
Yulia and Alexey Navalny with the politician’s closest associates: Leonid Volkov and his wife Anna Biryukova, Maria Pevchikh, and Kira Yarmysh. January 2021.
Leonid Volkov

In 2011, Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), an organization dedicated to fighting government corruption. Since its inception, the FBK has released numerous investigations into the corrupt dealings of public officials and served as a rallying point for the Russian political opposition — prompting a government crackdown and eventual nationwide ban. After Navalny’s death in a Russian prison in February 2024, the organization was left suddenly leaderless. Meduza spoke with several FBK members to get an in-depth look into the group’s history and to learn how the organization most known for its famous leader is trying to find its way in the wake of his death.

Meduza originally published this report in Russian on May 6. The following translation has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.

“Fuck, it’s cold!” Georgy Alburov let out a laugh as he touched down in an open field, paraglider in tow. With freezing hands, he tossed the camera dangling from a strap around his neck over his shoulder and took in the scene around him. A September morning on the outskirts of Moscow: sleet covering the ground, gray sky above, and a rare forest out in the distance. 

As a member of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alburov was filming one of the FBK’s first anti-corruption documentaries — about the then-head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin (the one with the fur coat storage facility). 

“Imagine someone with a loud motor, flying over the elites’ homes in Rublyovka and taking photos,” recalls Alburov. “It’s surprising I didn’t get shot out of the sky!

Georgy Alburov

Thanks to Alburov’s aerial photography, Russians got to see the luxurious dachas of not only Yakunin but also Moscow Governor Andrey Vorobyov and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu for the first time. But that was only the beginning.

A brief history of the FBK

Alexey Navalny launched the FBK in September 2011 with the express purpose of exposing and rooting out corruption by Russian government officials. He initially positioned the FBK as a community project, but Navalny associate Vladimir Ashurkov told Meduza that, in reality, the organization had political objectives. 

“Navalny recognized that the fight against corruption unites everyone — regardless of their political views,” Ashurkov remarked. “In a country like Russia, fighting corruption is inherently political, and that’s exactly how he planned to tackle it.” 

The spotlight on Navalny intensified in 2012 after he assumed a leading role in the mass demonstrations against alleged fraud in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections. Navalny emerged from what became some of the biggest protests in Russia since the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 as the new face of the opposition. He’d officially shaken the hornet’s nest, and the Kremlin decided to respond with a wave of political repressions targeting the protest leaders.

Even though we’re outlawed in Russia, we continue to deliver exclusive reporting and analysis from inside the country. 

Our journalists on the ground take risks to keep you informed about changes in Russia during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Support Meduza’s work today.

Ashurkov says that the Kremlin exerted increased political pressure on not only the protest leaders themselves but also their associates. In early 2012, he was fired from his job at Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group — allegedly due to his involvement with Navalny and the FBK. “I understand that you’re not doing anything illegal, but we deal with the government every day, so we have to let you go,” Ashurkov recalls his former boss saying. Fridman declined to comment on the matter, but a source close to him confirmed that the decision came after Fridman had met with a “high-ranking official” from the Russian presidential administration. 

Despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on opposition leaders following the protests, the government allowed Navalny to run in Moscow’s mayoral elections the following year. Officials were confident that Navalny would suffer a crushing defeat at the polls; they figured the electoral blow would be so severe that his movement would fizzle out on its own. However, much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, that’s not how the election played out. Navalny came in second place with nearly 27 percent of the vote — 20 percent higher than his pre-election polling numbers

Navalny calling municipal deputies. June 27, 2013.
Evgeny Feldman

This was the first and last time the Kremlin would allow Navalny to run for office. Over the next several years, the FBK amassed an enormous following on YouTube. Navalny did livestreams and posted anti-corruption investigatory videos that have accumulated tens of millions of views. One particularly damning FBK investigation into then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, called “He’s Not Dimon to You,” sparked a wave of nationwide protests; in Moscow alone, over a thousand protestors were arrested.  

Georgy Alburov launching a drone. October 11, 2016.
Evgeny Feldman

In the lead-up to the 2018 presidential campaign, Navalny decided to throw his hat into the ring and opened up campaign offices around the country; these offices provided him with the infrastructure needed to collect the 300,000 signatures required to run and increase political engagement among Russians. 

Navalny himself spent this time traveling to different regions and campaigning on an anti-corruption platform — although he was met with fierce resistance from federal and local authorities wherever he went. Commercial property owners who allowed the FBK to operate out of their establishments were beaten and threatened, and rallies in support of Navalny were forbidden in several cities. Navalny himself was arrested several times for organizing “unauthorized rallies,” and, in one instance, he was nearly blinded in one eye when someone threw brilliant green dye in his face. 

A rally in Murmansk, Russia. September, 15, 2017.
Evgeny Feldman

After agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (the FSB) poisoned Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent in 2020, an independent investigation found that it was during this electoral campaign in 2017 that the authorities began surveilling him.

Exiled and underground

On the evening of January 17, 2021, a plane flying from Berlin began its descent over Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport. Crowds of Navalny supporters had gathered at Vnukovo in anticipation, waiting to greet the opposition leader who’d been poisoned a few months prior and evacuated to Germany for treatment. The plane, however, did not land as scheduled. Over the PA system, the pilot announced that due to “technical problems,” they were being rerouted to a different Moscow airport.

Navalny’s return to Moscow drew significant media attention. Thousands of Russians were tracking his flight, and almost half of the passengers on board were journalists who spent the duration crowding the aisle and leaning over other passengers to get a picture and a comment. These were Navalny’s final hours of freedom before he was arrested at passport control in Moscow and subsequently sentenced to 19 years in prison. 

Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Six months after Navalny’s arrest, the government designated the FBK and other groups associated with Navalny as “extremist” organizations. Formally, this label banned the FBK from distributing any information about its operations, receiving donations, participating in elections, and organizing rallies. But what it really meant was a full crackdown on political dissent: peaceful political work was now equated with terrorist activities. 

The FBK was forced to shut down its campaign offices, and about 30 prominent staff members had to flee Russia out of fear of political persecution. One source told Meduza that, while the FBK’s leadership offered assistance to members who no longer felt safe in Russia, he believes they didn’t do enough to dissuade those who chose to stay, knowing full well they’d face criminal charges.

How the Russian authorities have dealt with Navalny’s supporters

The “extremist” designation paved the way for the government to bring criminal charges against several FBK employees and Navalny supporters for their involvement with the organization. In November 2021, police arrested the former head of the FBK’s Ufa headquarters, Lilia Chanysheva. In June 2023, she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for “calling for extremism” and “creating an extremist organization.”

In the summer of 2023, the former head of the FBK’s Barnaul headquarters, Vadim Ostanin, was sentenced to nine years in prison, and the former technical director of the Navalny Live YouTube channel, Daniel Kholodny, was sentenced to eight. In December of the same year, the former coordinator of the FBK’s Tomsk headquarters, Ksenia Fadeeva, also received nine years in prison.

On March 14, 2024, university student Alina Olekhnovich and graduate Ivan Trofimov were each sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for alleged involvement in Navalny’s “underground headquarters.” Two weeks later, journalist and photographer Antonina Favorskaya was arrested in connection with her extensive coverage of Navalny’s trial and charged with “participation in an extremist community.” 

At least 55 individuals have faced criminal charges for their alleged involvement with the FBK since its “extremist” designation in 2019.

In an interview with Meduza, Leonid Volkov, the former chairman of the FBK, stressed that after the Russian government labeled the FBK as an “extremist organization,” he personally “strongly urged” anyone who’d ever been on Navalny’s payroll to leave the country. But there were some who refused to leave, and not even Navalny’s team could force them to.

“People still ask me why I didn’t get Lilia Chanysheva out of the country,” Volkov said. “How could I have taken a grown woman out of the country who didn’t want to go? She didn’t want to be involved in politics anymore, and she just wanted to live in peace and have a family with her husband in Russia. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any way for me to forcibly remove Lilia, and it’s still painful for me to think about to this day.”

A woman holds a sign supporting Lilia Chanysheva as part of a solitary picket. St. Petersburg, Russia. November 11, 2021.
Andrey Bok / Kommersant / SIPA USA / Scanpix / LETA

Although the FBK assessed the risks for ordinary volunteers as relatively low, Volkov noted that they still helped them with the paperwork for foreign visas or requesting political asylum abroad. In all, the FBK wrote about 1,500 letters on volunteers’ behalf. 

“It just wasn’t feasible to get the tens of thousands of donors and volunteers who’d worked with the FBK between 2017 and 2021 out of Russia,” Volkov continued. “ We focused on evacuating the coordinators: we paid for their plane tickets and just gave them money.”

Not all exiled activists have been able to build a life for themselves abroad. One émigré who had worked on multiple political campaigns for FBK candidates spoke with Meduza about how he ended up in Europe without work authorization: “The FBK was able to help some people with documents, but others were redirected to external nonprofits for assistance. It was every man for himself.” 

“When the first few activists, like Zhdanov and Volkov, began leaving Russia, the FBK expected that they could tap into their connections abroad to help their workers find jobs outside of Russia; but, as it turned out, no one was hiring,” he recounted. 

In the end, the activist continued, many moved to Europe with no experience living abroad, no knowledge of a foreign language, and no hope of successfully integrating into their new countries. 

Former FBK Murmansk coordinator Violetta Grudina also opened up about her struggle to find work abroad and called on the FBK and opposition figures like Maxim Katz and Mikhail Khodorkovsky to help: “What kind of beautiful Russia of the future can we talk about if no one considers those in need?”

“We had every right to throw up our hands and lament over the fact that our life’s work was ruined,” Volkov told Meduza. “I spent four years building a network of offices, touring 62 cities, interviewing thousands of people, recruiting some absolutely amazing staff. We’ve been through so much together. And one asshole can label them all as fucking terrorists with the stroke of a pen and say they’re all going to jail.”

But instead of giving up, Volkov continued, Navalny’s associates decided to concentrate on the work they still could do. The FBK established an eponymous U.S. nonprofit organization, which has allowed it to continue publishing its investigations on social media. Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the FBK has compiled an extensive list of individuals who have enabled the war in one way or another; the list includes not only Kremlin officials but also figures like media propagandists, celebrities who have publicly endorsed the war, and heads of state-owned companies that have fueled the Kremlin’s war machine. 

“Navalny Live” hosts Ivan Zhdanov and Ruslan Shaveddinov preparing for a broadcast at the FBK office in Vilnius, Lithuania. January 13, 2022.
Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos

Since 2021, much of the FBK’s official work has revolved around producing media content in exile. But despite the risks, the FBK has strived to continue its on-the-ground activist work back in Russia. On October 4, 2022, Navalny’s associates relaunched a new network of in-country offices — this time, they’d operate underground. 

Now, instead of physical offices in Russia, the group has “a secure online platform where [organizers can] communicate with activists about useful tasks, and activists choose the tasks based on the amount of risk they’re willing to take on,” Volkov explained. The platform uses a Tor browser which means it can’t be blocked by the Russian government. 

Anyone can fill out an application, and applicants are put into chat rooms based on their skills (IT specialists, designers, filmmakers, and so on). Twenty thousand people have signed up to help so far, with between 1,000 to 4,000 active members at any given time. 

One active participant in the FBK’s underground network told Meduza about how the system works: “It’s a bunch of anonymous chats where people can communicate and support one another. They also send out FBK flyers and posters, and people can bounce new ideas off each other. Even if some troublemaker or agent from Center E infiltrates the chat, it’s completely anonymous; they can’t track anyone down.”

An FBK investigation

New joint investigation returns to ‘Putin’s palace’ with hidden camera for updated tour of Russian president’s billion-dollar hideout

An FBK investigation

New joint investigation returns to ‘Putin’s palace’ with hidden camera for updated tour of Russian president’s billion-dollar hideout

It was this underground network that helped carry out an FBK publicity stunt at the start of 2024. One morning, residents in several Russian towns awoke to see new billboards advertising a creative competition, with a QR code to follow for details. However, instead of information about a competition, Russians were taken to an FBK website with the headline “Russia Without Putin.” 

After Navalny’s arrest in 2021, the FBK team had to grapple with running the organization as access to its leader became increasingly limited. At the start of Navalny’s prison term, his associates sent him mail several times a week. FBK Director Ivan Zhdanov described how they’d mail him “everything that happened on the Internet, from screenshots of pertinent Tweets to articles and books,” allowing Navalny to make effective decisions for the FBK in the first year of his imprisonment. 

Correspondence became increasingly difficult as the prison ramped up its censorship of the FBK’s letters. The FBK staff had to use coded language to get certain messages through. For example, they kept Navalny abreast of political developments in Russia by pretending they were describing events in America. As Zhdanov explained: “You write that the American Democratic party — meaning, Putin’s United Russia party — decided to increase the number of polling days to three. The censor’s not very bright, he won’t understand you’re talking about voting in Russia.”

But after Navalny was transferred to Correctional Facility No. 3 (IK-3) in Kharp, a Russian village north of the Arctic Circle, in December 2023, communication completely broke down.

Meduza photographer and photo editor Evgeny Feldman detailed that, although technically speaking, the infrastructure to communicate with Navalny was there, it would be a stretch “to call the process ‘communication.’”

In total, Feldman said Navalny responded to three of the four letters he sent to Kharp. One of Feldman’s letters was three pages long, but Navalny received only the first and third pages, and he couldn’t understand what Feldmen was trying to convey in the letter.

One December 2023 response from Navalny took several months to make its way to Feldmen before it was finally delivered in March 2024 — a month after Navalny's death.

Shaping a legacy

When Alexey Navalny’s death was first reported on February 16, 2024, his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. After the news broke, the conference organizers offered Navalnaya the opportunity to say a few words on the main stage; in her speech, she called for the world to unite against Putin and his regime. Three days later, she released a video in which she stated that she intended to continue her late husband’s fight.

Taking on the mantel

‘We know exactly why Putin killed Alexey three days ago’ Yulia Navalnaya announces she will continue her husband’s work

Taking on the mantel

‘We know exactly why Putin killed Alexey three days ago’ Yulia Navalnaya announces she will continue her husband’s work

Zhdanov said the FBK had no clear strategy in place should Navalny be killed and that everything in the wake of his death was done on the fly. According to him, Yulia’s speech in Munich was a personal decision, but one that Navalny’s team fully supported: “Considering the FBK staff’s complete devastation at the time, I think it gave everyone some hope, a way out of the situation.”

Although Yulia previously rejected the idea of entering politics, she’s made clear her resolve to seek justice for her husband. In an April 2024 interview with Time magazine she stated, “If they think they can kill Alexey and that’s the end of it, they are wrong.”

Yulia Navalnaya sits on the FBK’s board of directors, but, Zhdanov says, “it doesn’t matter what her position is — she’s the leader of our movement, and we see her as the leader of the entire Russian opposition.” Alexey Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who now works with his widow, told Meduza that it’s still premature to talk about Navalnaya’s next steps.

Volkov believes the FBK’s main tasks moving forward are to maintain its position as the main opposition force in Russia and to expand its support network there. Volkov noted that “in Russia, 15-18 million unique users per month engage with [the FBK’s] media content and are interested in the FBK as a political force.” “These people will be the main agents of change in the event of Vladimir Putin’s death or some other sudden power vacuum.”

However, one person in the FBK’s underground activist network was more pessimistic about the organization’s future prospects. “Everyone loved Navalny — not the FBK,” he said. “Although the FBK is Navalny’s life’s work, due to several FBK members’ past actions and stances on certain issues, support for the FBK is dwindling among political opposition activists in Russia.”

* * *

The Anti-Corruption Foundation continues to face an uphill battle. For example, there is a real risk that the Russian authorities will cut off the country’s access to YouTube — the organization’s main platform for publishing its investigations and sharing video content. Another source familiar with the situation at the FBK told Meduza that the organization is facing financial challenges already, even without YouTube being blocked in Russia.

The FBK office in Vilnius, Lithuania. January 13, 2022.
Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos

The FBK’s present working conditions are also incredibly challenging. Volkov pointed out that employees work inconsistent hours for little pay, and they do so at great personal risk — even when they live and work abroad. “But to refuse to do this work would be a betrayal to Navalny’s memory,” Volkov emphasized. “The main risk now is that they’ll just kill us all.”

Just a few hours after Volkov’s conversation with Meduza, he was attacked by a group of assailants outside his home near Vilnius, Lithuania.

Investigating Navalny’s death

‘The FSB understood Navalny’s value’ Journalist Christo Grozev on how he plans to investigate Navalny’s death

Investigating Navalny’s death

‘The FSB understood Navalny’s value’ Journalist Christo Grozev on how he plans to investigate Navalny’s death

Story by Elizaveta Antonova with additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter

  • Share to or