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Widow of Alexei Navalny takes center stage in Russia's opposition

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 16, on the day it was announced that Alexei Navalny had died.
Kai Pfaffenbach
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 16, on the day it was announced that Alexei Navalny had died.

MOSCOW — Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has announced she will continue her husband's work promoting democratic change in Russia.

"I have no right to give up. I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny," said Navalnaya, 47, in an emotional video posted to the YouTube channel of her late husband.

"I will continue to fight for our country and I urge you to stand next to me," she added forcefully.

In announcing her new role, Navalnaya made clear she blames Russian President Vladimir Putin for the death of her husband in a remote Russian prison colony Friday under unclear circumstances.

"There should have been another person in my place, but this person was killed by Vladimir Putin," she said.

Navalnaya's announcement came as she was due to attend a gathering of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels – where the topic of additional sanctions on the Kremlin leader over complicity in Navalny's death was expected to be discussed.

It also came as Russian authorities continued to prevent Navalny's family from gaining access to his body — a move that Navalnaya said was intended to cover up evidence of a crime.

Navalnaya said her husband's investigative team was at work identifying the cause of death and to reveal the identity of all those implicated in what she insists was his murder.

"We will not only reveal [the murderers'] names, but show you their faces," said Navalnaya.

Navalnaya was often a fixture at her husband's side throughout his career in opposition politics — not only when Navalny gave speeches, but as he endured arrests, criminal trials, poisonings and physical attacks.

ARussian gossip tabloid labeled her "the first lady of the opposition" in 2021 — a reflection of growing attention to Navalny's rising fame and Navalnaya's glamour and style. In reality, she was always more: Navalny's closest friend and advisor.

Navalnya was born Yulia Abrosimova in Moscow in 1976. According to Russian media reports, her father was a research scientist and her mother was employed at the Soviet central economic planning agency, Gosplan.

Abrosimova later earned a degree in economics at the prestigious Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow and began a career in banking.

Yet her life and career took a turn when she met a young lawyer named Alexei Navalny while on vacation in Turkey in 1998.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, right, embraces his wife Yulia, as he was released in a courtroom in Kirov, Russia, on July 19, 2013. Navalny died in prison on Friday.
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
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AP
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, right, embraces his wife Yulia, as he was released in a courtroom in Kirov, Russia, on July 19, 2013. Navalny died in prison on Friday.

Navalny was smitten as Abrosimova casually dropped the names of all government ministers during their conversations about life in Russia, according to press reports.

Two years later they were married and on their way to having two children.

"I didn't marry him because he was a promising lawyer and I didn't marry him for being an opposition leader," said Navalnaya in a 2020 interview.

"I married a young man named Alexei — a person with whom, from the very beginning, it was clear that there would be tough moments in life," she added.

"And for that reason, nothing unexpected has ever happened."

And yet with her husband now gone, Navalnaya is clearly setting out on her own unexpected trajectory: urging Russians to join her in fighting the Kremlin to reclaim their country.

"Putin not only killed the man called Alexei Navalny," she said, "he also wanted to kill our hopes, our freedom and our future."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charles Maynes
[Copyright 2024 NPR]