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How the role of Alexei Navalny's widow, Yulia, has changed since her husband's death

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The British government has imposed sanctions on six Russians who ran the penal colony where opposition leader Alexei Navalny died last week. The U.S. is preparing its own sanctions, and Navalny's widow says she is taking charge of his movement. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the tough road ahead as she picks up his mantle.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A leading Russian journalist now in exile, Yevgenia Albats, has known the Navalnys for decades and says Alexei was always trying to prove to Yulia that he was worth her love. Albats believes that made him a better politician.

YEVGENIA ALBATS: (Inaudible) there were two people inside this great Russian politician. It was Alexei and Yulia Navalnaya.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YULIA NAVALNAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: In a video released this week, Yulia Navalnaya says Vladimir Putin has, quote, "killed half of me, killed half my heart and my soul. But the other half lives and tells me I have no right to give up. I will continue Alexei Navalny's cause," she says. The 47-year-old has mostly been behind the scenes, raising their two children and playing a supportive role in his political movement. She burst into the limelight in 2020, when Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAVALNAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: Yulia went to the hospital with TV cameras to pressure Russia to let him go. She arranged for him to travel to Germany, where he recovered and uncovered the plot against him - a story told in an Oscar-winning documentary. Albats, now a media fellow at Harvard University, says Yulia was upset when Alexei decided to go back to Russia, but she knew she couldn't talk him out of it.

ALBATS: They were extremely close and extremely united. But everything would - Navalny did as a politician was done usually after deliberation and discussion with Yulia Navalnaya. I would say that she was the pragmatic side of this power couple.

KELEMEN: Alexei could get very emotional, while Yulia was more calculating, according to Albats. She says Navalny's widow can't go back to Russia as long as Putin is alive. But Yulia is likely now to get into politics, says economics professor Sergei Guriev, who has known her for a decade and describes her as strong and independent.

SERGEI GURIEV: Putin is a killer. And therefore, what Yulia is doing is extremely brave. But she's also so impressive that Putin will indeed be sorry that he has forced her to go into politics.

KELEMEN: In neighboring Belarus, the wife of a jailed opposition figure ran for president but had to flee and now lives in exile. That woman, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, does have influence abroad, but not inside Belarus. Some experts fear the same fate for Yulia Navalnaya. But Natalia Arno, who runs the Free Russia Foundation, thinks Navalnaya can be influential, galvanizing Western support for Russian democracy activists and reaching out to Russians through social media and through the exiled Russian press.

NATALIA ARNO: When I was looking at her, my impression was she has turned into an iron lady.

KELEMEN: She says Alexei Navalny often spoke about a beautiful future for Russia, as opposed to Putin, who is obsessed with the past and his war in Ukraine. Arno thinks Yulia Navalnaya can pick up on these themes.

ARNO: And this is what usually women do, very often. Yes, men can create ideas, but very often, women just work and do. And maybe in the times of the war, it's good to have a female figure on the top.

KELEMEN: And, she says, that's what exiled democracy activists need to see that the movement is still alive.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINK WRAY AND HIS RAY MEN'S "RUMBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.