It’s rare that Yulia Navalnaya loses her resolve, says Julia Ioffe in a Vanity Fair profile of one of Russia’s most mysterious women. But when her activist husband, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned (seemingly by Russian agents) last August, Navalnaya, 44, allowed herself to shed a “silent cascade” of tears over an early-morning whisky. Arriving at his hospital in Siberia, she out-argued a “small battalion” of security officers who unsuccessfully tried to keep her from seeing her husband. She issued a public letter to Putin, demanding her husband be allowed to leave the country. He complied. Once Navalny was in a Berlin hospital, she visited him every day to adjust his pillows and play their favourite songs, including Duran Duran’s cover of Perfect Day. “Their 20th wedding anniversary came and went.”
The couple first met at a Turkish resort in 1998. They married two years later and, while Alexei was in and out of jail for his anti-government activism, Navalnaya raised their children (born in 2001 and 2008). Now, though, she’s a prominent figure in Russia’s “almost exclusively male” politics. Polite and friendly, she never lets her guard down – “like the consummate British lady from classic novels”, as one acquaintance puts it. When Navalny and an associate faced stiff jail sentences in 2013, only Navalnaya, among the crying women and “shell-shocked” men in their team, kept her composure. “These bastards will never see our tears,” she said. Now, while her husband is serving a sentence of at least two and a half years in a notoriously harsh prison, she sends him bundles of food, writes him letters and attends his court hearings. “I am awfully happy to see you,” he said, beaming, when he caught sight of her during one video link.