Derechos humanosDictaduraPolíticaViolencia

Lyubov Sobol’s Hope for Russia

With Alexey Navalny in prison, one of his closest aides is carrying on the lonely work of the opposition.

In May, on the eve of Orthodox Easter, when the Russian politician Lyubov Sobol normally would have been at an all-night church service, she was in her four-hundred-square-foot apartment in Moscow talking to me. A court order required Sobol to remain at home every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.; she was also banned from using the Internet or the telephone. She had received a suspended sentence in one case and was awaiting trial in another, on charges stemming from her work with the opposition leader Alexey Navalny. For now, Sobol is the only one of the half-dozen people who run Navalny’s projects who is neither under arrest nor living in exile. Navalny is in a prison colony a couple of hours east of Moscow, ostensibly for failing to check in with his parole officer after he was poisoned by the state. His real offense, of course, was exposing the crimes and the gaudiest assets of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Sobol, who is thirty-three, wore a polka-dot navy dress and an electronic ankle monitor that dangled over one of her fuzzy beige slippers. She poured tea, tried to keep her antic Bengal kitten out of my lap, and talked about courage. Navalny has often spoken to his supporters about overcoming fear, but Sobol doesn’t think that he actually feels any fear. She doesn’t, either. “I am, by nature, a fanatic. You cannot scare a fanatic,” she said. “The only threat to a fanatic is disillusionment. But my faith is justice, and I cannot become disillusioned in the idea of justice.”

Under Putin, who rose to power in 1999, when Sobol was eleven years old, cynicism has become the ruling ideology of Russia. The core of Putinism is the belief that the world is rotten, everything is for sale, and anyone who says otherwise is lying, probably because they are being paid to do so. In the past decade, Navalny and his team have built a movement on the premise that honesty and fairness are both desirable and possible in what they call, without irony, the “wonderful Russia of the future.” Putin’s regime rests on corruption, domination of the information sphere, and a narrative of legitimacy created by phony elections; Navalny attacks on all of these fronts. A network of local offices, called the Navalny Headquarters, has organized protests and get-out-the-vote campaigns throughout Russia. Their political party, Russia of the Future, has fielded many candidates for office, although they are almost never allowed on the ballot. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has exposed how the powerful make themselves rich, and the four-year-old YouTube channel Navalny Live has supplemented these investigations with witty commentary, sight gags, and drone footage and digital renderings of ill-gotten palaces and mansions.

Sobol has been with Navalny from the start. In 2011, before she finished law school, she took a job with him investigating suspicious government purchases; in 2018, she took charge of Navalny Live. She has attempted to run for office three times, most recently for Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Her electoral campaigns and her popular weekly YouTube show, “What Happened?,” have made her a public face of the opposition movement, second only to Navalny, who has become an almost mythic figure: within the past year, he has survived being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, identified his would-be assassins, and then defied threats and good sense by returning to Russia from Germany, where he spent his recovery. But where Navalny’s public presentation is cocky, droll, and irreverent, Sobol has the deportment of a straight-A student, a tireless nerd. In her videos for Navalny Live, she is measured and methodical while presenting proof of financial corruption and a disregard for human life among the Russian ruling élite. Hers is an anti-charismatic charisma: she offers the mesmerizing comfort of listening to someone who has triple-checked her facts, for whom lying would be unthinkable. A recent video, in which she discussed a tracking device found in her campaign manager’s iPhone, has more than a million and a half views.

This spring, a court declared Navalny’s network an “extremist organization,” a move that forced the closure of its offices and left former employees and supporters vulnerable to prosecution. Sobol ended her campaign for parliament. It may seem surprising that she ever imagined she would appear on the ballot in the first place. But this kind of optimism is the essence of her relentlessly logical theory of change—her defiant politics of radical normalcy.

In the nineteen-nineties, many Russian kids watched American television shows dubbed into Russian: “The A-Team,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Friends.” But Sobol, who grew up with her mother and sister in a working-class exurb of Moscow, got hooked on a Soviet miniseries based on the Sherlock Holmes stories. She wanted to be a private detective when she grew up, but adults told her that those didn’t exist anymore, so she figured she would become a police investigator. As a teen-ager, she read the court statements of the jurists who participated in pre-revolutionary Russia’s brief experiment with jury trials, and she decided to become a lawyer. She was admitted to the Moscow State University law department—considered the best in the country, full of rich kids with connections. Although she no longer envisioned herself making passionate speeches in the courtroom, she discovered a new sense of idealism. Sobol loved the law, she told me, “because it offers a framework for living that is grounded in reason.” She specialized in corporate law.

As a student, Sobol spent a lot of time on LiveJournal. In the United States in the two-thousands, LiveJournal was a repository of adolescent confessional blogging. In Russia, it became a substitute for the public sphere, which Putin had hollowed out by taking over independent media outlets. On LiveJournal, readers could find essays, poetry, and political commentary unhindered by censorship and uninfected by cynicism. In 2010, Sobol came upon the blog of Navalny, then a young lawyer who wrote mainly about corruption. Every few days, he would pose a new question: Why are the heads of Russian uniformed services refusing to disclose their salaries? Why is the state natural-gas monopoly selling off its subsidiary companies, and why is Putin’s childhood friend Arkady Rotenberg buying them up? Navalny had also filed lawsuits against the state oil and transport monopolies, which he was trying to force to account for multimillion-dollar irregularities in their books.

In early 2011, Navalny wrote that he was assembling a team of lawyers to “do the dull, methodical work of writing complaints, filing complaints, and attending hearings in the courts and anti-monopoly committees.” To Sobol, this sounded like a dream job: corporate law meets Sherlock Holmes. In one of her job interviews with Navalny, she told him, “I’m happy to meet you because I’ve been reading you for a long time, and I’m glad that you haven’t been killed or arrested yet.” He laughed.

Navalny hired Sobol, then twenty-three years old, as his new organization’s first lawyer, at a salary of about two thousand dollars a month. Sobol’s classmates were making five times more than that by joining Western management-consulting companies, but she would have taken the job for free. She worked out of her bedroom, often forgetting to stop for food or sleep. Her skin broke out from anxiety and overwork, and from eating too much junk food. In April, 2011, she married a man whom she’d been dating since her first year of college. Her most vivid memory of her wedding day is slathering a thick layer of foundation on her face before the ceremony. In May, she graduated from Moscow State. Her marriage fell apart a few months later.

By the summer of 2011, Navalny had hired a handful of employees and rented an office. The staff wore jeans and sneakers; their workplace had the overfamiliar, overconfident ambience of a tech startup. Sobol, who favored prim skirts and blouses, stood slightly apart. When Navalny suggested, as he did with all staff members, that they switch to the familiar pronoun ty, for “you,” Sobol demurred; even today, she uses the formal vy with him, and he addresses her as ty, as though their relationship were that of student and teacher. While other team members, most of them as young as she was, led flashier projects, Sobol scrutinized the government’s procurement database, sifting through thousands of records. Navalny was pursuing increasingly bigger targets, such as V.T.B., Russia’s second-largest bank, which is controlled by the state. He uncovered what looked like hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of kickbacks and embezzlement, and challenged some of the bank’s business transactions in court. (V.T.B. denied his allegations, and the case was thrown out.) At the same time, the Investigative Committee, the country’s top prosecutorial authority, launched a criminal probe into Navalny. He was eventually charged with embezzling timber from the Kirov Region, where he had briefly served as an unpaid consultant to a liberal governor. (He received a five-year prison sentence, which was suspended.) His blog’s tagline announced, “The final showdown between good and neutrality.”

At the end of 2011, Sobol joined hundreds of thousands of people who were demonstrating across Russia, demanding free and fair elections. Many of the protesters carried banners and posters that used language promoted by Navalny, who had branded Putin’s government “the party of crooks and thieves.” Navalny was jailed for fifteen days, along with dozens of others. People in Moscow joked that the pretrial detention center was the coolest spot in town. The performance-art protest group Pussy Riot, not yet jailed or world famous, climbed onto the roof of a garage outside the jail to play a show for the inmates. A community that had existed only online was in the streets. Russia had never seemed so open.

Sobol closely studied this expanding world of people who believed, as she did, that their country should change. They included Sergei Mokhov, a recent political-science graduate, who claimed to belong to a movement called Existential Russia. Its manifesto began, “1. Russia is pain and emptiness.” It continued, “We live in a country where young people have nowhere to grow and find fulfillment . . . a country ruled by cronyism and corruption.” Sobol wrote to Mokhov, and they met at the end of December, 2012; a year later, they were married.

It’s hard to imagine two people who understand the world, and themselves in it, more differently than Mokhov and Sobol. Mokhov, a competitive powerlifter, earned a doctorate in sociology and for three years ran the country’s first, and so far only, journal of death studies. (The journal closed in 2018.) His work has won academic and literary acclaim. “I like to see him recognized, and I’m happy that it makes him happy, but I do not read his books or his journal,” Sobol told me. The subject matter is “too gloomy.” (Mokhov has a similarly distant attitude toward his wife’s activism—he reads her social-media posts, but only to track threats against her.) “We are both strong people,” Sobol said. “Sometimes he might be even stronger than I am.”

In 2012, the Kremlin cracked down on the protests, sending three dozen activists and rank-and-file protesters to prison. Many of the organizers went into exile. They said that they could do more abroad than in jail, but the unspoken message was that they had lost hope. (“1. Russia is pain and emptiness.”) Navalny stayed in Russia, despite a series of arrests on trumped-up charges. In 2013, he ran for mayor of Moscow and came in second out of six candidates, with twenty-seven per cent of the vote. His organization’s researchers studied the tax filings and property records of leading bureaucrats and compared them with their official salaries; they tracked the accounts and assets of those bureaucrats’ relatives, who often turned out to have fleets of cars and a variety of real-estate holdings registered in their names. The team found the locations of the posh estates of various officials and posted pictures of them. In 2013, they bought a drone, taped a GoPro camera to it, sent it flying over the defense minister’s sprawling home outside Moscow, and put the footage on YouTube. Later, they briefly worked with the owner of a powered paraglider who flew over and photographed the palatial residences of the prosecutor general’s family and of Putin’s childhood friends the Rotenbergs. This year, the Anti-Corruption Foundation flew a camera drone over the prison colony where Navalny was about to serve time. In the resulting film, posted on YouTube, a staff member, Dmitry Nizovtsev, says in a voice-over, “This is, to be sure, the least luxurious building we have ever shown on this channel.”

In February, 2014, Putin was a very busy autocrat. He hosted the Winter Olympics, in Sochi, shipped a new batch of activists to prison colonies, and seized Crimea. Sobol gave birth to a girl, Miroslava. The mass protests of 2011 and 2012 now seemed distant and naïve. Navalny was under house arrest. “I felt I had to do something,” Sobol said. She ran for Moscow city council, printing refrigerator magnets and flyers with the slogan “An honest government for a livable city.” In her campaign photo, she wore a white blazer, arms folded in front of her chest, her gaze trained on the future—a cross between a Young Pioneer and a real-estate agent. But she had little preparation, was nursing a newborn, and faced a system rigged against anyone who was not loyal to the Kremlin. Her candidacy was doomed.

Sobol returned to her work as an investigator-watchdog. She noticed that, in Russia’s garrison towns, many contracts went to unknown, brand-new firms. A similar investigation was under way at Fontanka, an independent publication in St. Petersburg, which had also started reporting on the Internet Research Agency, a million-dollar-a-month troll farm allegedly financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin’s. Sobol and her colleagues connected the two stories by searching through state contracts and court decisions and identifying dozens of companies that they suspected were controlled by Prigozhin. In October, 2016, Navalny’s team released a video report titled “Putin’s Cook, the King of Dislikes: A Success Story.” “You’ve probably never heard his name,” Navalny says, introducing the piece, “but I assure you we are about to prove that you encounter the fruits of his labor almost every day.” Americans learned his name in 2018, when the special counsel Robert Mueller identified Prigozhin as the principal funder of efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Prigozhin has denied the allegation.)

In the nineteen-eighties, Prigozhin served nine years in prison for robbery and fraud. In post-Soviet Russia, he ran a chain of grocery stores and a restaurant where, in 2001, Putin, then the new President, dined. Prigozhin waited on him, and, as he later boasted, Putin “saw that I am not above personally serving a plate to people of royal standing, because they are my guests.” Thus began a friendship that made Prigozhin one of the wealthiest men in the country. He catered Putin’s private parties and Kremlin functions, vastly expanded his food business, and reportedly branched out into military procurement and media. Sobol compiled a spreadsheet of more than eight hundred government contracts that appeared to be connected to Prigozhin—deals that she estimated were worth more than a billion dollars. (Prigozhin denied having links to these contractors or using his profits to fund the troll farm.)

Navalny’s video claimed that, with his business proceeds, Prigozhin bought a private plane, a yacht, numerous luxury cars, and several lavish estates. Sobol and a colleague, Georgy Alburov, flew a drone over one property, in St. Petersburg, that included two mansions, a covered pool, a basketball court, a helipad, and an immense garage for the car collection. They found two more mansions that they said Prigozhin had built on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea, where he docked his five-and-a-half-million-dollar yacht. Sobol and the team suspected that they’d uncovered only a small part of Prigozhin’s holdings. “But this should be enough to show what a success story is in Putin’s Russia,” Navalny says at the end of the video. “It is, unfortunately, almost always a story about plundering the treasury, about profiteering off people—schoolchildren and conscripts.” Prigozhin, in an e-mail, called the video inaccurate, adding that Sobol is a “low-skilled lawyer” and that Sobol and Navalny are “actively seeking to cast themselves as ‘victims of political repression’ ” after “plundering donated funds.” He went on, “Sobol and Navalny were attempting to make me out to be a ‘demon’ who is purportedly tightly linked with Putin, in order to cast a shadow over the latter.”

On November 25, 2016, about a month after the Prigozhin report was posted, Mokhov was coming home late in the evening. A man stood by the building entrance, holding a bouquet of flowers. As Mokhov approached the door, the man lunged toward him, struck him in the hip, and ran toward a waiting car. Mokhov felt a sharp pain, and his legs went weak. He crumpled to the ground. He called Sobol, who was at her mother’s house, outside Moscow. “Lyuba, I’ve been injected with something—I’m passing out,” he said. A neighbor saw Mokhov on the pavement, unconscious, and called an ambulance, which rushed him to the Sklifosovsky Institute, a trauma center. Doctors suspected that he could have received a dose of a powerful neuroleptic or muscle relaxant, but even an hour after the attack they could not identify it. Mokhov was released from the hospital the next day.

At first, Sobol and Mokhov wondered if he had been targeted for his research on the Russian funeral industry, which is notoriously corrupt. They eventually concluded that whoever attacked Mokhov was sending a message to Sobol and Navalny’s circle. Two years later, an investigation by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta identified Mokhov’s assailant as a pharmacist in his thirties; he had died mysteriously six months after the attack. The newspaper interviewed the attacker’s accomplice, who later vanished. Novaya Gazeta reported that the pair had killed at least one person, the opposition blogger Sergei Tikhonov, who lived in the provincial town of Pskov. The newspaper also named the man whom the accomplice identified as their employer: Yevgeny Prigozhin.

By the time Novaya Gazeta published the article, Mokhov had spent months trying to persuade the police to investigate the attempt on his life. The police had access to the same security-camera footage that the newspaper had used to identify the attacker but did not open a criminal case, and Prigozhin denied any involvement in the attack or connection to the assassination team. Mokhov and Sobol drew contradictory conclusions from this experience. Mokhov told me, “I realized, once and for all, that there is no justice in Russia and there never will be.” Sobol redoubled her efforts to build the wonderful Russia of the future.

A few weeks after the attack, Navalny, Sobol, and other senior staff members of Navalny’s organizations convened a strategy session. They felt that, although they excelled at finding and documenting corruption, they were telling the same story to the same people over and over. They needed their own media outlet. The group discussed applying for a broadcast-radio license but quickly abandoned the idea—even if they could get it, they’d lose it as soon as they investigated someone powerful. That left YouTube. They would create an ersatz television channel, with daily and weekly shows and special investigative features. Navalny asked Sobol to lead its morning news-analysis program. “We were all saying, ‘What, you want Lyuba, our lawyer, to create a show?’ ” Maria Pevchikh, who runs the investigations department at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, recalled. Sobol shared Pevchikh’s skepticism. “I am a lawyer by nature,” she told me. “Even when I’m writing, it’s hard for me to translate, to do it in human language.”

Navalny Live débuted in the spring of 2017, alongside a fifty-minute report on Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s Prime Minister and formerly the President, that was published on Navalny’s personal YouTube channel. The video showcased some of Medvedev’s spoils—fine Italian wines and an extensive sneaker collection—and alleged that he had a giant estate outside Moscow and used an elaborate system of sham foundations to hide his wealth. (Medvedev called the allegations “false statements put forth by political opportunists.”) The report set off a new wave of protests and arrests, which the Navalny Live team spent a full day broadcasting from the studio. In the evening, the police raided their offices and confiscated video equipment. The next day, Sobol and her team continued production using their cell phones. They launched weekly talk shows anchored by Navalny and other activists. Navalny’s Thursday-night program regularly drew close to a million views.

Meanwhile, Sobol continued her legal pursuit of Prigozhin. Once she knew of his existence, she saw him everywhere. In late 2018, dysentery broke out in several public preschools in Moscow. State clinics diagnosed the children with the stomach flu or respiratory infections, but tests performed by private clinics consistently showed shigella, the bacterium that causes dysentery. Sobol gathered the stories of dozens of families and traced the infection to two of the preschools’ food suppliers: one company that was owned by Prigozhin and another that appeared to be indirectly linked to him. She also uncovered an earlier outbreak of dysentery in preschools serviced by yet another catering company that seemed to have a Prigozhin connection, and she found a whistle-blower who had collected photographs of spoiled food and dilapidated kitchens. (The company denied having any ties to Prigozhin, and the whistle-blower later retracted her testimony.) In court, Sobol represented twenty-two families in two cases that dragged on for two years. In a rare win for anti-corruption activists, the court obliged the catering companies to pay compensation to the families affected by the outbreak—about fourteen hundred dollars for every child who had been hospitalized.

Before the attempt on Mokhov’s life, members of Navalny’s organizations hadn’t imagined that their work could mortally endanger their loved ones. “I’m not sure Prigozhin would have reacted the same way to a man,” Pevchikh said. “But Lyuba is now his own personal enemy.” Sobol has lost track of how many times Prigozhin has sued her and her colleagues for defamation. A series of court decisions in the past two years have made Sobol, Navalny, and the Anti-Corruption Foundation liable for about $1.2 million in damages for their report on dysentery in preschools, payable to Prigozhin directly, even though the same court system had ruled that his company was responsible for damages resulting from the illness. In April and May of this year, a Moscow court ordered Sobol to pay Prigozhin much smaller sums for a social-media post that referred to him “stealing billions from the treasury” and for publicly linking him to the attack on her husband. Because of these judgments, any money that Sobol earns will be seized and awarded to Prigozhin. To avoid having to, in effect, work for her nemesis, Sobol quit her job with the Navalny organization late last year and became an unpaid volunteer.

Sobol’s stories, like the larger story of Putin’s Russia and the Navalny movement, are cyclical. Navalny and his allies organize, protest, investigate; the Kremlin cracks down. The investigations get bigger audiences, the protests grow larger, the videos are seen by more people, and the opposition candidates gain name recognition; they face more criminal charges, libel suits, arrests, raids, and assassination attempts. For the leaders of Navalny’s organizations, detentions, interrogations, and court hearings have started to run together. Sobol talks about them the way a rising American politician might talk about fund-raisers and unsuccessful campaigns: they are tedious and exhausting, but they are the unavoidable steps to building a political movement.

A survey conducted in April by the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, found that, in Moscow, Sobol’s approval rating is second to Navalny’s among politicians outside the Kremlin system, although Sobol is still unknown to a majority of respondents. “Like all people in the opposition, she has limited resources because she can reach people only through social networks,” Denis Volkov, the deputy director of the Levada Center, told me. Sobol saw the poll as further proof that she makes the powerful élite uneasy. “They are afraid to let me on the ballot because they realize that, even with all of their dirty tricks and falsifications, I am still in a position to win,” she said. “They know that even if they chopped my legs off I’d still get elected.” Volkov agreed that Sobol would likely win in a free and open election, which only Sobol can imagine ever happening.

In early 2019, Sobol collected signatures for another run for Moscow city council. Neither she nor any of the other eight prominent independent candidates was allowed on the ballot—anonymous bureaucrats deemed large percentages of their signatures invalid, without explanation. Sobol recorded a video response, wearing tasteful jewelry and a collarless navy jacket. She sounded uncharacteristically rattled, even a bit lost, as she talked about the election office’s ruling: “I think this is a political decision, and I—I am going on a hunger strike.” The idea had come to her just before she started recording.

Sobol thought that it would be hard to be on a hunger strike around her five-year-old daughter, so she moved to an office that Navalny’s organization had rented for her campaign. She slept on a cot in the basement, where cockroaches scurried on the walls and rats rustled in the ceiling. Two weeks later, Sobol marched into the Moscow Election Commission building. She brought signed affidavits from people whose signatures had been invalidated. A panel of bureaucrats rejected the documents, and Sobol demanded to meet with the top federal election official. Surrounded by journalists, Sobol stayed in the building for hours. When police finally came to remove her, Sobol plopped herself down on a small vinyl couch and started live-streaming the proceedings on her phone. She narrated, “I am sitting on a couch, committing no crimes, and here are one, two, three, four, five police officers carrying me down the stairs.” When they reached the exit, Sobol lifted her legs onto the couch so that the officers could squeeze it through the metal detector. Outside, on the building’s steps, she gave a fifteen-minute impromptu press conference. The officers waited for the journalists to disperse, then shoved her into a police car. (She was released two hours later.)

In all, Sobol did not eat for thirty-two days. She lost twenty-four pounds, and in the last week of the hunger strike she was constantly on the verge of fainting. Navalny and several other activists spent most of that summer under administrative arrest. Unlike Prigozhin, the Kremlin leadership did not seem to regard Sobol as a significant challenge to their authority. Still, whenever she called for protests, people showed up. Almost every day for six weeks, protesters staged demonstrations in central Moscow. The size of the crowds ranged from hundreds of people to tens of thousands—small and ultimately powerless groups in a country with a population of a hundred and forty-five million. And yet the rallies amounted to perhaps the most sustained protest movement in the history of post-Soviet Russia, certainly the largest in Moscow since the 2011 rallies for fair elections. “In 2019, she became a politician in her own right, rather than just a part of Navalny’s project,” Denis Volkov said.

On August 20, 2020, Navalny became gravely ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. By the time he regained consciousness, in a Berlin hospital three weeks later, the world knew that he had been poisoned. Navalny worked with Christo Grozev, a researcher with the open-source investigation collective Bellingcat, to identify the culprits. They determined, using flight records, that a team of seven men had been trailing Navalny for a couple of years; some of them had managed to dose his underwear with poison while he stayed in a hotel in Tomsk. Bellingcat published the results of this investigation as a dry, informative English-language text. The Russian version of the report came in two parts: a fifty-minute video, narrated by Navalny, called “Case Closed. I Know Who Tried to Kill Me,” and a follow-up, released a week later, titled “I Called My Assassin. He Confessed.” Thinking that Navalny was a higher-up from the F.S.B. (the modern K.G.B.), an alleged member of the killer team, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, had told him about the operation and his particular role in it: washing Navalny’s underwear to get rid of traces of Novichok.

Navalny’s poisoning marked the beginning of yet another cycle of arrests and detentions. After the second video was released, on December 21st, Sobol went to Kudryavtsev’s building, hoping to speak to him in person; she was arrested (an event that she live-streamed) and indicted on charges of trespassing. On January 17th, Navalny was taken into custody upon arrival at the Moscow airport. Hundreds of thousands of people in a hundred and twenty-five cities and towns across Russia protested his arrest. Sobol; Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh; Navalny’s brother, Oleg; and several other activists were detained and charged with violating pandemic restrictions by encouraging people to congregate in large numbers.

A court placed Sobol under house arrest, which prevented her from attending the final hearings in one of the dysentery cases. Mokhov took Miroslava to school and did the shopping, but after a month he had to leave town to take up a postdoctoral position at Liverpool John Moores University. (He despaired of securing a university position in Russia—he is a “marked man,” Sobol said.) Sobol’s mother moved in to help take care of Miroslava. Week after week, the police kept showing up with search warrants at six in the morning—a traumatic situation for a child. Sobol rented another small apartment nearby, for her mother and Miroslava, and now she lived alone. Her colleagues gave her the Bengal kitten.

After two months had passed, a Moscow court changed the terms of Sobol’s pretrial confinement in the case related to the January protest. The judge replaced house arrest with curfew but continued to prohibit her from using the phone or the Internet. “I think they softened the terms because otherwise they could have ended up putting me in jail for doing something like taking my kid to school,” Sobol said. On April 15th, Sobol was found guilty of trespassing when she tried to interview Navalny’s alleged assassin. She received a one-year community-service sentence, which was suspended. Meanwhile, the Moscow prosecutor’s office sought to have Navalny’s political movement declared extremist. “Under the guise of liberal slogans,” the prosecutors said in a statement, “these organizations are setting the stage for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation.” The designation would make any of the thousands of people who have worked with Navalny liable to prosecution and imprisonment for two to six years, or up to ten if the person is deemed a leader of the organization.

On April 29th, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff (no relation to Denis Volkov), announced that the nationwide network of field offices had no choice but to disband. The following day, the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny Live began moving out of the office tower in Moscow where they had been renting space for seven years. Sobol took some of the studio equipment to her apartment, where she would now record and edit her broadcasts.

On the afternoon of Volkov’s announcement, I met Sobol at a café near the Investigative Committee office where she had been reading her case file in preparation for trial. As we took our seats, she noticed a large man in a suit who sat down at an adjacent table and placed his phone, face up, on the edge closest to us. After lunch, she was going to Miroslava’s school to watch her take a running test—part of a program, revived from the Soviet era, in which people of all ages prove that they are “Prepared for Labor and Defense.” “She wants the shiny badge,” Sobol said. Sobol and Miroslava have had a few skirmishes with the state education system—together, they persuaded Miroslava’s preschool to take down a portrait of Putin—but even Sobol picks her battles.

As we walked to the athletic field behind Miroslava’s school, I asked Sobol why she was still in Russia. “Why shouldn’t I be here?” she said. It is her home, and fleeing the country would not make her safe: “My family friend Prigozhin will catch up with me.” She reeled off a list of assassinations that Russia has allegedly carried out abroad. There is also the risk of retaliation against family members. In March, after Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, left Russia, his father was arrested on false charges; he remains in jail today.

We arrived at the field with just moments to spare. Miroslava, who is now seven years old, had to run around the track three times. By the middle of the second lap, she was tired and clearly ready to quit. Sobol jogged alongside her: “Go, go, you are almost there!” At the finish line, Miroslava struggled to catch her breath, and cried. “You are so amazing!” Sobol said. “I didn’t think you’d make it even halfway.” She asked the phys-ed teacher when the children would receive their badges and learned that the running test was only the first of seven challenges. The runners and their parents proceeded to a nearby playground, where Sobol climbed the ropes course, got on the slide, and played tag with the kids. The other parents, observing from the benches, did not seem surprised.

The next day, Mokhov returned to Moscow from Liverpool for a month or so of field work, staying in the rented apartment with Miroslava and his mother-in-law. “This division of labor started in 2014,” he told me. “One of us goes to protests while the other is home with the kid.” Sobol called the arrangement “a normal, sane kind of symbiosis.” Mokhov described it differently. “Life is shit,” he said. “Emotionally, this is an appalling way to live. I have no private life. Lyuba says I knew what I was getting into when I married her, but I didn’t. I was getting married to a young lawyer, not to an opposition politician.”

Mokhov doesn’t want to leave Russia. But he sees no other option. “Everything is getting so much worse so fast,” he said. “I don’t have any optimism. Lyuba does. Sometimes we talk about it and I just don’t understand.” ♦


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