Maria Pevchikh, Putin’s Grand Inquisitor

In the summer of 2020, the most charismatic dissident politician in Russia, Alexey Navalny, was travelling in Siberia, speaking to crowds hungry for a democratic alternative in an authoritarian time. For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had dispensed with plenty of opposition figures and truthtelling journalists, had made life profoundly unpleasant for Navalny and his family, but tolerated him—that is, he countenanced his existence. But there are limits to every tyrant’s patience.

While flying home to Moscow from the city of Tomsk, Navalny fell horribly ill—the result, it turned out, of being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Agents of Russian intelligence had dosed Navalny’s clothing—his underwear—and hoped that he would die during his flight to the capital. Instead, the pilot made an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk, where Navalny received rudimentary treatment. For reasons that remain mysterious, Putin then allowed Navalny, who was in a coma, to be ferried to Germany.

Navalny recovered and assembled his small and loyal inner circle, including Maria Pevchikh. A thirty-five-year-old graduate of Moscow State University and the London School of Economics, Pevchikh now leads a close, devoted team that has carried out remarkably detailed investigations of the gaudy corruption of Putin and his supporters. Pevchikh also participated in a probe of Navalny’s near-death experience. Using phone records, open-access sources, and other means, the group identified the agents who had trailed Navalny to Siberia in order to kill him. Navalny himself called several of them on the telephone. In “Navalny,” a nominee for Best Documentary Feature Film at this month’s Academy Awards, you see him pretend to be a high-ranking official in Moscow demanding a briefing. One agent, an expert on chemical weapons named Konstantin Kudryavtsev, proceeds to tell Navalny the details of the plot. The camera captures Navalny and Pevchikh exchanging high fives and delirious smiles as the operative spills the details. It is the greatest prank phone call in the history of cinema. When the call is over, Navalny and Pevchikh agree that, once the F.S.B., Russia’s intelligence service, looks into the matter, Kudryavtsev will probably end up dead.

In January, 2021, Navalny flew home to Moscow and was arrested upon arrival. He has been in a Russian prison colony ever since. Pevchikh lives in London and helps lead Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation while he’s in exile. She and I spoke last week by Zoom. Our conversation, which you can hear on this week’s New Yorker Radio Hour, has been edited for length and clarity.

Maria, you joined Navalny’s team more than a decade ago. Were you a political person?

So, yes, I was interested in politics, but, also, I was a pretty lost and useless twenty-two-year-old. You don’t really know what to do. You don’t know how to apply your desire to change things, when political institutions for young people don’t really exist in Russia. I couldn’t join a party. There was no party to join. I couldn’t become an independent journalist. There were pretty much no independent media outlets left at this point. So I was looking for an outlet; I was looking for some sort of force that I could join and help this force to move forward.

The city of Moscow at that time was not the Moscow that I arrived in during the Gorbachev era. There were two things going on at once under Putin, in a certain way. You had this illusory, cosmopolitan, growing-middle-class Moscow with a night life and businesses and semi-freedom. At the same time, you had a contracting political sphere. More and more you saw that Putin was not going to be a Putin-lite. But it seemed—and this was the illusion—that you could live a life, if you were privileged, that was quite different from your parents’ lives or your grandparents’ lives. You made a decision to throw yourself entirely into opposition politics, to hitch yourself to Alexey Navalny.

You are absolutely right in your assessment of what Moscow looked and felt like back in the day. And you’re right, also, in the fact that many people—many Muscovites—were tricked, and distracted, by the beautiful festivals and shops and restaurants and cafés and all of these fancy things that, all of a sudden, were available in Russia, in Moscow.

And travel. And the ability to study at the London School of Economics, as you did.

Correct. And easy plane tickets between London and Moscow, delivering you from point A to point B in three and a half hours, for less than a hundred pounds. Little weekend European getaways—all of this was definitely there. Many people who I know were deceived by this. I wasn’t. I don’t know why I had a higher resistance to this sort of thing, but a selection of nice restaurants wouldn’t distract me from the fact that I don’t feel free. And I definitely did not feel free. As years went by, the trend was definitely a negative one. The situation was worsening.

What did Navalny represent to you in terms of political ideology or opportunity?

Navalny represented a real person in politics. It was so new and so fresh. We’d been brainwashed from as long as I can remember. We were brainwashed at university and school that there is no politics. You shouldn’t be involved. Your vote doesn’t change anything. You are not deciding anything. Leave this for the big guys. Or, another one: politics is dirty. You can be some sort of political strategist and make big money out of political campaigns. So political participation, back then, wasn’t cool. It was great and cool to be apolitical. People were almost bragging about it.

But that was also what politics depended on. That’s what Putin depended on. The deal of society was “You can pursue this new, shining possible prosperity”—at least if you were lucky enough to be in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other places, and not in the provinces—“but stay the hell out of politics.” And, if you entered politics, trouble will come your way, as so many journalists and budding politicians discovered.

Correct. And then there was Navalny. Who was young. Who was so good at putting complex things in simple terms. The way that he was phrasing things, the way that he was framing the debate, was so attractive. He could interest anybody in a topic which normally isn’t really interesting. It’s bribery, it’s theft, it’s government procurement contracts. Who cares about that? Or state-owned companies stealing money by buying oil drills at three times the actual market price. But Navalny’s charisma, Navalny’s conviction, and his ability to organize people around him definitely worked its magic.

So essentially what worked for me back in 2011 was displayed on a larger scale in 2013, when we saw thousands and thousands of Muscovites leaving their day jobs—good day jobs—to go and stand in front of a poster that said “Vote for Navalny for mayor of Moscow.” Those guys worked and built big international consulting firms and investment banks, but in the evenings they would show up at our headquarters and sort out leaflets in four separate piles. That would be their assignment. They were Harvard-educated and making crazy money at work, and then they would spend their evening volunteering with the most basic tasks at our headquarters. And this is Navalny’s magic. This is why there are movies made about him.

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