Alexey Navalny became the undisputed leader of anti-Kremlin political forces and anyone opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, largely because of his muckraking videos on corruption in the Kremlin halls of power.
His latest video featured a $1.31bn palatial structure allegedly built for Putin by Russia’s richest oligarchs, on the subtropical Black Sea coast. It has been viewed more than 110 million times on YouTube.
Navalny anchors the 113-minute report filled with drone footage, blueprints and photos of the palace that looks like a villain’s hideaway from a James Bond movie.
Dozens of other anti-corruption videos released by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation have been seen tens of millions of times, inspiring protests and undermining Putin’s image of a selfless ruler who works tirelessly for the benefit of all Russians.
But one of Navalny’s first clips features a strikingly different message.
In a 2007 pro-gun rights video, Navalny presents himself as a “certified nationalist” who wants to exterminate “flies and cockroaches” – while bearded Muslim men appear in cutaways.
He whips out a gun and shoots an actor wearing a keffiyeh who tried to “attack” him.
The 42-second video was released by the Russian National Liberation Movement, a nationalist group Navalny had just co-founded with Zakhar Prilepin, a renowned novelist who later fought for pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine and joined a pro-Kremlin socialist party earlier this year.
Shortly before releasing the video, Navalny was kicked out of Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal democratic party, for his “nationalist views” and participation in the Russian March, an annual rally of thousands of far-right nationalists, monarchists and white supremacists.
A veteran human rights advocate recalled falling out with Navalny over his views at the time.
“When he told me that the future in Russia belongs only to the nationalist Russian political process, and I said, ‘Okay, lad, we are not talking any more’,” Lev Ponomaryov, who heads the Moscow-based For Human Rights group and is blacklisted by the Kremlin as a “foreign agent,” told Al Jazeera.
The participants of the Russian Marches rallied against the influx of labour migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia’s mostly-Muslim Northern Caucasus region.
Some protesters sported closely cropped hair and raised their hands in a Nazi salute.
Navalny attended the Russian March three times and, in 2011, said that each one was “a significant political event, and there is nothing dangerous about it”.
The late 2000s saw the peak of nationalism in post-Soviet Russia.
High oil prices spurred economic growth, but a dire lack of a workforce triggered labour migration.
Some Russians reeling from two wars in Chechnya responded with xenophobia; far-right nationalist groups mushroomed, and some resorted to violence.
Racially motivated attacks surged in 2008, when ultra-nationalists killed at least 110 people and left 487 wounded, according to Sova, a Moscow-based hate crimes monitor.
Often, the killers were gangs of teenagers who hunted down people who, to them, appeared Asian, killing them with hammers, screwdrivers and knives.
“At the time, Navalny was firstly and foremost a nationalist. He was a ‘national democrat’, there was a movement of Russian nationalism he was part of, but it didn’t last long,” Sova’s Alexander Verkhovsky told Al Jazeera.
In 2013, Navalny ran for Moscow mayor on an anti-migrant platform – and came second with 27 percent of the vote.
He stopped attending Russian Marches and toned down his nationalist rhetoric, focusing on anti-corruption investigations and the expansion of his Anti-Corruption Foundation throughout Russia.
He started mobilising tens of thousands of protesters of all political stripes throughout Russia – and admitted that many rallied as a symbol against Putin without necessarily agreeing with Navalny’s views.
“This is a wave-like movement that no one controls and, in fact, no one understands, including me,” Navalny told this reporter at a 2014 rally supporting political prisoners.
Ten months later, Navalny received a three and a half year suspended sentence for allegedly “stealing” $500,000 from two companies. The European Court of Human Rights called the trial “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
His parole was eventually extended to the end of 2020. By that time, he was in Germany recovering from the August 2020 poisoning with what he, Western governments, NATO experts and independent media called the Kremlin’s attempt to kill him with the Novichok weapons-grade nerve agent.
Russian authorities denied the claims – and accused Navalny of violating parole.
He was arrested at a Moscow airport in December and sentenced to two years and eight months in jail earlier this month.
The new sentence prompted massive rallies and a squall of international criticism. Western governments, international rights groups, celebrities and pundits demanded his immediate release.
A decision by Amnesty International, a renowned human rights watchdog, to strip Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status on Wednesday looked very controversial.
But the group cited Navalny’s past comments – without specifying them – as a pretext to no longer refer to him as a “prisoner of conscience”.
“Some of these comments, which Navalny has not publicly denounced, reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred, and this is at odds with Amnesty’s definition of a prisoner of conscience,” the group said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.
Amnesty’s decision enraged Navalny’s staffers.
“It seems unacceptable to me,” Ruslan Shaveddinov, who was accused of draft-dodging and sent to a remote Arctic island for one year of military service, wrote in a tweet.
Amnesty International listed him next to Navalny as “prisoners of conscience” in 2019, but Shaveddinov said on Thursday he is “renouncing” his status in protest.
Navalny’s press service was not available for comment.
Some observers, however, doubt the sincerity of Navalny’s parting with his nationalist past.
“Yes, he got rid of nationalist rhetoric, he founded the Fund to Fight Corruption that has a liberal team and a leftist agenda. So, Amnesty had no real reasons to strip him of his status,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.
“But it is a fact that he is a nationalist and xenophobe deep inside,” he said.
In a recent interview with a German daily, Navalny said that he still supports anti-migrant measures.
“I see no contradiction in promoting trade unions while at the same time demanding a visa requirement for migrants from Central Asia,” he told Der Spiegel in October.