Recent developments in Russia make it clear that only one person can be identified as an alternative to Vladimir Putin and the political regime he personifies. That person is Alexey Navalny, a man whose name recognition a few years ago approximated zero. Now everyone knows him, yet few can answer the question: “Who is he?”

It is a difficult question. Not a single aspect of Mr. Navalny’s career, nor all of them put together, can explain the way he has taken Russia’s political scene by storm. On the other hand, even after nearly two decades in power, no one has given a completely satisfactory answer to the question: Who is Mr. Putin? And if someone asked the same thing about Boris Yeltsin, the result would be nearly identical. These analogies are not incidental.

Political Origins

The great hope of Russia’s political opposition is 41 years old and comes from a typical middle-class family. His father started a small business after retiring from the military. In the 1990s, Mr. Navalny got a university education in law and finance. He won a prestigious scholarship to the semi-annual Yale World Fellows program in 2010.

Most of his early professional career was devoted to various small-business projects. In 2009, he went into practice as a lawyer, only to lose his license in 2013 after being convicted of embezzling state property. Many regard the charges as trumped up for political purposes. However, the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered the Russian authorities to pay damages to Mr. Navalny for legal violations that took place during the investigation, did not identify a political component.

Mr. Navalny’s involvement in politics dates from 2000, when he joined the left-liberal Yabloko party. He quickly rose to a leadership post, only to be expelled in 2007 for engaging in “nationalist activity detrimental to the party.” Mr. Navalny’s version is that he was thrown out for demanding the resignation of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and his senior deputies. However, only six months earlier, with a group of well-known Russian nationalists, he helped to establish a “national-democratic” movement called Narod [People] and later, in 2008, the Russian National Movement.

Today, Mr. Navalny is reluctant to discuss this period, although he does say that “nationalism should be the backbone of the Russian political system.” In the late 2000s, initially as an observer from Yabloko, he did participate in the so-called “Russian marches,” which in addition to moderate nationalists attracted undisguised Nazis. He was also known for making rudely xenophobic, anti-migrant and anti-gay comments, some of which can still be found online (it seems that the internet remembers everything).

By 2011, however, the Russian National Movement had fizzled out before it could even participate in parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Mr. Navalny was dipping his toe into other political waters. In 2009, for instance, he worked as an adviser to the governor of the Kirov region, Nikita Belykh, the former leader of a free market, reform-oriented party called the Union of Right Forces. (Mr. Belykh was removed from office in July 2016 and is now on trial for bribery.) Another of Mr. Navalny’s abortive projects was the Progress Party, founded in 2014, which failed to secure an election license and was soon dismantled.

To summarize his political career up to the early 2010s, one can say that Alexey Navalny was a political pathfinder who seldom found what he was looking for, and whose ideological orientation was in question. He was also, withal, a very successful blogger.

Launching Pad

As Mr. Navalny’s conventional political projects withered and died, he stumbled across what would become his mother lode. He began to fight corruption.

The primary tool in this struggle was the Anti-Corruption Fund (ACF), a nonprofit organization set up by Mr. Navalny in 2011 that has investigated dozens of large-scale embezzlement cases, as well as shady financial schemes and networks used by members of Russia’s political, bureaucratic and economic elites to enrich themselves.

One of the striking aspects of these investigations is the flimsiness of the evidence they have unearthed. Often, Mr. Navalny seems to regard it as unnecessary to prove that goods or wealth were illegally acquired. Examples of this include the cases of Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who has regularly made use of a privately-owned Bombardier Global Express business jet, or Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma who also happens to own a luxurious country estate. To Mr. Navalny, possession of these commodities is prima facie evidence of dishonesty.

No less noteworthy is Mr. Navalny’s recent assertion that one of Russia’s richest men, Alisher Usmanov (who is of Uzbek origin), was convicted of rape back in the 1980s. No official or documentary evidence was provided. The only source given was a blog entry by Craig Murray, who served as British ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002-2004. Mr. Murray’s blog simply refers to a “widespread belief” in the allegations, however.

Not that these instances have hindered Mr. Navalny’s political effectiveness. To the contrary, the ACF’s skillful portrayal of a panorama of financial abuses, including massive diversions of budget funds for dubious or nontransparent purposes, has become the main draw of the Navalny brand. In a poor country with an astronomical coefficient of income inequality, the ruling elite’s extravagant lifestyle is deeply insulting. The Navalny media campaign peaked in March 2017 with the release of an investigative video documentary, “He is Not Dimon to You.” The video focuses on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his assets (“Dimon” is the familiar diminutive of “Dmitry”). It has had more than 23.6 million views on YouTube.

It was precisely this type of message, bypassing official channels and circulating directly through the internet and social networks, that allowed Mr. Navalny to generate media buzz and build up a hard-core following (sometimes referred to ironically as “Navalny’s Witnesses”). Once this base was established, he picked up endorsements from almost every segment of the opposition, which saw Mr. Navalny as the logical standard bearer for a consolidated movement. That includes the nationalists again, whom Mr. Navalny said he aspired to represent in a July 11 blog entry.

Types of Opposition

Here one must make a distinction between the “non-systemic opposition” to which Mr. Navalny belongs and the “systemic opposition,” or the parliamentary cartel of officially recognized opposition parties such as Gennady Zyuganov’s communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist Liberal Democrats, and Sergey Mironov’s Just Russia. The latter have been long perceived as auxiliary elements of the regime. What remains of Yabloko, on the other hand, resides on the margins, in a narrow electoral ghetto that allows it limited representation in some regions, but not at the federal level.

The “non-systemic opposition” ranges from radical nationalists and free-market liberals to extreme leftists. It includes Russians who may lack any traditional political affiliations, but have come to recognize the injustice of the current system for distributing power and property and are seeking ways to express their discontent.

During the protest movement of 2011–2012, Mr. Navalny was another face in the crowd – neither the most famous nor the most notable of the opposition leaders. By the time of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013, however, he was the sole registered candidate of the non-systemic opposition – and immediately garnered 27 percent of the vote. (This was more than the total for all other candidates except for the winner, Sergei Sobyanin.)

Simultaneously, Mr. Navalny began to be subjected to a series of arrests and prosecutions. This harassment has continued to this day (his latest 25-day prison sentence was handed down on June 12, 2017). Among Mr. Navalny’s convictions are two suspended sentences for embezzlement of state property and fraud. Notably, he has never suffered a lengthy prison sentence. His younger brother, Oleg, was not so lucky, and is now serving three-and-a-half years in a penal colony for the 2014 embezzlement case.

Fueling Popularity

Instead of forcing Mr. Navalny to stop his anti-corruption campaign, the persecution seemed to fuel his political and public activi