Yulia Navalnaya Forges New Public Image After Navalny’s Death

Yulia Navalnaya Forges New Public Image After Navalny’s Death

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died this month in an Arctic prison, has vowed to continue her husband’s work.

Ms. Navalnaya, 47, has been less public than Mr. Navalny, seen at his side and in his documentary, but mostly steering clear of the spotlight. She was, though, an important half of a global power couple: A telegenic duo who expressed unfaltering passion for each other and for their vision of a free and democratic future for Russia. “Everyone wanted a love like theirs,” wrote Julia Ioffe in a 2021 Vanity Fair profile.

Mr. Navalny galvanized millions with his combination of intellect, good looks and a breezy, ironic wit that, even in the grimmest of circumstances, offered a primer in resisting fear and intimidation. Although terrible things happened to him, Mr. Navalny somehow managed to survive, which lent him an aura of indestructibility.

Ms. Navalnaya’s presence enhanced that aura, providing a humanizing and protective context for her husband, even when his imprisonment separated them by thousands of miles. Mr. Navalny’s public affection and frequent photo postings of his wife on Instagram were highly unusual for a politician in Russia, where wives and children have traditionally been relegated to near-invisible status. (Few ever saw the former Mrs. Putin, for example.)

By contrast, Yulia was Mr. Navalny’s obvious home base, anchoring him and embodying his hope for the future — his own personal future, and that of his native Russia. “If those in power see families as a weakness, they are mistaken,” Ms. Navalnaya once declared in a speech. “Family is the strength of any normal person — especially any real politician.”

Now, everything has changed. Mr. Navalny’s death represents not just the loss of one man, but the destruction of the couple — and by extension, the shattering of the hope and reassuring, organic wholeness that couple symbolized for many Russians.

To take up her husband’s mantle, Ms. Navalnaya has to forge a new, solo public image. What will it look like? She has already given us some clues.

Ms. Navalnaya has long been as instantly recognizable as her husband, maintaining a very consistent visual style, simple and unadorned. In nearly all photographs, her white-blond hair is pulled tightly back into a small chignon. She wears little visible jewelry aside from a tiny chain necklace, and very minimal makeup. Her clothes tend to be simply cut basics in solid, neutral colors, with tops and jackets that often feature wide, open boat neck collars.

It’s a no frills, pared-down, almost severe look, in keeping with the seriousness of her life. Yet, at the same time, it conveys an “I have nothing to hide” message — a visual analog to the Navalnys’ demand for a transparent and uncorrupt Russian government. The sweptback hair and limited makeup offer up her face completely to scrutiny, exposing every angle of it to the gaze of others. The open necklines have a similar effect, creating a wide zone of clear, uninterrupted space around her head and shoulders, allowing an unimpeded view. There’s also something faintly regal about it: Those necklines frame Ms. Navalnaya dramatically, as if she were already existing in a future portrait of herself as a queen or first lady.

In the wake of her husband’s death, Ms. Navalnaya posted a YouTube video announcing her intention to take over his work and accusing President Vladimir V. Putin of murder. You can hear her grief and anger, yet her tone remains composed. As ever, her style is spare: hair pulled back, a barely perceptible chain at her neck (its pendant tucked under her dress collar) and a dark navy dress stopping just short of black, the color of mourning. Her manicure in red offers the only visual hint at emotion below the surface.

With this, we see clearly how well Ms. Navalnaya’s style serves an additional purpose now: It helps her to smooth down any potential jagged edges that come with grief. She may be torn to shreds on the inside, but on the outside, she looks supremely self-contained. Her hair is smooth; her clothes are smooth; her color palette is uniform.

On Thursday, Ms. Navalnaya met with President Biden in San Francisco to discuss sanctions against Russia, and photos of the occasion yielded further hints about the image she may cultivate for herself going forward. At this meeting, Ms. Navalnaya looked very much the way she does in her video.

This time, though, she was not alone, but accompanied by her daughter, Dasha, a student at Stanford. Dasha looks remarkably like her mother — tall, blond and slim. Her hair, too, was pulled back, nearly exactly like her mother’s. She wore what appeared to be a navy skirt suit or dress.

From the back, the two women were virtually indistinguishable. There could be a special power in this resemblance. Yulia Navalnaya’s marriage may have been ripped from her, but she still has her children, who represent the next generation of Russia. Seeing her alongside her look-alike daughter offers a powerful reminder that Ms. Navalnaya’s struggle does not end with her or her husband.