Her father was persecuted, poisoned and imprisoned. Now Daria Navalnaya discusses her experience during the attack on her father, what he wrote to her from prison and how she feels about the perpetrators.
Interview Conducted by Christian Esch
Daria Navalnaya recently flew to Europe from California to make an appearance before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The speech to the plenum would be her biggest public appearance since the arrest of her father Alexei Navalny in January 2021. While there, she also gave her first major interview – to DER SPIEGEL.
Navalnaya has been studying psychology at Stanford University since 2019. Last Wednesday, she was at the European Parliament to accept the body’s Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s most prestigious human rights award, on behalf of her imprisoned father. In her interview with DER SPIEGEL, she talks about growing up in Putin’s Russia, her fears for her father’s life and visits to prison camps.
DER SPIEGEL: Did your father give you advice for your appearance in Strasbourg?
Navalnaya: I asked him for it. I wrote to him: You’ve got to understand, please, this is the European Parliament, after all, and I’m only 20 years old and not used to these kinds of things. He answered: Speak from your heart! That’s excellent advice, but I have never given a major speech to members of parliament, so it’s not great advice for me. So, I wrote to him again and said: Let’s go through it point by point. What should I say, and what should I not say? It’s my speech, but he looked at it and approved of it. And I’m delighted, of course, that he chose me to accept the award on his behalf.
DER SPIEGEL: You grew up as the daughter of an opposition politician who is hated by Russian leaders in Moscow. How did that shape your childhood and youth?
Navalnaya: I was born into a normal family and had a normal childhood. When I was 10 years old, dad was taken into custody for the first time, and that was something new. But I spoke to my parents and learned that even if the police don’t like us, dad is doing the right thing. I have always been proud of that, even with the fears for his life and ours. He wants the best for his country. He wants my younger brother and me to have a good future in this country.
About Daria Navalnaya
Daria Navalnaya, 20, is the oldest of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s two children. As a high school student, Navalnaya published a YouTube channel with interviews with young Russians about the situation in their country. After graduating in 2019, she began studying psychology and other subjects at Stanford University in California. The university administration waived her tuition fees.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it true that he didn’t want you to go to demonstrations?
Navalnaya: I was incredibly drawn to them, but he always said: There should only be one Navalny in custody. You stay at home, so that I don’t have to worry about which detention center you’re in while I’m locked in a different one.
DER SPIEGEL: Were there political discussions at home?
Navalnaya: Not exactly discussions, because discussing with Alexei Navalny … (she laughs). There are good reasons that no one agrees to have debates with him! But we did talk about the news at dinner. My brother and I were interested in knowing what new videos and research he was doing. Even though he never told us in advance.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2017, your father brought you on stage at an important moment in his career: When he was nominated by supporters to run in the presidential election, you, your brother Zakhar and your mother were also on the podium. The inclusion of family in such a moment was rather unusual in Russia. It resembled an American election campaign.
Navalnaya: It was less an American approach than a democratic one: You have to show yourself to the people and not just get yourself nominated as a candidate and then not campaign anymore. People have to be able to see who you are and the values that you represent. My father shows that well.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you fear for your father’s life or health?
Navalnaya: I first understood the dangers facing him when they sprayed antiseptic in his face in 2017. That’s when I realized that Kremlin supporters are willing to do anything to stop him. Major surgery was needed to save his cornea. It was really dangerous.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you also afraid for yourself?
Navalnaya: I was more afraid for my parents. The idea that they might attack children seemed absurd to me. I stayed calm. Besides, I was surrounded by friends who supported my father’s cause, and their parents always told me so.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2019, you were accepted to Stanford University in California. You were on the other side of the world in the year your father was poisoned.
Navalnaya: My parents took me there in 2019. But then COVID-19 began in March 2020. I felt like I was in a zombie apocalypse. The campus was deserted. There are actually 10,000 students living there, but I never saw anyone on the street. And we were also afraid that if I went home, I wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. I was first able to get to Moscow that August and see my father, before he was poisoned.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you find out about the poisoning?
Navalnaya: I woke up early that morning. I knew dad would be returning from his work trip to Siberia that day, and I was looking forward to it. We had thought the night before about going out for a family dinner. So, I woke up, I opened up Twitter and found a lot of messages about how something had happened on the plane, about Alexei Navalny having fallen over and being in the hospital. Without even thinking, I ran straight to my mother’s room and said: Fly there – I’ll stay here with Zakhar. The main thing is that you need to be with dad. But she wasn’t even in the apartment. By that point, she had already left.
DER SPIEGEL: And you had to break the horrible news to your brother?
Navalnaya: It took me a long time to decide. Zakhar played PlayStation all day and was happy that mom wasn’t there and that he was allowed to do what he wanted. At some point, I went over to him and said: Zakhar, dad is in the hospital. We don’t know what it is, but he was poisoned. Zakhar just kept on playing.
DER SPIEGEL: Your father was in a coma and he was flown to Germany, where traces of the nerve agent Novichok were found in his body. When did you first see him again?
Navalnaya: Shortly after my birthday, in early September. Zakhar and I had flown from Moscow to Berlin. We went to the hospital. It was like in the movies. You go in, and there’s someone lying there looking at you, smiling at you and talking to you, but then you realize: He can’t talk or think normally. We asked how he was. I said: I’ll stay with you, let’s watch something on Netflix together. But he couldn’t manage to speak two sentences in a row. It was terrible. I didn’t think at the time that he would recover so quickly. But he did it. That’s my father, a superhero!
DER SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that he has fully recovered?
Navalnaya: At the end of November last year, I flew to Germany around Thanksgiving. He had made tremendous progress. He had downloaded little games onto his phone to practice. A country quiz with flags, for example. It was interesting to see him relearn things as an adult – walking, for example. He had to rewire his brain. I had the impression when he returned to Moscow that he had recovered.
DER SPIEGEL: While you were in Germany, more and more came out about the poisoning. It appears that employees of an FSB chemical laboratory had secretly traveled ahead of your father. Later, Alexei Navalny even managed to get one of the men to talk on the phone who had removed traces of poison from his underwear. The whole thing seemed as improbable as a movie thriller. What were you thinking?
Navalnaya: I was amazed that they spent three and a half years going after him. And that they apparently made an attempt on my mother’s life, too. It was a disturbing reality for me. I started constantly worrying and almost became a little paranoid.
DER SPIEGEL: How so?
Navalnaya: I started seeing agents everywhere. I thought: If they do such a thing in Russia, who is going to stop them from also finding dad in a German hospital and finishing the job?
DER SPIEGEL: What do you feel toward the alleged perpetrators?
Navalnaya: Anger. Incomprehension. The fact that they blindly follow orders to kill a person just because he doesn’t agree with the way our state works – that shows that Putin fears my father. And that my father is doing something right! I do fear for his life, but it also means: He is doing something right.
“He doesn’t run away from his problems.”
DER SPIEGEL: You celebrated New Year’s Eve with your parents in Germany at the beginning of this year. Your father then flew with your mother to Moscow on Jan. 17. It was a bold move that surprised many. Was it clear to you from the very beginning that he was leaving?
Navalnaya: We never talked about whether he would return to Russia or not. When he exercised or when he did his weird country quiz, he was doing it to get fit again so he could continue pursuing his cause. We – Zakhar, my mom and I – always understood that, and we didn’t even ask him about it. It was clear: He doesn’t run away from his problems.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you say goodbye to your father?
Navalnaya: I think we both understood deep down that although we weren’t seeing each other for the last time, it would be a long time before we next saw each other. We didn’t want to admit that to ourselves. I flew back to Stanford and was glad he took me to the airport. I hugged him and he told me: Learn and do what you like! That’s what he always says: Do what you like!
DER SPIEGEL: Your mother says you’re a daddy’s girl.
Navalnaya: Absolutely! I’m a daddy’s girl and my brother is mommy’s boy. I have always taken after my father. I talk like him and move like him. Mom often reprimanded me for this. She didn’t want me to adopt his manners. I should be more feminine, she said.
DER SPIEGEL: Your father was arrested at the airport. How did you find out about it?
Navalnaya: At Stanford, from the news. I knew my parents were flying and I spent hours reading Twitter.
DER SPIEGEL: A court decided your father had to serve a prison term of several years, and he was taken to a notorious penal colony in Pokrov, 100 kilometers from Moscow. When did you see him again?
Navalnaya: I went to the camp twice. The first time was right after his hunger strike. He looked like a skeleton and I was terribly worried. But my dad is always a super optimist, completely endearing. He spoke like he usually would. Still, you could tell he was exhausted.
DER SPIEGEL: Where did the meeting take place?
Navalnaya: In the colony in a long narrow room with individual cubicles divided by glass panes. You talk into a telephone receiver. I was there with my mother and because the glass pane didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, we could hear each other so well that we didn’t use the phone at all. But obviously the calls are being monitored, and someone came and said: If you don’t use the phone immediately, then your visit is over. We also put our hands on the glass, dad too. Like in the movies. Dad had been shaved bald and was wearing black prison clothes.
DER SPIEGEL: And the second meeting?
Navalnaya: That was in September, before I returned to Stanford. He was looking much better, and you could see that he had been exercising. Plus, he had bickered frequently with the guards during his initial months in prison. After the hunger strike, he decided to calm down and be more mellow. He was much livelier and more cheerful. But we only get to visit him a few times a year, and that makes me sad. The meetings last for four hours, and then I think to myself: When will I get to see him next?
DER SPIEGEL: Has your father changed as a result of the experience in prison and his poisoning?
Navalnaya: I think he’s the same as before. He’s a very active person and is bursting with ideas about what he could do. And because he can’t do it himself now, he writes to me all the time about what I should do. And I write back: Dad, I’m studying! I can’t do all that!
DER SPIEGEL: What kinds of things does he want?
Navalnaya: That I record new videos for my blog, that I keep up with my Instagram, that I should be taking a programming class because Stanford is in Silicon Valley, after all. And I say: I don’t have it in me – math isn’t my thing.
DER SPIEGEL: When DER SPIEGEL interviewed him after the poisoning, your father said he had become more emotional.
Navalnaya: His imprisonment didn’t change him as much as the poisoning did. But I don’t think that’s unusual. After a near-death experience, you look at life differently because you know it can end at any time. I think he’s getting more involved than he used to because of that.
DER SPIEGEL: And what about you?
Navalnaya: I try as often as possible to tell people that I love them. I used to care about being an intellectual person, reading, watching movies. Now, I think spending time with your closest friends and your loved ones is much more important.
DER SPIEGEL: What are your own plans?
Navalnaya: I would like to complete a master’s degree in psychology. But someday, I’d like to go back to Moscow. I tell all my friends: Moscow is the best city, it has everything! Also, I miss the people in Russia. They’re so different from Californians. The Russians understand that life isn’t ideal, but that you can and you must try to improve society. I like that. They don’t have that false optimism they have in California. I would like to go to Moscow someday and settle there.