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Freedom of SpeechRussian Federation

Who is Navalny associate Lilia Chanysheva?

Kirill Buketov
June 14, 2023

An associate of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for founding an "extremist" group. How did former auditor Lilia Chanysheva become an outspoken Putin critic?

Lilia Chanysheva forming a heart symbol with her hands
Lilia Chanysheva was chief of opposition figure Alexei Navalny's local office in the Republic of BashkortostanImage: DW

"I am a politician, a women who is being persecuted by male opponents, whose names are [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Head of Bashkortostan Radiy] Khabirov." This is how Lilia Chanysheva, 41, opened her final statement to the circuit court in Ufa, the capital of the southwestern Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, on May 29.

The district court on Wednesday found her guilty of creating an "extremist organization" and sentenced her to 7 1/2 years in a penal colony.

Before her arrest, Chanysheva was chief of the local team working for Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. She is the first of Navalny's associates to face criminal charges for "extremism" after his entire network of regional representations was declared illegal. 

How much support does Navalny have in Russia?

Chanysheva chose civil rights over a business career

"She loves her homeland Bashkortostan very much," Chanysheva's husband Almaz Gatin told DW. He and public auditor Chanysheva met at the consulting firm Deloitte in 2017.

That first evening, she told him about her great passion to improve the lives of others. "And then she had to choose: Either carry on with her career as an auditor, or leave the company and fight for civil rights," Gatin explained.

She chose civil rights. In March 2017, Chanysheva became the head of Navalny's team in Ufa. Back then, Navalny still hoped to stand for presidential elections in 2018.

"As soon as Lilia joined us, we could sense a certain kind of confidence," one of her companions, Ruslan Shaveddinov, told DW. He is one of the members of Navalny's team who had to leave the country. "She had her own vision, she had excellent knowledge of the region and the political landscape, and she knew how everything worked," he said.

Chanysheva chided leaders: 'Steal less, gentlemen, eat less!'

Chanysheva gained prominence in 2016, when she captured a violation of procedure on video while serving as an observer of Bashkortostan's regional and communal elections.

Another video that made her famous was captured in 2019 and showed her attending a hearing on the budget of the Republic of Bashkortostan and asking questions about the use of public funds.

"How can we raise public income? Steal less, gentlemen, eat less, lower your salary and pay less to propagandistic media,” she said. Shortly after, two security guards forcibly removed her from the building.

Afterwards, Radiy Khabirov, head of the Republic of Bashkortostan, declared she should not have attended the hearing in the first place. "Lilia challenged him publicly," Shaveddinov explained. "And Khabirov is one of the architects of the political system in which we live."

Khabirov became head of the Republic of Bashkortostan in September 2019. Following his ascension to office, Chanysheva regularly published critical videos and articles about him, pointing out, among other things, his fleet of cars, his luxurious country house, and his wife's wealth.

The most important achievement of Navalny's local office in Ufa might be the fact that the team was able to prevent a limestone mining project at Kushtau mountain — planned by a large chemical company — from moving forward. Chanycheva was considered the unofficial leader of the protest movement.

Police officers surround Lilia Chanysheva as she attends a protest
Lilia Chanysheva was considered the unofficial leader of the protests that prevented a limestone mining project at Kushtau mountainImage: DW

Her husband proposed while she was in prison

When Russia erupted in protest over the arrest of Alexei Navalny in January 2021, Chanysheva was also arrested. Gatin proposed to her while she was in detention.

"She cried and said she was very happy, that she had been waiting for my proposal. When she was released on February 17, we submitted a marriage application to the registrar's office," Gatin said. That same year, Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption (FBK) was declared an "extremist organization." The local offices were closed and Chanycheva announced she was pausing her political career.

"It is tough to make decisions like these when you have been doing this work for so many years. But we wanted to start a family. We had celebrated our wedding and were getting ready to become parents. She has a right to be happy, to be a wife, and become a mother," Gatin said.

But the couple was only able to enjoy a normal life for a few months. In the early morning of November 9, 2021, the apartments of Chanysheva and several other opposition representatives in Ufa were searched following a warrant from the local public prosecutor's office.

Is the Russian opposition making a dent in Putin's regime?

Chanysheva faces 'a sham trial that ends with a long sentence'

Chanysheva was brought to a detention center on November 10, where she remains today. Her fellow campaigners are convinced that her case is politically motivated.

"They are clearly doing this to hold a sham trial that will end with a long prison sentence. It is obvious there is pressure from above. They grab a girl, and all the pro-government media can report that a dangerous 'extremist' was arrested," Shaveddinov explained.

"My wife is now a young, pragmatic, democratic politician. I cannot find a trace of fear in her eyes, not at all. She has become much stronger during her incarceration," Gatin said.

This article was translated from German. It has been updated to reflect the prison sentence.