Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny sits on a beige couch in his Moscow apartment, clasps his hands and closes his eyes.
“I want to get into the prosecutor’s apartment,” he says over and over, as blue smoke rises from the floor. There’s a loud “zing” — and suddenly Navalny finds himself more than 1,000 miles away, sitting on the couch of a rental vacation home overlooking the picturesque coast of Montenegro.
The gag occurs in the opening minutes of a video that Navalny posted this week, which garnered almost 2.5 million views in its first three days on YouTube. The half-hour investigation alleges that exclusive properties in Montenegro and Spain can be traced to the new prosecutor for the city of Moscow.
Navalny is a master of social media. The 43-year-old lawyer, Russia’s most vocal opponent of President Vladimir Putin, rose to prominence as a Kremlin critic through his blog. He used his YouTube channel to get out the word about his quixotic campaign to unseat Putin last year, before being barred from running. Now he routinely posts investigations of the unexplained, untold wealth of government officials.
His most popular video, on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has accumulated more than 32 million views since it was posted in 2017 — and is still on YouTube in defiance of a Russian court order to take it down. And a Navalny investigation linking hotels in Austria to a powerful Moscow politician preceded that pro-Kremlin councilman’s defeat in a September election.
Navalny’s latest target is Denis Popov, whom Putin appointed as Moscow’s chief prosecutor in September. Earlier in his career, Popov prosecuted three members of the performance art group Pussy Riot for their 2012 “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral. Currently Popov is leading a crackdown following anti-government demonstrations this summer that were the biggest in years.
Human rights groups say the rallies were largely peaceful, but several protesters are already serving prison sentences on rioting charges. One demonstrator, Konstantin Kotov, received a four-year sentence merely for attending multiple protests.