Alexei Navalny, currently one of the biggest thorns in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been leveraging the censorship-resistant Bitcoin network to fund his Russian opposition movement in recent times.
That’s because the wallet address most recently linked to Navalny’s 2018 political campaign has received more than 593 bitcoin since December 2016.
While the bitcoin price has fluctuated wildly between then and now, it’s clear the major Putin critic has been able to use the cryptocurrency to raise funds equivalent to hundreds of millions of rubles since his wallet’s creation.
A lawyer by trade and a prominent political activist, Navalny gained fame for his anti-corruption platforms in his campaigns for the Moscow mayorship in 2013 and then the Russian presidency in 2018. He headed up the nation’s pro-reform Progress Party in the last election cycle and has used his Anti-Corruption Foundation to publish reports on the corrupt activities of contemporary Russian officials.
Such work has made Navalny enemies in high places. This week, an anonymous source purporting to work at the activist’s foundation said via Telegram that Navalny had received large sums of bitcoin before a recent report publication — the suggestion being it was a pay-to-play media blitz.
The foundation has since denied any wrongdoing, but the episode has undoubtedly caught the attention of the Kremlin, from which President Putin has reigned rather unchallenged in recent years.
But attention or not, little can be done by the Kremlin to prevent Navalny or his followers from raking in bitcoin donations thanks to the censorship-resistant nature of the Bitcoin network. Bank accounts may be shuttered, but wallet addresses can’t be erased.
Of course, Russian authorities have many resources through which they can make Navalny’s political activities difficult or limited. Yet in bitcoin, the opposition leader will always have access to a permissionless, non-state currency that can’t be seized like rubles can.
Russia Clamping Down on the Internet?
Bitcoin is aimed at being the trustless money of the internet. Yet that internet is apparently too free for some of Russia’s powers-that-be, as politicians there have considered a bid to make the nation’s connection to the internet isolated, a la China’s Great Firewall.
Earlier this year, the Russian State Duma — the lower parliamentary chamber in the nation — had its first reading of a “sovereign internet” draft bill.
The prospective legislation claimed that Russia should create its own intranet in case Western powers sever the country’s ties to the global web. It would also give state regulator Roskomnadzor a wide purview in being able to track domestic internet traffic.
Critics have slammed the draft bill as being a thinly-veiled pivot toward increased political censorship in Russia as it would allow state authorities a more potent ability to control the flow of information into the country, e.g. from antagonistic nations.
Of course, even if Russia does clamp down on the internet, bitcoiners there could always turn to satellite or radio transactions as redoubts.
In the very least, the draft bill highlights that Russia’s legislators are eyeing increasingly authoritarian controls over the lives of everyday Russians. Bitcoin will continue to provide a financial alternative for those living under such oppressive regimes — in Russia and beyond.
BTC as Political Weapon?
One rumor regarding Bitcoin was that it was created by a National Security Agency (NSA) team that wanted to give Western agents the ability to move funds “behind enemy lines,” as it were.
Russian tech entrepreneur Natalya Kaspersky is of that view. For a presentation in St. Petersburg, she once wrote:
“Bitcoin is a project of American intelligence agencies, which was designed to provide quick funding for US, British and Canadian intelligence activities in different countries.”
With that said, there’s no proof as of yet for such a claim, just as there’s no indication the CIA is sending funds to Navalny via bitcoin to thwart Putin. The mere possibility is fascinating, however.