MOSCOW — In this corner, there’s one of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons whose girth and growly voice have drawn comparisons to Don Corleone from the famous Godfather movies. In that corner, there’s the gadfly lawyer whose anticorruption taunts of government officials have struck a chord across Russia and sparked a nascent political movement.
It’s a virtual fight that has engrossed much of Russia’s chattering class this week: a sideshow, or a possible harbinger of the election campaign now building up steam ahead of next year’s national presidential vote.
The lawyer, Aleksei Navalny, published a video in March that went viral, alleging Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had amassed illicit wealth, in part by receiving expensive property from businessmen like Alisher Usmanov, who has parlayed mining investments into vast fortunes.
This week, the publicity-shy Usmanov stepped squarely into the public eye with a bitterly worded video attack on Navalny, addressing him with understated menace, saying “I spit on you” using the patronizing, familiar form of the pronoun “you,” and using the diminutive nickname “Lyosha.”
WATCH: Alisher Usmanov Criticzes Aleksei Navalny (no English subtitles)
The audience is watching closely, with some alluding to the Godfather-like optics in Usmanov’s clip.
“The overseer in the cell is teaching the new arrival about the rules of prison tone,” said Yevgeny Albats, the editor in chief of the opposition-minded New Times weekly. The video, she said, was a “striking document of the era.”
Navalny has gained a wide following exposing official corruption and is trying to raise his profile nationally to make it harder for authorities to thwart his presidential run. A conviction on fraud charges that his supporters view as political motivated currently rules him out.
On The Kremlin’s Orders?
Political pundits debated whether Usmanov had filmed the video of his own volition, or acted on instructions from a Kremlin seeking to discredit Navalny as he eyes the March 2018 election.
“This couldn’t have happened without an order,” Vladimir Milov, opposition politician and former deputy energy minister, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
In April, Usmanov sued Navalny for defamation, a suit that unnamed advisors to Usmanov told the RBK newspaper was done on orders from the Kremlin.
Usmanov’s lawsuit contrasted with the muted reaction of the authorities, who have not commented in substance on Navalny’s allegations despite the film garnering over 21 million YouTube views.
“The authorities have big problems because they’re silent and not reacting to the film about Medvedvev and so on,” Milov said. “So they have this reaction: set loose someone who isn’t directly linked to them, but who was touched by this investigation and force them to take the rap for them and publicly attack Navalny.”
‘A Gift For Navalny’
Others political analysts like Fyodor Krasheninnikov, saw the video as Usmanov’s own initiative.
“It’s possible of course that Usmanov’s PR people are complete idiots (or they’re saboteurs and so decided to help Navalny), but perhaps this was [Usmanov’s] own personal creative initiative,” he wrote in on his Telegram feed.
“And then we see the same clinical picture as we have with [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin]: the elderly, no longer entirely competent person who lives in the clouds suddenly starts deciding everything themselves and not listening to anyone – ‘I can see better, we should do this!'” Krashennikov wrote.
In comments to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, journalist Aleksandr Birman called Usmanov’s film clip a gift for Navalny.
He said it had helped Navalny regain political momentum after he stumbled on May 14 at a large public demonstration on a social issue: the proposed demolition of thousands of aging Moscow apartments. Organizers did not allow Navalny to speak at the rally and he was led away by police.
A cartoon by RFE/RL’s Russian Service imagined Usmanov’s catchphrase “I spit on you” as a new slogan for the Kremlin.
Others commentators mocked the video exchange, Usmanov’s in particular.
“When you watch Usmanov’s video address to Navalny, make sure to turn on the Godfather soundtrack. You won’t regret it,” wrote Pavel Novikov, a Twitter user.
‘Not Your Average Oligarch’
Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny, called Usmanov a “not simple person” and “not your average oligarch.” In a post on Facebook, he wrote that Usmanov “occupies an entirely special place in the structure of power.”
“Naturally, the system of his mutual ties with the Kremlin are such that the Kremlin can ask him to do whatever,” Volkov wrote. “And I can’t shake the feeling that they asked him to do this video too.”
Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and journalist, imagined a mocking dialogue, where the billionaire is aggrieved by being called a criminal.
“And what did you do to disprove this?” Kozyrev wrote in his fictional conversation. Usmanov replies: “I shot a video where I addressed him in the familiar you, threatened him, and finally spat.”
Journalist and commentator Stanislav Kucher wrote an open invitation on Facebook on May 18, to Navalny and Usmanov to hold a televised debate.
“Mr. Usmanov’s address to Mr. Navalny and the latter’s promise to respond properly have undoubtedly elevated your dialogue to a qualitatively new level,” he said.
After Usmanov’s video appeared, Navalny shot a live video on his YouTube channel on May 18, answering questions.
“Of course I consider this a threat, but it’s another matter that I am not afraid of,” he said.
WATCH: Aleksei Navalny’s Response To Alisher Usmanov’s Criticism (no English subtitles)
Responding to a viewer’s question on whether he would be happy to take part in a television debate, Navalny said he wasn’t scared, and he appeared to take the high ground, addressing Usmanov more formally, using his first, middle, and last names and using the more polite version of the pronoun “you.”
“I would like to say that I’m ready to take part in such debates,” he said.