Alexei Navalny is surely one of the most extraordinary people in Russia – a cross between a character in a Dostoevsky novel and an American-style muckraker.
On Monday, he took a pair of kitchen scissors to cut himself free from an electronic bracelet, unilaterally putting an end to his criminal sentence of house arrest, imposed last February, and went out to buy milk. He was followed by police officers vociferously demanding that he go back home – which in due course he did.
Mr. Navalny is a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin's government, but he cannot easily be brought to heel and confined like a billionaire oligarch such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky or, more recently, Vladimir Yevtushenkov (another oil tycoon) for the simple reason that Mr. Navalny is a blogger and a small-firm lawyer. He is not someone the Russian public could resent or suspect of corruption, but rather a relentlesslessly resourceful exposer of the pervasive corruption in the Russian government and economy – and a politician who stood second in the mayoral election in Moscow in 2013.
Mr. Navalny's political activism began in a conventional liberal party, but he came to believe that it wanted little more than to replace the existing post-Communist nomenklatura with a new one. Instead, he wanted to expose Mr. Putin's party, United Russia, as "the party of crooks and thieves."
He once said, somewhat mysteriously, to the Russian edition of Esquire magazine that he wanted Russia to be "one big, irrational, metaphysical Canada."
To semi-rational and not very metaphysical Canadians, Mr. Navalny may be unsettling. His Russian nationalism has at least a tinge of xenophobia, with opposition to immigration.
Nonetheless, Russia and the world should be grateful for such an idiosyncratic challenge to the Putin regime – one that is apparently perplexing to Mr. Putin himself.
Sooner or later, the government may lose its cool and do something drastic to Mr. Navalny. But he is, in a sense, a little guy. That is his strength. He cannot be resented or suspected by Russians as a tycoon who is presumably just like the other multimillionaires who have emerged in post-Communist Russia.