Cover story in Secrets of the Stars is departure from opposition leader's web exposes and polemical writings
Alexei Navalny is led away in handcuffs by Russian police after being sentenced to five years in jail.
Photograph: Valentina Svistunova/EPA
The cover of the celebrity gossip magazine Secrets of the Stars usually features pop singers, film stars or President Vladimir Putin, who has appeared numerous times.
So it came as a surprise when opposition leader and Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny landed on the tabloid's cover in an indication of his growing fame.
This week's issue features Navalny hugging his wife, Yulia, on the cover under the headline "Her love is stronger than the fear of losing her husband and the father of her children". In the article inside, the magazine, which has generally portrayed Putin in a positive light and once showed him shirtless on the cover, describes Navalny favourably, noting the irregularities that marred his trial and the view that the charges were fabricated.
A judge convicted the anti-corruption blogger of embezzlement and sentenced him to five years in a prison colony on 18 July, in a trial that a state investigator admitted was, at least in part, politically motivated.
After thousands took to the streets outside the Kremlin to protest against the sentence, the prosecution made an unexpected request to release the opposition leader from police custody during the appeal process, and Navalny returned to Moscow to continue his mayoral campaign.
The article about him and his wife in Secrets of the Stars, Russia's best-selling weekly entertainment publication, marks an important development in the candidate's attempts to reach new audiences before the mayoral election set for 8 September.
Navalny leads the field of challengers but remains far behind Kremlin-backed acting mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Three polls this month have shown that between 4% – 9% of Muscovites are ready to vote for Navalny, whereas they have given Sobyanin between 34% – 56% of the vote. A July poll found that 79% of Russians had heard of Navalny, up drastically from May, when only 41% knew of him.
The candidate has been covered negatively – if at all – by state-controlled media, including television, which a majority of Russians still rely on for information. Channel One, the most-watched station, did not cover the trial on the afternoon of the verdict.
Previously, Navalny was little-known outside of an internet-savvy minority in Moscow, and his hard-hitting corruption exposes and fiery protest speeches are hardly the domain of tabloid publications like Secrets of the Stars. The magazine includes a column called Kremlin Expert that relays political news in the voice of Putin's black labrador retriever Connie.
The article provoked disbelief among Navalny fans on Twitter, and the liberal internet publication Slon.ru ran a piece about it with the headline #NoWay.
Pro-Kremlin analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said he suspected the campaign paid for the article, but said it would introduce the candidate to a new audience and improve his popularity by a few percentage points. "Navalny with his winning looks and nice wife will gain votes from a part of the population who vote not for political views but for personal likeability."
The candidate's press secretary, Anna Veduta, denied speculation that his campaign had paid for the article, saying that Navalny was reaching out to new audiences, especially non-internet users, mainly through personal meetings at metro stations around the city.
The article focuses on Yulia Navalny and her support she gives her husband despite political pressure and the stresses of the trial. It concludes by describing him being freed while his appeal is considered. "Yulia was the first to jump into her beloved's arms. She understands that this is just a small reprieve, since no one has cancelled the verdict. But she believes that their love will defeat all barriers and is ready to fight for the happiness of her family until the end."
Alec Luhn in Moscow