IT was hard to say which was the most vulgar: the nightclub complete with dance pole, or the sofa that cost more than a two-bed flat. Both featured in what Alexei Navalny claims is President Putin’s £995 million palace on the Black Sea coast, paid for, the anti-corruption campaigner alleges, by bribes.

Mr Navalny spoke at length about the property in a YouTube video released this week. Nothing new in that. He has built up a considerable following through his punchy videos, attracting millions of views for each one. What is surprising, however, is that Mr Navalny is in a Moscow prison. He was arrested last Sunday on his return to Russia after treatment in Germany for Novichok poisoning – an act he alleges was carried out on the orders of Mr Putin.

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If you thought Mr Navalny’s choosing to return was a brave act, releasing this video shortly before a court hearing that could see him jailed for several years looks dangerously courageous. He has also called for protesters to take to the streets on Saturday. Mr Navalny, who once said his hero was Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, is certainly making the most of his “I’ll be back” moment.

From the way he refers to Hollywood films in his videos, Mr Navalny is fond of the movies. Yet what is going on in Russia is infinitely stranger than any fiction, and vastly more chilling because it is real, and posing an ever greater threat to world order.

Washington DC has been busy this week waving off one US President and welcoming another. But the Russian leader, now in power for 21 years – imagine that, Mr Trump – still entered the thoughts of some. Hillary Clinton, the defeated Democrat candidate in 2016, wondered aloud whether the American president had been on the phone to the Kremlin while the Capitol was being stormed by a pro-Trump mob on January 6. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, taking part in a podcast with Mrs Clinton, called the rioters “Putin puppets”. Both women said there should be a 9/11 type commission to investigate the deadly attack, complete with an examination of the President’s call log that day.

It may sound bizarre to think that not long from now we could be looking at the presidential phone records, but stick around. Just as a majority of Republican voters still believe that Mr Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, so the Democrats, the Clinton camp to the fore, reckon the Russians did the same to them four years earlier. Neither side is going to let its grievances go easily.

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The “interfering in foreign elections” charge against Russia is but one on a long list of accusations and outright crimes, the most egregious of which is the assassination of opponents abroad.

Although it did not seem so at the time, Mr Navalny got lucky. As he writhed in agony on that flight from Siberia to Moscow the pilots took the decision to make an emergency landing at Omsk, where doctors were waiting.

More fortunate still, he was on the radar of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is believed to have weighed in on the side of those urging his transfer to Germany for treatment (she would at the very least have been made aware of his plight). It was while in Berlin that doctors diagnosed poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok.

Dawn Sturgess was not so “lucky”. Her partner gave her what he thought was a bottle of perfume he had found. The bottle contained Novichok, used earlier in an attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The Skripals, a police officer, and Ms Sturgess’s partner survived. She did not. She was 44. An innocent victim of the use of chemical weapons on British soil.

I find myself remembering Ms Sturgess whenever Mr Putin is tackled on whether the Russian state carries out assassinations abroad. In the case of Mr Navalny, the President’s response, delivered with a smirk, was that he could not have wanted to kill him, otherwise he would be dead.

This, together with his blanket warning that traitors will “kick the bucket”, make it seem as though the policy is all part of an arrangement that everyone involved understands and in which there are no “civilian”casualties. Tell that to Ms Sturgess’s family.

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Russia’s status as a rogue gangster state was hardly in dispute before the events in Salisbury in 2018. Expulsions and sanctions duly followed. Though these went further than previously, and were supported internationally, the response was not enough to prevent Mr Navalny’s poisoning two years later. Mr Putin’s Russia continues regardless. It almost revels in its renegade status, as this week when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, asked if the arrest of Mr Navalny was not, at the very least, terrible public relations, said: “We should probably think about our image, but we’re not young ladies going to a ball.”

One has to wonder what, if anything, can persuade the Russian state to change its ways at home and abroad. This matters not just to Mr Navalny in the immediate term but to the world.

Some things are different now. Mr Trump’s exit from the White House brings to a close a very strange chapter in US-Russia relations. It is hardly the end of the book, but it is a start. Magnitsky sanctions, including travel bans and the freezing of assets, against individuals supporting the Russian state, are said to be having an effect.

As for Mr Navalny, his decision to return might make him safer in as much as he is now in the public eye. His fellow anti-corruption campaigners are savvy media managers, as seen in the release of the Black Sea palace story; claims denied, like everything else, by the Kremlin. Now recovered, and buoyed by so many countries calling for his release (the UK and the US among them), he is up for the fight.

Yet Mr Navalny has been fighting the good fight for some time now. It would be dangerously foolish to underestimate what he is up against. In a country battered by Covid, where weary citizens have long grown used to keeping their heads down, he will have a job getting protesters on to the streets.

Still, he has awakened interest in what is going on in Russia. Mr Putin may seem not to care but the world, for now, is watching.