The Death of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s Most Formidable Opponent

Alexey Navalny spent at least a decade standing up to the Kremlin when it seemed impossible. He was jailed and released. He was poisoned, and survived. He was warned to stay away from Russia and didn’t. He was arrested in front of dozens of cameras, with millions of people watching. In prison, he was defiant

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Alexey Navalny spent at least a decade standing up to the Kremlin when it seemed impossible. He was jailed and released. He was poisoned, and survived. He was warned to stay away from Russia and didn’t. He was arrested in front of dozens of cameras, with millions of people watching. In prison, he was defiant and consistently funny. For three years, his jailers put him in solitary confinement, cut off his access to and arrested his lawyers, piled on sentence after sentence, sent him all the way across the world’s largest country to serve out his time in the Arctic, and still, when he appeared on video in court, he laughed at his jailers. Year after year, he faced down the might of one of the world’s cruellest states and the vengeance of one of the world’s cruellest men. His promise was that he would outlive them and lead what he called the Beautiful Russia of the Future. On Friday, they killed him. He was forty-seven years old.

Hours after the news of his death broke, his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, addressed the Munich Security Conference. “I don’t know whether to believe the news, the terrible news, which we are only getting from state-controlled sources in Russia,” she said, from the conference’s main stage. “As you all know, for many years we’ve been unable to believe Putin and his government. They always lie. But, if it is true, I want Putin and everyone around him, his friends and his government, to know that they will be held responsible for what they have done to our country, to my family, and to my husband. The day of reckoning will come very soon.”

In Russia, Vladimir Putin was visiting an industrial park in Chelyabinsk, in the Urals. He took questions from staff and students, who were seated a safe distance from the Russian President on what appeared to be the plant floor. Putin seemed to be in an unusually good mood. He bantered and flirted with the audience. He boasted that Western sanctions in response to the war in Ukraine had boosted industrial production inside Russia. He hadn’t seemed so jovial in public in years.

In exactly a month, Russia will hold a ritual that it calls an election. With no actual alternative to Putin, who has total control of the media and the so-called electoral institutions, the current Russian President will be crowned for another six-year term, extending his time in power to thirty-one years. Navalny tried to run against Putin six years ago, but the rigged system stopped him. His very name was banished from the airwaves. Still, even when the system shut him out, and, later, when it put him in prison, Navalny remained Putin’s most formidable opponent.

Putin could only envy Navalny’s ability to mobilize Russians. In July, 2src13, as the political crackdown that accompanied the beginning of Putin’s third official Presidential term intensified, a court in the provincial city of Kirov sentenced Navalny to five years behind bars on trumped-up embezzlement charges. That evening, thousands of people risked arrest by taking to the streets in Moscow in a rare spontaneous protest. The following morning, Navalny was summarily released from prison, in violation of established legal procedure. Putin had long been terrified of mass protests. Now he had to be equally afraid of Navalny, a man whose very existence seemed to make people capable of overcoming their own fears.

It’s tempting to see Navalny’s apparent murder, as some American analysts have, as a sign of weakness on the part of Putin. But a dictator’s ability to annihilate what he fears is a measure of his hold on power, as is his ability to choose the time to strike. Putin appears to be feeling optimistic about his own future. As he sees it, Donald Trump is poised to become the next President of the U.S. and to give Putin free rein in Ukraine and beyond. Even before the U.S. Presidential election, American aid to Ukraine is stalled, and Ukraine’s Army is starved for troops and nearing a supply crisis. Last week, Putin got to lecture millions of Americans by granting an interview to Tucker Carlson. At the end of the interview, Carlson asked Putin if he would release Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter held on espionage charges in Russia. Putin proposed that Gershkovich could be traded for “a person, who out of patriotic sentiments liquidated a bandit in one of the European capitals.” It was a reference to Vadim Krasikov, probably the only Russian assassin who has been caught and convicted in the West; he is held in Germany. A week after the interview aired, Russia has shown the world what can happen to a person in a Russian prison. It’s also significant that Navalny was killed on the first day of the Munich conference. In 2srcsrc7, Putin chose the conference as his stage for declaring what would become his war against the West. Now, with this war in full swing, Putin has been excluded from the conference, but the actions of his regime—the murders committed by his regime—dominate the proceedings.

Russian prison authorities have said that Navalny felt ill after returning from his daily walk, lost consciousness, and could not be revived. They have ascribed his death to a pulmonary embolism. Anna Karetnikova, a prisoners’-rights activist and a former member of the civilian-oversight body of Russia’s prison system, has said that prison authorities routinely use embolism as a catchall term. Sergey Nemalevich, a journalist with the Russian Service of Radio Liberty, noticed that the ostensible timing of the death didn’t seem to jibe with Navalny’s recent description of his schedule in solitary confinement: he had said that his daily walk took place at six-thirty in the morning, but prison authorities claimed that, on the day of his death, he returned to his cell in the afternoon. Nemalevich suggested that Navalny was dead long before an ambulance—which authorities said took a mere seven minutes to travel twenty-two miles to the prison—was called to declare him dead.

Navalny, who was educated as a lawyer, became active in politics in the early two-thousands and emerged as a public figure around 2src1src. His early politics were ethno-nationalist, at times overtly xenophobic, and libertarian. He advocated for gun rights and a crackdown on migrants. But he found his agenda and his political voice in documenting corruption. He built a movement based on the premise that citizens, even in Russia, could and should exercise control over the way that government money is spent. In the ensuing years, he evolved from an ethno-nationalist to a civic nationalist, from a libertarian to a social democrat. He learned new languages, read incessantly, and incorporated new ideas into his program. He focussed, increasingly, not only on political power but on social welfare. During the past three years, he used the pulpit provided by an endless series of court hearings to air his political views. In a courtroom speech on February 2src, 2src21, he outlined a vision for a country with a better health-care system and a more equitable distribution of wealth. He proposed changing the slogan of his political movement from “Russia will be free” to “Russia will be happy.” He continued to assert this hopeful agenda, even as he grew more and more gaunt and even as he was forced to appear in court on a video screen, separated from his audience by glass, a grate, and thousands of miles.

Navalny’s public voice was full of irony without being cynical. He saw the targets of his investigations as ridiculous men with large yachts, small egos, and staggeringly bad taste. He took their abuses seriously by cutting them down to size. This was half of his charisma. The other half was his love story. More than anything else in the world, it seemed, he wanted to impress Yulia. Confined to a cube in a courtroom, he put his hands in the shape of a heart, gesturing at her. He sent love notes from prison, which were posted to social-media for him. On her birthday last July, he posted,

You know, Yulia, I’ve made several attempts at writing the story of
our meeting.

But every time after I write a couple of sentences, I stopped in
terror and couldn’t keep going.

I am terrified that it could have not happened. I mean, it was a
coincidence. I could have looked in the other direction, you could
have turned away. The one second that determined the course of my
life, could have turned out differently. Everything would have been
different.

I probably would have been the saddest person on earth.

How awesome is it that we looked at each other back then and that now
I can shake my head, drive away these thoughts, rub my forehead, and
say, “Phew, what a weird nightmare.”

This seemed the only thing that could have scared him. Reading his wildly popular social-media accounts felt like watching a romantic comedy, but one that starred a superhero.

A year after the Kremlin’s attempt to put Navalny away failed, Putin took a hostage: Alexey’s brother Oleg was jailed on trumped-up charges. It was an old reliable tactic. The henchmen assumed that, with Oleg behind bars, Alexey would cease his political activities to keep his brother safe. But the brothers made a pact to keep going. Alexey built a sprawling organization that expanded far beyond documenting corruption. He ran for mayor of Moscow. He built a network of political offices that could have enabled a Presidential race if such a thing as elections actually existed. He grew frustrated that journalists weren’t following his leads or undertaking investigations of their own, and so he founded his own media: YouTube shows and Telegram channels that publicized the results of his group’s investigations. Navalny’s work spawned an entire generation of independent Russian investigative media, many of which continue working in exile, documenting not only criminal assets but also war crimes and the activities of Russia’s assassins at home and abroad.

The state harassed Navalny, placed him under house arrest, pushed the organization out of its offices, jailed some of its activists and forced the rest into exile, declared them “extremists,” and started going after people who had donated even a small amount of money to the group. Then, in August, 2src2src, the F.S.B. poisoned Navalny with Novichok, a chemical weapon. He was meant to die on a plane. But the pilot made an emergency landing, doctors administered essential first aid, and Yulia took over the superhero role, pressuring the authorities to let her take Alexey to Germany for treatment.

After weeks in a coma, Navalny emerged and teamed up with another investigator, Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist then working with Bellingcat. Grozev got the receipts: the flight manifests that showed that Navalny had been trailed by a group of F.S.B. agents, some of whom also happened to be chemists. Navalny supplied the performative flair. He called his would-be murderers on the phone and managed to get a guileless confession out of one, complete with the detail of where the poison had been placed: in the crotch area of Navalny’s boxer shorts. The scene would later be incorporated into the film “Navalny,” which won an Oscar for Best Documentary, but, before that, Navalny put it in his own made-for-YouTube movie, titled “I Called My Killer. He Confessed.” It was released on December 21, 2src2src.

A month later, Navalny flew back to Moscow. His friends had tried to talk him out of it. He wouldn’t hear of staying in exile and becoming politically irrelevant. He imagined himself as Russia’s Nelson Mandela: he would outlive Putin’s reign and become President. Perhaps he believed that the men he was fighting were capable of embarrassment and wouldn’t dare to kill him after he’d proved that they had tried to. He and I had argued, over the years, about the fundamental nature of Putin and his regime: he said that they were “crooks and thieves”; I said that they were murderers and terrorists. After he came out of his coma, I asked him if he had finally been convinced that they were murderers. No, he said. They kill to protect their wealth. Fundamentally, they are just greedy.

He thought too highly of them. They are, in fact, murderers.

All over Russia on Friday, people were laying flowers in memory of Navalny. In the few cities where memorials exist to past victims of Russian totalitarianism, these monuments became the destinations. Police were breaking up gatherings, throwing out flowers, and detaining journalists. ♦

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