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Aleksei Navalny, Dogged Anti-Corruption Crusader And Outspoken Kremlin Foe, Dies In Prison

Alaeksei Navalny is survived by his wife and their two children, Dasha and Zakhar.
Alaeksei Navalny is survived by his wife and their two children, Dasha and Zakhar.

When Aleksei Navalny left a Moscow jail in August 2019 after serving 30 days for encouraging protests, the Russian opposition leader delivered the kind of message he had pushed relentlessly for a decade, earning himself a reputation as the most vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin.

"The lies and falsifications are not enough," he told a group of reporters in his usual fast clip. "They have to arrest dozens, beat hundreds, and raid organizations."

"This regime will come to seriously regret what it has done," he said.

Navalny, a longtime anti-corruption fighter and Russia's most prominent opposition politician for over a decade, died in prison on February 16, the local branch of the Federal Penitentiary Service said. He was 47.

Navalny had been sent in December to IK-3, a harsh prison known as Polar Wolf in the Yamalo-Nenets District settlement of Kharp, north of the Arctic Circle.

He was serving a 19-year sentence on an extremism conviction that he and his supporters say was politically motivated revenge for his anti-Kremlin activism.

The penitentiary service said in a statement that Navalny felt unwell after a walk and subsequently lost consciousness. An ambulance arrived to try to revive him but he died, the statement added.

On February 17, Navalny's family and close associates confirmed his death and demanded his body be handed over.

Navalny had been behind bars since January 2021, when he was arrested upon returning to Russia after recovering abroad from a nerve-agent poisoning that he said was a state-sponsored assassination attempt carried out by Russian security agents and approved by Putin.

A lawyer by training, Navalny was a charismatic and sharp-witted politician who was shaped by the Internet and the street and used both mediums in his unrelenting and often innovative campaign against Putin's increasingly undemocratic government.

Despite carrying the baggage of an uncomfortable early dalliance with Russian nationalism and statements deemed racist by many, he rose to transcend easy labels through a singular and seemingly indefatigable focus on official corruption and an insistence on peaceful, legal methods to oppose the Kremlin.

Navalny rose to national prominence as he became one of the leaders of major anti-government protests in 2011, when his viral blog posts exposing graft fueled public anger in the build-up to that year's parliamentary elections. He called on voters to cast their ballots against the "party of crooks and thieves" in power, a term he coined to describe the ruling United Russia party that was immortalized in the opposition lexicon.

The opposition movement gained more steam when Putin made the controversial decision to seek a third presidential term in the 2012 election. Tens of thousands of people attended protests between the December 2011 parliamentary vote, which was marred by widespread evidence of fraud, and Putin's inauguration in May 2012.

Soon, Navalny expanded his muckraking campaign to launch the Anti-Corruption Foundation and a YouTube channel where he uploaded slick videos to a growing subscriber base, shedding light on the illicit activities of officials in Putin's government and inner circle.

In 2017, the foundation's probe into then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's wealth, which garnered tens of millions of views, became a catalyst for a wave of mass rallies that erupted across Russia that March.

Navalny's personal charisma and social-media-savvy style quickly gained him a mass following, even though he was all but ignored by state media. For many years, Putin was unable or unwilling to pronounce Navalny’s name aloud.

But his early anti-immigrant comments, including YouTube videos in which he likened Central Asian labor migrants to harmful tooth cavities and residents of Russia's Muslim-majority North Caucasus to cockroaches, continued to dog him throughout his career, and some in opposition politics -- particularly in non-ethnic-Russian movements -- kept their distance from him.

The nationalist tone of Navalny's early career and equivocal statements about Crimea following Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula in 2014 raised hackles among many in Ukraine, and his vehement condemnation of the full-scale invasion launched by Putin in 2022 did little to improve his reputation there.

Navalny's rise was also impeded by Putin's growing authoritarianism and efforts to stamp out the opposition movement Navalny spearheaded, including the introduction of laws drastically reducing the scope for street protest and punishing Russians who voiced public criticism of the authorities. Some of Navalny's aides and allies fled Russia amid threats; others quit politics.

Navalny remained in Russia and continued to expose graft, despite constant harassment of himself and his family by pro-government trolls, a concerted propaganda campaign to discredit and stigmatize him, frequent arrests and searches, and a seemingly endless string of criminal cases and other moves aimed at cowing him into submission.

In 2017, during a visit to the Siberian city of Barnaul, an unknown assailant doused him with a bright green liquid, causing a chemical burn that damaged his vision. Several days later, he appeared -- his face stained green -- in a YouTube video where he promised nothing would keep him from shining light on corruption.

"All I want to say is this: The Kremlin may think I'm not going to record videos with a green face, but I will -- it'll get me even more views," he said. "This definitely won't stop me."

In 2019, while in detention yet again for leading an unauthorized protest, Navalny was hospitalized with what his doctor said was a "severe allergic reaction." Navalny and his aides suspected it was a case of deliberate poisoning. The incident was never resolved despite widespread calls for an official investigation.

Navalny was used to spending time behind bars. In the years after he gained prominence, and until his near-fatal poisoning in August 2020, he was jailed at least a dozen times, spending hundreds of days locked up on charges he insisted were fabricated to cut short his efforts to incite protest.

In 2013, he faced the threat of lengthy incarceration when he was sentenced to five years in prison in a fraud trial that was widely viewed as retaliation for his political activity. Amid protests, the authorities suspended the sentence and released Navalny, a stunning reversal that analysts and allies said was driven by the Kremlin’s fear of turning him into a martyr and stoking mass demonstrations.

Navalny received a suspended sentence again in 2014, after a trial in a separate case that he also contended was politically motivated. But his brother Oleg, who was not involved in politics, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. Navalny said his brother's incarceration made his battle with the Kremlin personal, fueling an anger that redoubled his commitment.

Around this time, many in Russia began to consider him a viable challenger to Putin, a former KGB officer who has stood at Russia's helm since 2000.

"Many think that Navalny is not a serious candidate for the Kremlin," opposition politician Leonid Gozman wrote in Vedomosti in 2015. "That's probably what Jaruzelski thought about Walesa, or South Africa's leaders about Mandela, or Kerensky about Lenin."

Navalny sought to meet those expectations and tried to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, establishing a network of campaign offices across the country. But he was barred from running due to his criminal convictions, and the campaign teams were reorganized into regional branches of his anti-corruption NGO, working to shed light on illicit activity at the local level.

In the summer of 2019, Navalny backed a group of opposition figures seeking to participate in elections to the Moscow city assembly. Their exclusion from the vote led to weeks of protest in Moscow met by a sweeping clampdown that culminated in lengthy prison sentences for a number of activists and law enforcement raids of Navalny's regional offices.

But that experience prompted Navalny and his team to seek new ways to break Putin's stranglehold on power and to launch a campaign dubbed Smart Voting, aimed at shattering the United Russia monopoly by concentrating the protest vote on rival candidates considered most likely to defeat its candidates.

In an interview in the spring of 2020, Navalny told RFE/RL's Russian Service the coronavirus pandemic and the government's handling of it was accelerating a fall in Putin's popularity and creating opportunities for the opposition.

"Just look at the government's ratings," he said. "We see their unprecedented decline, a decline that will continue. The government cannot do anything about it."

Several months later, Navalny collapsed on board a flight to Moscow from Tomsk, where he was visiting local supporters. The plane was diverted to the city of Omsk, where his staffers learned that he had been poisoned.

After pleading with the authorities for two days, his wife Yulia Navalnaya and Navalny’s aides succeeded in securing his transfer for treatment in Berlin, where German experts determined he had been poisoned by a Novichok-type nerve agent. Open-source investigators Bellingcat issued findings that Navalny had been the target of an assassination attempt by a team of Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives.

Navalny spent almost five months recuperating and working on a major investigation into a $1.36 billion Black Sea palace that he alleged ultimately belonged to Putin.

That investigation was released upon Navalny's return to Moscow on January 17, 2021, when he was arrested upon arrival at Sheremetyevo airport. His decision to return to Russia was controversial, with some lauding his courage and others questioning his surrender to seemingly inevitable imprisonment.

Russia was rocked by two consecutive weekends of mass protests for Navalny's release that led to thousands of arrests, but Navalny was nevertheless sentenced to two years and eight months in prison on February 2 for breaking the rules of the parole imposed during his fraud trial.

"However much [Putin] tries to portray himself as a geopolitician, a great world leader, he resents me because he'll go down in history as a poisoner," Navalny said in a blistering speech from his defendant's cage. "The main goal of this trial is to scare a huge number of people. That's how it works. They jail one person to scare millions."

Navalny was sent to a strict-regime prison in the Vladimir region east of Moscow. Almost immediately he and his associates began complaining of a "deliberate campaign" to undermine his health. Having been designated an escape risk, he was awakened hourly every night and was denied access to his doctor. He said he had crippling back pain and had all but lost the use of his right leg. He was hospitalized during a hunger strike in April 2023, abandoning the protest on the advice of his doctors.

During his years in prison, officials repeatedly punished him for trivial alleged infractions. For his part, he used his legal expertise to clog the system with outlandish requests, publishing the stilted official rejections he received.

At the same time, the government continued to file charges against him and to add time to his prison term. In March 2022, he was given a nine-year prison term for contempt of court and corruption.

In June 2021, his Anti-Corruption Foundation and other organizations tied to him were officially banned as “extremist” by the Russian government. As a result, more of his associates fled Russia or faced harsh criminal prosecution. In August 2023, Navalny was handed a 19-year sentence in a “special-regime” prison – the harshest category -- after being convicted of inciting and financing "extremist activity." He denounced the sentence as "Stalinist."

Nonetheless, throughout his imprisonment and at his numerous trials, he steadfastly insisted he was not afraid and urged Russians also to overcome their fear of Putin’s repression.

Long in progress, the Kremlin's clampdown on dissent escalated with Navalny’s arrest in January 2021. The authorities turned the screws even tighter a little over a year later, when Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In a social-media post on the first anniversary of the unprovoked attack, Navalny said Putin "has unleashed an unjust war of aggression" and dismissed Putin’s justifications as “ridiculous pretexts.” He said that "tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainians have been murdered" and that "war crimes have been committed."

He called for the restoration of Ukraine's internationally recognized 1991 borders and for Russia to "look for acceptable ways to compensate for the damage done to Ukraine."

"We will have to reimburse Ukraine for all the damage caused by Putin's aggression," he concluded. "We have hit rock bottom."

Many in Ukraine remained wary or critical of Navalny, distrusting his public comments on the war and doubting his dedication to Ukrainian sovereignty.

He was widely praised in the West, however. In October 2021, he was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for his relentless fight against "the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime."

"This cost him his liberty and nearly his life," then-European Parliament head David Sassoli said.

Navalny is survived by his wife and their two children, Dasha and Zakhar.

Former RFE/RL correspondent Matthew Luxmoore contributed to this report

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