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The Week In Russia: Aleksei Navalny: The Life And Death Of 'Putin's Prisoner'

Aleksei Navalny addresses supporters during an unauthorized anti-Putin rally on May 5, 2018, in Moscow, two days ahead of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a fourth Kremlin term.
Aleksei Navalny addresses supporters during an unauthorized anti-Putin rally on May 5, 2018, in Moscow, two days ahead of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a fourth Kremlin term.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

Aleksei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most formidable opponent, has died in suspicious circumstances at an Arctic prison at the age of 47. His body has not yet been buried but his legacy is beginning to unfold, with his defiant widow taking up the mantle of his anti-Kremlin activism.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Toad On The Oil Pipe

On July 18, 2013, after a court sentenced him to five years in prison following a trial on embezzlement charges he dismissed as punishment for his opposition to President Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny sent out a tweet.

"OK. Don't be bored without me. And most important, don't be idle -- the toad won't jump off the oil pipe itself."

The brief post mixed several elements of Navalny's public persona, using an upbeat tone to combine a sense of resignation about his own fate with a clear call for Russian to take peaceful action against Putin and allies, whom the opposition politician often described as a corrupt cabal clinging to power by sucking up Russia's oil riches for themselves.

It's a message Navalny delivered countless times over more than a decade as the most prominent of Putin's opponents.

But no more. Navalny died in a harsh Arctic prison last week, three years and one month after he was arrested upon return to his country following treatment for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blamed on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Navalny was 47 years old -- the age at which Putin, now 72, first became president.

The Russan authorities have refused to release Navalny's body to his family a week after his death was announced on February 16, deepening suspicions raised by the fact that he had no obvious health problems and seemed to be in good spirits when he spoke at a court hearing by video link one day earlier.

In a video she recorded on February 22, Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said that the authorities want to bury his body in secret, without handing it over to her and without a funeral. "I don't agree with this. I want those of you who valued Aleksei and take his death as a personal tragedy to have the chance to say farewell to him," she said.

Many supporters, Kremlin critics, and observers in Russia and abroad are certain that Navalny was killed by Putin and the state he heads, whether through mistreatment over his time behind bars or with a single fatal attack of some kind at the prison known as Polar Wolf.

'It Is Shameful To Surrender To Your Fear'

Days after his death, the message Navalny had delivered over the years was repeated by his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who vowed to take up the mantle and urged Russians to stand beside her.

"I'll remind you of Aleksei's words.... 'It isn't shameful to do too little. It is shameful to do nothing. It is shameful to surrender to your fear,'" she said.

Fear in the face of the state's actions against him and its spiraling clampdown on dissent across the country was something that Navalny, if he felt it, never showed in public.

The state, on the other hand, seemed to show repeatedly that it feared him: that Putin saw Navalny as a threat to his grip on power.

For one thing, there was the flip-flop by the authorities in 2013. After the embezzlement trial, Navalny was initially sentenced to five years in prison, which would have been his first long-term incarceration -- until then, he had spent many days and night in jails over street protests, but never been convicted of a major crime and sent to prison.

Hours later, in a highly unusual reversal that followed sizable street protests over the verdict, Navalny was freed pending an appeal, and the sentence was later suspended -- evidence, many believed, that the Kremlin feared locking him up long-term would make him into a martyr.

In the meantime, Navalny was able to run in the Moscow mayoral election and received more than 27 percent of the vote, according to the official count -- far less than the Kremlin-backed incumbent but a level of support that may have worried Putin by suggesting an alternative to his long rule.

To supporters, that was perhaps the main thing Navalny represented: the idea that an alternative existed -- and might someday be within reach.

The Kremlin took an array of steps to stifle that in several ways, from multiple prosecutions to the ruling that barred him from challenging Putin in the last presidential election. Not to mention the fact that Putin and his main spokesman avoided uttering Navalny's name in public.

'Putin Never Faced A More Serious Threat'

To supporters and some analysts, the Kremlin's efforts to show Russians that Navalny was a minor figure belied its fear of him, and the increasingly dramatic accusations that prosecutors piled on him seemed to support that view.

"It was cool among a certain class of pundits to pooh-pooh Navalny, to say he was never a serious threat," Sam Greene, a professor at the Kings Russia Institute in London, wrote in a thread on X, formerly Twitter, on February 17. "Let me put it this way: Putin never faced a more serious threat."

Eventually, the Russian authorities apparently abandoned any qualms they may have had about putting Navalny away for years -- or getting rid of him forever. His poisoning in August 2020 stands out as a marker of a shift in the state's approach to Putin's most vocal foe, as does his arrest upon arrival in Moscow on January 17, 2021.

Once he was detained at Sheremetyevo airport that day, Navalny never walked free again in Russia or anywhere else. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year sentence following an extremism conviction that came amid the intensified clampdown the state has imposed in conjunction with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The outcome of the war could go a long way to shaping Navalny's legacy. If Russia prevails, those seeking to keep his cause alive may face an even steeper uphill climb.

In an interview with RFE/RL, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg suggested that Navalny's death underscored the need to ensure that Putin's authoritarian rule does not go unchecked.

"I strongly believe that the best way to honor the memory of Aleksei Navalny is to ensure that President Putin doesn't win on the battlefield, but that Ukraine prevails," Stoltenberg said in the interview on February 21.

In his thread on X, Greene wrote that the main message Navalny leaves behind is one he repeated often: "Don't surrender."

'Those Who Are Needed The Most'

"Navalny is not the first of Putin's political opponents to die. He will not likely be the last. But it is up to those who care to find a way -- any way -- to keep Russia's other political prisoners alive," wrote Greene, who also heads a democracy-support program at Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. "The pressure must always be on."

The prominent Russian human rights group Memorial, banned in its own country, says that Russia is currently holding 679 people the organization has designated as political prisoners.

One of them is Vladmir Kara-Murza, who was arrested in April 2022 -- shortly after returning to Russia following a speech in the United States in which he accused the "dictatorial regime in the Kremlin" of committing "war crimes" in Ukraine -- and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In a post on X on February 20, Kara-Murza wrote that while the circumstances of Navalny's death were not yet clear, Putin bears "personal responsibility -- because Aleksei was his personal prisoner."

Kara-Murza wrote that there was little news about Navalny on the single-channel radio in his cell, and that he had heard a song by the Soviet-era bard Vladimir Vysotsky -- a folk hero whose ruggedly subversive lyrics spoke of pain, loss, and the harsh reality beneath the lies of the state.

"Everyone comes back," goes one line quoted by Kara-Murza, "except those who are needed the most."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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