Alexei Navalny appears via a video link from the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service during a hearing of Russia’s Supreme Court in Moscow, on Jan. 11, 2024

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

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Killing Navalny

The murder of his most popular political opponent is a sign of Putin’s confidence, not weakness

Vladislav Davidzon
February 19, 2024
Alexei Navalny appears via a video link from the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service during a hearing of Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow, on Jan. 11, 2024

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s preeminent political prisoner and opposition leader, has been assassinated by Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. His death was announced on Friday by the Russian Penitentiary Service in the midst of the Munich Security Conference, marking the grim anniversary of the infamous policy-setting anti-Western speech that Putin had delivered at that same conference in 2007. This time, Putin’s message to the West was written in blood.

The charismatic anti-corruption activist’s killing took place in the infamous Polar Wolf Siberian penal colony to which he had been transferred in December ahead of next month’s presidential elections. Navalny had spent the last three years being shuffled around ever more brutal Russian penal colonies, in the process becoming the world’s most prominent political prisoner. According to reports in Russian outlets, his death was preceded by the arrival of Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel at Polar Wolf and the disconnecting of CCTV cameras at the facility. Navalny’s body, which reportedly bears marks of bruising in keeping with an attempt to resuscitate a victim of cardiac arrest, is currently unaccounted for, most likely to keep an autopsy from being performed.

Navalny is the latest in a series of high-profile opposition leaders and dissidents to be assassinated by the Russian state. Putin’s most visible and outspoken opponent had spent the last three years imprisoned under the most austere and barbarous conditions that Russia’s prison camp system offers. In fact, Putin had been so terrified of the challenge that Navalny posed to his system that he has spent years steadfastly refusing to utter his name. The murder of the Kremlin’s most audacious and charismatic political opponent—one who earned his political stature through his superhuman courage—a month before upcoming elections sends an unmistakable message to any other Russians countenancing opposition to Putin’s police state.

The son of a Soviet army officer, Navalny will be remembered by history as the opposition figure who constituted the most serious challenge to Putin’s quarter-century-long rule. Tough and physically imposing, Navalny was also a lawyer by training who brought idealism for a better and “more beautiful Russia” to Russians beaten down by the corruption and brutality of Putin’s rule. He made the dream of a normal Russia into a reasonable one. The Anti-Corruption Foundation that Navalny and his team created in 2011 found ways to cleverly circumnavigate the Kremlin’s de facto taboo on opposition politics through the deft exposure of the system’s immense inefficiency and corruption. The foundation was eventually declared an extremist organization a decade later and banned in Russia much like al-Qaida, the Taliban or Islamic Jihad, in part for documenting Putin’s network of lavish hideaways and special conveniences, including a “ghost train” equipped with a Turkish bath, a private operating room, and a cosmetology suite.

With his vital charisma, organizing skills, roguish impertinence and endless energy, the handsome Navalny seemed to represent the most viable successor to Putin. As a young political activist, Navalny took hard nationalist positions while competing for the nationalist vote and made ugly comments about Muslims and Georgians—and was kicked out of the opposition Yabloko party for doing so. This would presage his obstreperous relations with other Russian opposition movements and leaders.

Idealistic hopes or fantasies of regime transition in Russia on the back of mass street protests seem more far more distant now than they were before the attack on Ukraine and Navalny’s death.

Yet while most opposition leaders who had not fled or been killed wound up compromising in one way or another with the diktats of the system, Navalny was not the compromising kind. As I wrote in January 2022 in Tablet, where I profiled Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation: “Navalny’s elevation suggested that the choosing of the leadership of the Russian opposition is mostly a process of natural selection, the law of survival of the fittest. The Kremlin has spent years systematically co-opting softer and more compromise-oriented opponents, removing them from the Russian political arena.”

Navalny and his team had at first been allowed to compete in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections. Yet the Kremlin quickly learned to cease underestimating him when that campaign came perilously close to succeeding (the Navalny camp’s claims that the mayoral election had been stolen remain entirely plausible). The next year would see Navalny placed under house arrest while his brother was sentenced—hostage-style—to a prison term on trumped-up financial charges. Navalny was not allowed to challenge Putin directly during the 2018 election cycle.

Soon enough, the paranoid Putin ordered Navalny’s preemptive murder. The FSB officers who were tasked with carrying out the assassination in August 2020 would deploy Novichok—a powerful military-grade synthetic nerve agent. Slipped into Navalny’s underwear, it was meant to vaporize a man’s nervous system and essentially melt his brain. A lesser man would not have survived the poisoning, but the intervention of German physicians in Berlin saved Navalny’s life. A lesser man would also not have made a full physical recovery from the nerve damage.

“Navalny’s body,” wrote the investigative journalist Christo Grozev in reference to the Russians’ previous attempt to murder him, “is still being hidden from his family. Just a reminder that the previous time the FSB kidnapped his comatose body, they spent two days “cleaning up his body” and his clothes from traces of Novichok, before (thinking) they could safely hand him over.”

The injured Navalny slowly relearned how to write and speak. Courageous almost beyond all rational comprehension, he refused to stay abroad and to share the historical fate—oblivion, irreverence, and redundancy—of generations of exiled Russian opposition figures before him. Aided by the Bellingcat team of investigative researchers, Navalny called his would-be assassin posing as his purported superior—cavalierly recording the hapless thug’s confession.

In January 2021, Navalny returned to Moscow in a plane filled with international journalists who broadcast his detainment and arrest and his final kiss with his wife at the airport. It was the sort of full-frontal challenge to Putin’s system that the regime was clearly unwilling to tolerate. A quick show trial later, he would be banished to a penal colony outside of Moscow.

The techniques the Russian prison system used to brutalize Navalny—sleep and food deprivation, bullying by fellow inmates, stints of forced isolation, purposeful lack of medical care—would have annihilated a weaker and less vigorous man. These were methods and settings taken straight out of the Soviet Gulag playbook first described by Solzhenitsyn.

Navalny knew exactly what he was returning to. His was a courageous and humanistic gamble—that of placing his own body at the direct mercy of Putin’s apparatus of repression—in the quixotic hope of igniting a popular uprising. It was also a gamble that was always likely preordained to failure. Putin’s Russia had by that time already reverted to late-Soviet levels of state repression. Attempting to foment a revolution in the midst of a Russian winter was always a nonstarter.

The historical antecedent for Navalny’s fate is surely the failed Decembrist uprising: a noble revolt of liberal army officers and patriotic reformers in 1825 that followed in the wake of the death of Emperor Alexander I. Russian history is filled with remarkably brave and idealistic dissidents making heroic and quixotic stands against the autocratic state. History records the names and fates of the bravest among them. It is to this long list that Navalny has now added his name, with no sign that the rule of the czars and their modern-day successors will be ending anytime soon.

It remains uncertain which leaders will be able to pick up the mantle of the opposition in the wake of Navalny’s death. Many Russian intellectuals and commentators view Navalny’s murder as foreclosing any possibility of a nonviolent democratic movement against the regime. Navalny’s murder showcases the naked brutality of a system without an off-ramp from ever-escalating repression against its own population and the use of violence against internal political challengers. Which is not to say that Navalny’s murder was an admission of weakness or political anxiety. Rather, Putin killed Navalny and withheld his body in the run-up to an election because he was confident that he could get away with it.

It is perhaps also not coincidental that Navalny’s death comes a week after the release of broadcaster Tucker Carlson’s slavishly fawning Moscow interview with Putin, during which the Russian president rambled on about the history of Kyivan Rus for half an hour to the mesmerized American. Carlson is currently in the midst of organizing and facilitating a pro-Putin campaign on the American political right, which, in addition to the interview with the Russian dictator, included a social media propaganda tour of Putin’s Russia complete with gee-whiz marveling at the wonders of ersatz Russian McDonald’s meals and the glories of the Moscow subway system.

Despite the shopworn naiveté of Carlson’s observations, which echoed the claims made by generations of useful leftist idiots like Bernie Sanders, who similarly admired the Moscow subway system and other Soviet attainments on his honeymoon trip in 1988, only a year before the Berlin Wall came down, the broadcaster’s campaign has had success in decreasing support among conservatives for arming the Ukrainians. The current military aid package to Ukraine is now stuck without a vote in Congress: House Speaker Mike Johnson has not put the foreign aid bill up to a vote because of opposition from elements of his base. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians have just pulled their forces out of the encircled eastern city of Avdiivka, and proclaimed to the world that their army is running out of ammunition, signaling the increasing likelihood of broader Russian conquests of Ukrainian territory in the spring.

The historian Sergey Radchenko’s conclusion was appropriately bleak: “With Navalny’s death, Russia has symbolically turned the corner. There is no more faith, nor any more hope, and no longer any prospect for that ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ that Navalny tried so hard to keep alive in our collective imagination.” The prominent Russian journalist Mihail Zygar wrote that “we dreamed of him being the President of Russia. He was our future for so long. Now we no longer have that future, and we will have another. Alexei will always be with us and will become much more than a President. He will be the messiah of the Russian future.”

However, idealistic hopes or fantasies of regime transition in Russia on the back of mass street protests seem far more distant now than they were before the attack on Ukraine and Navalny’s death. A political transition in Russia would now almost certainly take place at the level of a palace coup or following Putin’s own death. Much of the core constituency of potential pro-democracy protests have long since fled Russia, after the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine when Russia passed new conscription and mobilization laws. Russian men who take to the streets to protest now risk being detained and sent to fight in the front lines in Ukraine.

The stakes for protesting the regime are infinitely higher than they were when Navalny and his people had first called on Russians to engage in mass uprisings three years ago. Which is why the vigils and impromptu flower-laying ceremonies commemorating Navalny, which were disrupted by Russian riot police all across the nation this weekend, were predominantly made up of women.

On Friday afternoon, U.S. President Joe Biden proclaimed that “Putin is responsible” for the killing and that there was “no doubt” that President Vladimir Putin’s government bore responsibility. Three years after having threatened Putin’s Kremlin with “devastating consequences” if Navalny were to die in prison, those effects have so far been nil.

Perhaps most significantly from Putin’s point of view, the killing of a prominent opposition head sends a clear, direct message to other Russian opposition leaders who are currently in prison and may envisage themselves as symbols of a future democratic Russia. Here, the liberal West does have options. It can and should demand the facilitation of Red Cross visits for political prisoners such as the British Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, whom the Kremlin has already tried to kill twice. If there are no consequences for Navalny’s death, it seems likely that Putin’s hit list will only get longer.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.