Alexei Navalny, the enemy of the Kremlin who defied death

The best-known opponent internationally of Vladimir Putin’s regime spent years uncovering corruption scandals among Russia’s elite

Alexei Navalni
Police detain Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after he submitted documents to register as a mayoral candidate in Moscow, July 10, 2013.Grigory Dukor (REUTERS)
María R. Sahuquillo

Alexei Navalny was, until the Kremlin succeeded in silencing him, the most outspoken, loquacious, and well-known critic of Vladimir Putin outside Russia. The oppositionist, who survived several attacks on his life, the last a serious poisoning in the summer of 2020 in Siberia by the Russian secret services, has died at 47 in a remote Russian penal colony, according to prison authorities. Navalny was a charismatic figure dedicated to the anti-corruption fight who uncovered dozens of cases involving the Russian elite and the orbit of the Kremlin, first on his blog and then on his online channels. He returned to Moscow after spending a few months in Germany, where he was treated for the poisoning, knowing that he would be arrested, prosecuted, and removed from the public eye in a country ruled by the security apparatus, headed by an autocrat and former KGB spy obsessed with history, and which for years has crushed all dissent.

In Putin’s Russia, opponents are in exile, in prison, or dead, often in suspicious circumstances. The Russian authorities had been harassing Navalny since his imprisonment. The aim was to bury the dissident. Ilya Yashin, his friend from his time in the Yabloko party — one of the few non-systemic opposition formations in Russia — explained that he never had any doubt that he was going to return to Russia, even while aware of the sentence that awaited him. “Navalny never sought fame in the West. He wants to live in Russia, he wants the best for his country and he knows that the only way to fight for its normality is to be here,” he explained to EL PAÍS in 2021, after the dissident’s arrest. “What he can achieve for Russia, even being behind bars, is greater than from exile. Navalny is a man of conviction and determination. And even the current situation opens political prospects for him. His main task now must be to survive. If he does, he will be president,” he concluded. Navalny is now dead and Yashin is in a maximum-security prison, sentenced to eight and a half years for his criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.

Alexei Navalny handcuffed in court in Moscow on March 30, 2017.
Alexei Navalny handcuffed in court in Moscow on March 30, 2017. STR (AP)

Married for more than two decades to Yulia Navalnaya, with whom he has two children, Navalny carefully cultivated the image of the average Russian. Tall, blue-eyed and with a very characteristic deep voice, the dissident became one of the Kremlin’s biggest problems, although the party he founded — persecuted and banned — never managed to garner great popular support, despite it being significant in several regions far from Moscow, in a very decentralized country.

Navalny coined one of the best-known definitions of United Russia, the ruling party, chanted during the anti-corruption demonstrations that were still possible — if dangerous — before the war, calling them “crooks and thieves.” The dissident and his supporters spoke of the “precious Russia of the future,” a Russia without Putin. A Russia he will now never see.

Navalny studied law and finance and worked in real estate, but he rose to prominence when, in 2007, he started buying small packages of shares in major hydrocarbon companies and banks and began to ask sharp questions about their financial activities. From those uncomfortable inquiries a blog sprouted, in which he laid out cases of alleged corruption and negligence in state corporations.

The lawyer — who spent his childhood and youth in several cities near Moscow, where his parents ran a family basket factory — became one of the leaders of the massive protests against electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2012. Those mobilizations posed the biggest challenge to the Kremlin and Putin in a long time. And the Russian authorities learned their lesson.

Everything surrounding those protests, which started in Moscow and spread to Russia’s major cities, not only consolidated Navalny’s role as an agitator, but also put his work at the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) on the map. The organization, which he had just founded with a young team, launched a series of investigations into the shady and corrupt dealings of Russia’s political and economic elite, which began to take off thanks to the spread of the Internet.

His publications caused certain tidal waves in the circles of power. He made a long list of enemies, among them Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” and the former head of the paramilitary Wagner Group, who died in a plane crash last August two months after he had led an attempted military uprising.

With almost cinematic production, Navalny also published a 113-minute documentary exposing part of the alleged empire that Putin has built in which a luxurious palace on the shores of the Black Sea, gifted by his frontmen, was shown. It featured golden toilets, “disco-pools,” a casino area, a hookah room with a stage, a pole dance bar, and a theater. This footage was released when Navalny was already in prison. The Russian authorities arrested him directly at Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport in January 2021 after he landed from Berlin with his wife, in the presence of hundreds of journalists awaiting his arrival. A warrant had been issued for Navalny having missed a mandatory parole visit and for not reporting to court in a case dating from 2014 in which he was convicted of fraud, and which the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights defined as politically motivated. He missed those appointments because he was in Germany recovering from the poisoning attack that almost cost him his life.

His return to Russia and his arrest afforded him a halo of heroism that the Kremlin has insisted on erasing by silencing him and trying to break him in prison. For Putin, it became personal. So much so that for years he acted as if Navalny were invisible. Then, when he became impossible to ignore, Putin would never mention him by name, instead referring to “that person,” the “blogger,” or, after he had been transferred to Germany for treatment after being poisoned, “the Berlin patient.”

On August 20, 2020, when Navalny was flying back to Moscow from Tomsk in Siberia after a meeting with members of his party, he began to feel ill. He collapsed in the bathroom of the aircraft, which had to make an emergency landing in Omsk. The dissident was hospitalized. His family and allies suspected from the outset that he had been poisoned. After more than 24 hours of trying to obtain permission to transfer him out of the country, Navalny was transferred in a hospital plane to Berlin after the mediation of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Navalny spent 19 days in a coma. Analyses by German military laboratories detected that he had been attacked with Novichok, the same military nerve agent that was used in 2018 against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K., an attack British intelligence put down to members of the Russian military security services. Laboratories in France, Sweden and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague confirmed the finding, which led to further sanctions on Russia from the European Union, based on the conclusion that the poisoning could not have been carried out without the Kremlin’s knowledge. The Russian secret services had been tracking Skripal for years.

Navalny recovered, although he later reported that he had to relearn how to walk. In December 2020, just days after an investigation led by Netherlands-based investigative media outlet Bellingcat identified the alleged Federal Security Service (FSB) agents involved in his poisoning, Navalny released a video in which he telephoned one of them posing as a senior official and elicited from him the alleged details of the attack. Among these was that if the plane had not made an emergency landing, he would have died. The FSB spy said that the poison had been sprayed on the dissident’s underpants. These events were collected in an Oscar-winning documentary, Navalny (2022), directed by Canadian Daniel Roher.

Before that poisoning Navalny was almost blinded in another attack. The dissident had spoken many times about the possibility of being assassinated. “I’m trying not to think about it a lot. Because if you start to think what kind of risks I have, you cannot do anything,” he said in an interview with CBS News in 2017.

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