Source: https://www.reuters.com/pictures/alexei-navalny-images-life-opposition-2024-02-16/, Maxim Shemetov

On February 16, Russian officers announced that opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died. The dissident had become a martyr. It was the final stage of a metamorphosis that saw an obscure lawyer turn into a nationalist politician, an anti-corruption crusader, and finally an icon of resistance to a ruthless dictatorship.

Navalny’s first formal political engagements were through Yabloko, a “centre-left, pro-European liberal party,” but he also had strong ties to the fiercely nationalist, anti-immigrant movement of the 2000s. There was little sign of the liberal icon he would become. Indeed, in 2007, Yabloko ousted him from the party because he participated in the Russian March, a demonstration associated with nationalist extremism and the far-right. The rallying cry for the march was “Russia for Russians!” Then, shortly after the march, Navalny posted a clip in which he discussed ridding Russia of “flies and cockroaches.” The clip showed images of apparently Muslim men, and then told viewers that his favourite tool for dealing with such pests was a handgun. Another video compared migrants to tooth decay. It is hard to imagine that this man would become a symbol of liberal democracy — but that is precisely what he became.

After breaking from his initial party affiliation with Yabloko, Navalny turned his focus to anti-corruption work. From 2007 to 2010, he began to gain traction online by investigating the finances of the largest Russian state-run oil and gas companies, Gazprom, Rosneft, and Transneft, which frequently featured suspicious “donations” and irregular deals. Navalny traced these financial irregularities by buying a small number of shares in companies he suspected of wrongdoing. This gave him access to their records, which he could use as evidence of their corruption.

As his investigations began to gain attention online, Navalny’s ambitions grew. In 2011, he launched a new project called RosPil, aimed at scaling up anti-corruption work in the country. RosPil allowed users to report suspicious public procurement competitions. These reports would then be reviewed by experts, who would decide whether to report the cases. RosPil’s work clearly had an impact: Anton Nossik, the so-called “godfather of the Russian Internet” who was the driving force behind early online Russian journalism, claimed that Navalny’s work was “changing the public’s and the bureaucrats’ perception of the risks [of stealing money].” By focusing on corruption — instead of his early nationalist bedrock — Navalny sought to direct the anger of lower- and middle- class Russians towards Putin and his government. 

Bringing corruption to the fore shifted the calculus for corrupt bureaucrats; it also made Navalny a threat — and thus a target. In the following decade, Navalny would be jailed more than ten times. In proceedings widely understood to be political retribution based on fictitious charges at the behest of Putin, Navalny was accused of embezzlement, money-laundering, and other financial crimes.

Later, Navalny softened his stance on immigration, pushing for migrant rights. In a 2015 interview with Polish journalist Adam Michnik, he reframed his early participation in the nationalist movement as outreach to disgruntled Russians rather than a reflection of his convictions:

My idea is that you have to communicate with nationalists and educate them. Many Russian nationalists have no clear ideology. What they have is a sense of general injustice to which they respond with aggression against people with a different skin color or eyes of a different shape. I think it’s extremely important to explain to them that beating up migrants is not the solution to the problem of illegal immigration; the solution is a return to competitive elections that would allow us to get rid of the thieves and crooks who are getting rich off of illegal immigration.

Although he never publicly apologized for the derogatory videos he had made in 2007, he attempted to recast his earlier views. The obvious contradiction between this statement and his infamous videos was never resolved, but the sentiments he expressed to Michnik nevertheless reflected the shift Navalny took towards a more acceptable, inclusive “soft” nationalism between 2007 and 2015.

In 2016, Navalny announced a new, greater step in his political career: a run for president. He continued his anti-corruption work as he campaigned, including a notable documentary released in 2017. That documentary detailed then-Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s corruption and sparked protests with tens of thousands of attendees across Russia. Just months after that documentary came out, the Russian Central Election Commission decided to bar Navalny’s candidacy. They cited his prior convictions, widely seen as political fabrications, as disqualifying.

Russian officials doubled down on these restrictions of the democratic process in 2019, when they barred Navalny’s allies and opposition figures from running for Moscow City Council. This sparked a new wave of protests and launched one of Navalny’s most successful political moves: “Smart Voting.” This tactic involved endorsing opposition candidates they felt had the best chance of victory, regardless of which opposition party the candidates belonged to.

In 2020, tension between Navalny and the Russian state reached a dangerous new high. That August, he collapsed onboard a flight between Tomsk and Moscow. Shortly after an emergency landing, he was moved to Berlin for treatment. There, German doctors found that he had been exposed to Novichok, a class of nerve agents notoriously used during the Soviet era that was also tied to the poisoning of two former Russian spies on English soil in 2018. A joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider, CNN, and Der Spiegel concluded that the FSB, Russia’s primary security agency, was implicated. Suspicion of Russian government involvement in Navalny’s poisoning only grew when Navalny posted a recording of a call which he claimed was with Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an FSB agent who was part of the team allegedly responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. In the call, Kudryavstev relayed several details of the poisoning to Navalny, who posed as an aide to the head of the Russian Security Council. He appeared to admit that the goal of the poisoning was to kill Navalny.

Navalny spent months recovering from the Novichok poisoning in Germany before returning to Russia in 2021. Navalny, in returning, was acting upon an ideal he had espoused in 2011, when the fear of state violence was perhaps more abstract. Then, he had declared that “it’s better to die standing up than live on your knees.” By returning to Russia, he was refusing to kneel before Putin’s thuggery.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian police immediately detained Navalny upon arrival in the country. The purported reason for his detainment was failure to show up for a parole hearing. There is, of course, no shortage of irony in arresting somebody for failing to attend a hearing due to the after-effects of a poison that the state itself allegedly administered. Shortly thereafter, Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of a prior suspended sentence (which had been ruled “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights) by undergoing treatment in Berlin. 

It was clear that the international outcry that followed Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 would not deter Putin from prosecuting Navalny on trumped up charges. In 2022, a Russian court sentenced Navalny to nine years in a penal colony for embezzlement and contempt of court. In 2023, he received a 19 year sentence for “extremism.” After that last sentencing, Navalny declared that he was “serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of [his] life or the length of life of this regime.”

On February 16, a statement released by Russian officials at the penal colony where he was being held, blandly informed the world that:

All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, which did not yield positive results. Doctors of the ambulance stated the death of the convict.

The causes of death are being established.

To date, that statement is all that the Russian state has released officially.

Suspiciously little has been revealed publicly about his death. Ivan Zhadanov, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said that Navalny’s family and lawyers who visited the prison after learning of his death were told that he had died of “sudden death syndrome,” a generic term used to describe any unexplained, unexpected death. The state-controlled Russian network RT reported that, according to an anonymous source, Navalny died of a blood clot. Given the circumstances of his death, many both in and out of Russia are disinclined to trust these reports. 

Russian authorities delayed in turning over Navalny’s body. It took more than a week after his death for it to be released to his mother. Officially, the authorities were holding the body for “chemical analysis,” but many — including Navalny’s spokesperson — believe that the government’s delay in handing over his body was an effort to destroy evidence of his alleged murder. 

In a statement given the day reports first emerged, President Joe Biden declared, “Russian authorities are going to tell their own story. But make no mistake — make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death. Putin is responsible.” Other Western leaders made similar statements, as did major international organizations including the U.N. and the European Commission, and most combined these accusations with commemorations of Navalny’s courage. The West’s near unanimous praise of Navalny after last week’s news would have been unimaginable when he first emerged as a political figure in Russia. Their reaction is a testament to how successful Navalny was in distancing himself from his early rabid nationalism — and, more importantly, his emergence as an emblem of Russian dissent. Navalny’s unrelenting resistance laid bare the venality and brutality of the Putin regime.

Other posts that may interest you: