The lonesome death of Alexei Navalny: Russia is back to its old ways

In the summer of 2020, Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok—a Soviet creation—and he was airlifted to Berlin for recovery.  (AFP)
In the summer of 2020, Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok—a Soviet creation—and he was airlifted to Berlin for recovery. (AFP)


  • The eyebrow-raising death of a prominent Putin critic reveals the Kremlin's return to form. Like dough regaining its shape.

Back in 2013, when Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was facing bogus criminal charges, I recalled when my great-grandfather, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, compared Russia to a tub full of dough. “You put your hand down in it, down to the bottom," and “when you first pull out your hand, a little hole remains." But then, “before your very eyes," the dough returns to its original state—a “spongy, puffy mass." Navalny’s death more than a decade later proves that little has changed.

The prison where Navalny died is a brutal one. Nicknamed ‘Polar Wolf,’ it is a freezing cold gulag for violent criminals. But Navalny, an anti-corruption lawyer and blogger, was not known for violence. In 2013, he was fending off trumped-up embezzlement charges and the convictions that got him sent to Polar Wolf in 2021 were for parole violations, fraud and contempt of court. While in prison, he accumulated more convictions on fabricated charges, including supporting extremism.

Navalny’s real crime, of course, was challenging Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. From leading protests against the rigged parliamentary elections of 2011 to probing the corruption of Russia’s elites to seeking to unseat Putin (in a presidential election from which the authorities excluded him), he was relentless in his nearly two-decade-long campaign against Putin and his circle. The many legal proceedings were Stalin-style show trials—intended to give the illusion of justice, while getting a high-profile critic off ballots and TV screens. But while Stalin-era trials made liberal use of the death penalty, no case against Navalny, no matter how trumped up, warranted it—at least not officially.

The Russian prison service claims that Navalny lost consciousness after a walk and could not be resuscitated, despite the best efforts of emergency medical workers. But Navalny did not seem “unwell" the previous day, when he took part in online court proceedings, or the day before that, when his lawyer visited him. This is not to say that Navalny’s death was definitely a direct hit, ordered by Putin himself; life at Polar Wolf would destroy anyone’s health. But, directly or indirectly, [Navalny’s death could be laid at the Kremlin’s door].

Attempts had been made on Navalny’s life. In the summer of 2020, the dissenter was poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok—a Soviet creation—and he was airlifted to Berlin for recovery. He probably knew that returning to Russia would mean more politically motivated prosecutions and that he could end up being killed, like Boris Nemtsov and countless others. But he chose to return to continue confronting Russia’s leader.

Navalny was arrested immediately upon landing in Moscow. The mass protests that ensued, demanding his release, must have reinforced the Kremlin’s view of him as a threat to be neutralized. In the show trials that followed, no government authority dared even to name him, calling him the “German patient." It was like living in the Harry Potter universe, where Lord Voldemort is “he who must not be named."

When I wrote about the Navalny show trials in 2013, I suggested that Russia might have been evolving, albeit slowly. Little did I know that this period would later be remembered as “vegetarian times," when independent media were suppressed but not banned, public protest was punished but not with long prison sentences, and a high-profile opponent of the Kremlin like Navalny could keep running an anti-corruption foundation and speaking out against injustice. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin appears to have become carnivorous.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost 300 cases have been initiated for “discrediting the Russian armed forces." Now, all it takes to get your own show trial in Russia is to recite an anti-war poem. The tragedy of this despotism is that the fight never ends. The more show trials a regime holds, the more it must hold to keep people in check. The more repression people endure, the more repression is needed to avoid a backlash. As authoritarians have no end point, it’s reasonable to assume that in the run-up to Russia’s next sham presidential election next month, its leader’s tolerance of dissent is at an all-time low.

Russia’s election is expected to run smoothly, even though Navalny’s death attracted more attention than his statements from prison ever did. The same logic may have applied to the poisonings of a Russian-British double agent and his daughter before the 2018 election. Neither victim posed an imminent threat to the leadership and their deaths attracted much negative attention. But the Kremlin perhaps needed to send out a stern message: Enemies beware. And thus does the dough refill the tub. ©2024/project syndicate

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