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Alexei Navalny dies in Russian prison aged 47 — authorities

Roman Goncharenko
February 16, 2024

Russia's prison service has announced the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The staunch critic of Vladimir Putin fought a long campaign to drive the Russian president from the Kremlin.

Alexei Navalny, seen here in a Moscow courtroom in 2018
Alexei Navalny, seen here in a Moscow courtroom in 2018, has died, according to prison authoritiesImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Alexei Navalny, who Russian authorities report  has died in a Siberian prison aged 47, was a new kind of opposition leader who was able to mobilize a generation of younger Russians. He conducted an ongoing crusade against Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he blamed for the vast amount of corruption in Russia.

It was not a fair fight, and Navalny was at a definite disadvantage. However, he was able to achieve much more than many other opposition leaders of the past. He was able to strike Putin in his sore spots, by making embarrassing revelations and by using his "smart voting" strategy, with which he tried to deprive the president's United Russia party of votes. 

The Kremlin also struggled to contain the protests that he organized, which attracted tens of thousands, sometimes more, out onto the streets.

Novichok poisoning

The year 2020 marked a drastic turning point for Navalny. It was the year he survived being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. After receiving lifesaving treatment in Germany, he accused Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, and Putin personally, of attempting to murder him. Despite the risks, he decided to return to Russia when he had recovered.

He was arrested immediately and sentenced to jail. This provoked an international outcry and some observers even likened the anti-corruption activist to "a Russian Nelson Mandela." Others saw him more like a knight from a Russian fairy tale, intrepid and willing to sacrifice his life.

Last December, Navalny disappeared for several weeks. It was later discovered that he had been transferred to the penal camp in the far north of Siberia.

Navalny believed that Russian authorities wanted to isolate him even further ahead of presidential elections in March. Previously, he had lodged a series of complaints against the ongoing violation of his rights as a prisoner. Until the end, he used his court appearances to voice biting criticism of Putin's authoritarian rule and Russia's war on Ukraine.

In the end, Navalny was no longer allowed to be present in court even on video.

Alexei Navalny, Putin's relentless Russian critic — archive

Early life

Navalny was born near Moscow in 1976. His father was an army officer and his mother was a businesswoman. He went on to study law, securities and exchanges and became a lawyer and businessman.

Navalny got involved in politics in his mid-20s, joining the left-liberal Yabloko party, from which he was expelled in 2007 over his nationalist tendencies and a spat with the leadership.

It was at this time that he made his most controversial statements, which cost him the sympathy of many others in the opposition and would dog him to the end. He joined the far-right NAROD movement (The People) and got involved with the Russian March, which brings together nationalist forces in the country and is notorious for its anti-immigrant stance and racist attitudes towards people from the Caucasus in particular.

Navalny tried to distance himself from his earlier statements and apologized for derogatory comments about Georgians, which he had called "rodents." But his apologies were not wholly convincing.

Anti-corruption campaigner

He was controversial for other reasons, too. His tendency toward self-promotion and what appeared at times to be arrogance toward journalists made it difficult for some to accept him as a leader.

For a long time, his politics remained very vague. He drifted to the left when he promised a higher minimum wage and higher spending on health and education. However, his real passion was the fight against corruption, a subject that, according to various polls, Russians feel strongly about. He made a name for himself as a blogger, making revelations online that drew hundreds of thousands, later millions, of subscribers and amassed no end of powerful enemies.

His work paved the way for his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), a media outlet that produced sophisticated documentaries investigating and exposing corruption among the Russian elite. In early 2021, within two weeks of being posted online, "Putin's Palace," about a huge luxury residence on the Black Sea believed to have been built for the Russian president, had exceeded 100 million views.

A modern politician, Navalny was extremely adept at using social media. He would post a selfie of himself jogging on Instagram or a picture of himself with his wife and children on Facebook. His primary focus on the social networks arose from necessity: He did not have access to mainstream media outlets in Putin's Russia.

Apart from one exception, Navalny was not able to enter politics through legal means and his party was not registered. In 2013, he ran in Moscow's mayoral election, garnering almost a third of the votes and coming second. Afterwards, the Kremlin did everything it could to keep him out of politics.

Alexei Navalny in the dock in 2021
Navalny did not expect to be released during Vladimir Putin's lifetimeImage: Simonovsky District Court/REUTERS

Subtle sense of humor

One aspect of Navalny's character that stood out was his subtle sense of humor. His first Instagram post after being poisoned was: "Hi, it's Navalny. I miss you." He went on to explain that he was able to breathe on his own completely, joking that this was an incredible process that many underestimated. "I recommend it," he added.

He made jokes in all of his videos and even in the courtroom, having understood early on that it would be easier to get young people on board with humor rather than dry political analysis. His call to an FSB agent whom he suspected of poisoning him, which included details of removing traces of the nerve agent on his underpants, was worthy of an Oscar.

However, by targeting a younger audience, Navalny alienated a large part of the Russian population. His fans belonged to the well-educated urban middle class, a minority. He was not able to reach large swathes of the older population, many of whom believed the state propaganda depicting him as a criminal and puppet of the West.

His death marks a new chapter in Russian history. The country has lost its strongest opposition figure, one who was able to show that it is possible to stand up to the Kremlin, even from jail. But the destiny of Mandela, who went on to be his country's president after his release, has been denied to Navalny.

This article was originally written in German.