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Dresden Peace Prize goes to the late Alexei Navalny

Jens Thurau | Roman Goncharenko
May 12, 2024

The widow of late Russian dissident Alexei Navalny accepted the Dresden Peace Prize on his behalf on Sunday. The posthumous award honored the opposition politician's pro-democracy work.

A picture of Alexei Navalny in front of the Russian embassy in Paris on February 16, 2024
Alexei Navalny was remembered in countries around the world, including near the Russian Embassy in Paris (seen here)Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

The Dresden Peace Prize has been awarded to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who died under mysterious circumstances in an Arctic Circle prison camp on February 16.

"The resistance of the opposition politician was and is an emboldening example to all the human rights defenders who are continuing his activities," the organizers said on Sunday.

Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accepted the prize and the laudatory speech was held by former German President Joachim Gauck.

Gauck, who had already praised Navalny as an "icon of all decent Russians" shortly after the news of his death, used a German sporting expression on Sunday and called the dissident a "feared opponent" for President Vladimir Putin.

Former Federal President Joachim Gauck
Former Federal President Joachim Gauck held the laudatory speech for Alexei Navalny in DresdenImage: Stefan Sauer/dpa/picture alliance

The ceremony also included a performance of "Alexei Navalny's Speeches in Court" by the Dresden State Theater ensemble. The award comes with a €10,000 (roughly $10,800) prize.

A blogger with a sense of humor

Born in 1976, Navalny gained worldwide attention for his many years of work to expose corruption and human rights abuses in Putin's Russia.

As a blogger, Navalny reached millions with his humor, especially younger Russians. In doing so, he made many powerful enemies. The Kremlin endeavored to keep him out of politics, but Navalny still managed to organize supporters across the country.

Navalny began his career as a businessman and lawyer. At the end of the 1990s, in his mid-20s, he became involved in the left-liberal Yabloko party but was expelled in 2007 due to conflicts with the party leadership and his nationalist views. He was subsequently active in a nationalist movement — also making him controversial in Russian opposition circles.

Navalny's 2020 poisoning attracted a great deal of international attention. He was flown to Berlin for treatment and survived, and accused Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, and Putin personally, of attempting his murder.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears in a Moscow court via video link in 2022
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny often appeared in court via video linkImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

After he recovered, he returned to Russia despite the risks, only to be immediately arrested in Moscow and subsequently sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Last December, Navalny went missing for several weeks. It was later discovered that he had been transferred to a penal camp in northern Siberia. Navalny believed Russian authorities wanted to isolate him even further ahead of the presidential election in March — an election that Putin handily won.

Navalny powerful even in prison

Before his death, Navalny had lodged a series of complaints against the ongoing violation of his rights as a prisoner. Until he died, he used his court appearances to voice biting criticism of Putin's authoritarian rule and Russia's war on Ukraine.

Putin himself confirmed that there had been preparations for a prisoner exchange shortly before Navalny's death. It remains unclear why the exchange never took place, or if the claim is true.

Since Navalny's deathl, the Russian regime has continued its brutal crackdown on critics. Supporters recently expressed concern about the health of one of Navalny's close companions, Vladimir Kara-Murza. The 42-year-old was sentenced to 25 years in prison for "high treason" in April 2023 after accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine during a speech in the United States.

Kara-Murza's family and lawyers have claimed that the FSB attempted to poison him too, in 2015 and 2017. He has suffered from serious health problems ever since.

'Danger to Putin and his system'

"Navalny repeatedly drilled into the wounds of the Russian dictatorship, becoming the greatest danger to Putin and his system. That is why he became a political prisoner whose death is representative of countless people who stand up for freedom and democracy in Russia," said a statement by the Friends of Dresden Deutschland association.

Freedom of Speech Award: DW honors Navalny's widow

The prize has been awarded annually since 2010 to commemorate the Allied bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, with the intention of countering the appropriation of the anniversary by right-wing extremists. Previous recipients include former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has increasingly become the focus of public attention. On February 16, immediately after the news of his death, she took the stage at the Munich Security Conference and called for Putin to be held accountable.

The Russian president and his aides "will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family, to my husband," she said.

Earlier this month, DW announced that its Freedom of Speech Award would go to Navalnaya in early June.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau