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How are Russians reacting to Alexei Navalny’s death?

Juri Rescheto | Alexey Strelnikov
February 17, 2024

While many Russian politicians are echoing the Kremlin’s narrative, critics say they suspect foul play and fear that the opposition leader’s demise signals a further rise in repression.

Flowers and a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny near the Russian embassy in Paris
Alexei Navalny (1976 - 2024)Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

Alexei Navalny may have made fewer headlines in recent years, but news on Friday of his death has still shaken many in Russia.

Hundreds brought flowers to monuments honoring the victims of political persecution in solidarity with the country's most prominent opposition leader, who was being held in an Arctic penal colony at the time of his death.

These expressions of public grief are not without danger in President Vladimir Putin's Russia, where Navalny was treated as the country's chief public enemy.

'These things happen'

The Kremlin issued a prompt but terse response: Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov referred to doctors investigating the cause of Navalny's death. Putin, who is known to avoid mentioning Navalny by name, did not make a statement himself. While Navalny may have been recognized worldwide for his resistance efforts, the Kremlin referred to him as merely "a blogger."

People honor Alexei Navalny with flowers at a memorial to victims of political repression in Moscow
People honor Alexei Navalny at a memorial to victims of political repression in MoscowImage: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP/picture alliance

Russian politicians have hardly dared to comment freely on Navalny's death. Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, merely rejected speculation that the opposition figure may not have died of natural causes: "Russia had no reason to harm Navalny's health, absolutely no reason," he said. "This person was serving his term. He still had a few years to go. I think it was a tragic accident. These things happen."

Kremlin criticizes the response from abroad

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova used the opportunity to criticize "the West."

"There are still no results of the forensic investigation, but the West is already drawing its conclusions," she said, referencing reactions by numerous foreign politicians who criticized Russian politics and Putin.

'A further sign of Putin's brutality': leaders respond to reported Navalny death

The only cautious criticism from within Russia came from Eva Merkachova, a member of the Russian Human Rights Council. She voiced concerns that Navalny's health was ruined by prison conditions, namely the punishments that he suffered in solitary confinement. "These are very harsh, even brutal prison conditions," she said.

'Our son was healthy and full of life'

Navalny's family reacted with outrage. His wife Yulia Navalnaya appeared on stage at the Munich Security Conference, holding Putin personally responsible for her husband's death.

Fight Russia's 'horrific regime,' Navalny's wife says

Navalny's mother Ludmila posted on Facebook: "I don't want to hear any condolences. We saw our son in the prison camp, we visited him on the twelfth [of February]. He was alive, healthy and full of life."

Medical doctor Alexander Polupan also commented on Navalny's health in independent Russian media. He had examined the politician after his poisoning in 2020, and gave updates about his condition to Navalny's supporters in the following years.

Polupan said he was not convinced by a report from Russian state broadcaster RT that the cause of death was a blood clot. "Of course, his overall state of health was poor, as with any person held in such terrible conditions. But somehow I think this reason is implausible," he said.

Political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told DW that she doubts Navalny died of natural causes, recalling a court session that he attended just a few days ago. "He had the voice of a healthy, energetic man, not a feeble one. When someone has pneumonia, suffers from heart problems or hunger—you can hear that. A week ago he was healthy and full of energy. For us, no scenario but murder makes sense."

Kremlin critics blame Putin

Exiled opposition politician and former Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky said the Kremlin was squarely to blame: "Regardless of the formal cause of death, Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for Alexei's premature death, first poisoning him and later putting him in prison."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky blamed Russian President Putin for Navalny's deathImage: DW

Latvian President Edgars Rinkevic shared the same opinion: "No matter what you think of Alexei Navalny as a politician, he was brutally murdered by the Kremlin."

Russian political scientist Abbas Galyamov said he believes that Russian authorities are creating a climate of fear ahead of the presidential elections, using Navalny's death to intimidate those who might still dare to show resistance. Now, fewer people will vote in the presidential elections in a month.

And while this may compromise the legitimacy of the results, it suits Moscow just fine, he said. "They don't care about this legitimacy," Galyamov wrote on the Telegram network.

Competing narratives

Perhaps next the Russian authorities could claim that Navalny's death was an accident, political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov speculated on Telegram. But later, in the absence of an obvious cause, this narrative might be replaced with "he was killed by Russia's enemies."

"There will be serious external investigation into whether Navalny was poisoned in prison by other opposition members with the support of the CIA, MI6 and MOSSAD," he added.

Protesters gathered at the Russian embassy in Oslo with a sign reading "Putinism kills"
Protesters gathered at the Russian embassy in Oslo to express their outrage at Navalny's deathImage: Frederik Ringnes/NTB/AP/picture alliance

Most political scientists loyal to the Kremlin are supporting the official narrative that Navalny's death was an accident. Some have indeed pointed to a "Western trail," recalling the circumstances surrounding the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov not far from the Kremlin.

"Every time there is a light at the end of the war or our victory looms, one of the Western secret services organizes a terrorist attack or a strange death," political scientist Marat Bashirov wrote.

'A goal beyond the horizon'

Some pro-government pundits have at least conceded that Navalny was a strong-willed man who could have become a "Russian Mandela."

For independent Moscow political expert Alexander Kynev, Navalny remained a truly free man to the end through sheer force of will. Navalny has become part of Russian political history, Kynev wrote on his Telegram channel. Universities, streets and airports will be named after Navalny in the future, he said.

"Life is always a choice," and Navalny did not choose either his family or his career, but "a goal beyond the horizon," Kynev added.

This article was originally published in German.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief