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Yulia Navalnaya: Free speech is our 'most important weapon'

June 5, 2024

Yulia Navalnaya said in Berlin that, although Vladimir Putin killed her husband, "he didn't silence him and his ideas." She said Alexei Navalny showed that "truth makes even an all-powerful dictator tremble with fear."

Yulia Navalnaya, holding the award, gestures to German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and DW Director General Peter Limbourg. Berlin, June 5, 2024.
Navalnaya and her husband's FBK anti-corruption foundation share the 10th DW Freedom of Speech AwardImage: Ronka Oberhammer/DW

Yulia Navalnaya and the Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), established by her late husband Alexei Navalny, received DW's 2024 Freedom of Speech Award at a ceremony in Berlin on Wednesday. 

Navalnaya told the audience that free speech had been her husband and his organization's "most important weapon" during the last 13 years while trying to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin

"During these years, Putin has destroyed elections. During these years, Putin has prohibited protests. During these years, Putin has suppressed independent media. And he has tried to silence anyone who said what he didn't like. But he failed. Yes, he killed my husband, Alexei Navalny. But he didn't silence him and his ideas," she said.

Yulia Navalnaya receives DW's Freedom of Speech Award

The decision to give the prize to Navalnaya and the FBK was originally announced last month

Navalnaya hailed her husband for "risking everything" to show Putin and Russian society more generally that freedom of speech "is not a weakness," as she said dictators like Putin perceived it, but rather a strength. 

"Alexei proved this with his entire life and work, when he wasn't afraid to speak — in court, in prison, risking everything. Believing that sincere words will defeat any lie. Showing how honest speech brings hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in a country where it seemed like there was no space left for public politics. Showing how the truth makes even an all-powerful dictator tremble with fear," she said.

The 2024 DW Freedom of Speech Award trophy. Berlin, June 5, 2024.
Navalnaya and the FBK's Ivan Zhdanov stressed the award belonged to all the FBK's supporters, in Russia and outside itImage: Ronka Oberhammer/DW

Lindner: 'In the end, the regime — I have no doubt — even murdered him'

DW's Director General Peter Limbourg and German Finance Minister Christian Lindner paid tribute to Navalnaya and her late husband, and the FBK's Ivan Zhdanov, a lawyer and longstanding friend and ally of Navalny's.

"The Anti-Corruption Foundation and Yulia Navalnaya are dedicated to bringing light into the darkness of the corrupt and murderous system that is the Russian government," Limbourg said.

Both Lindner and Zhdanov spoke at length about Navalny's letters from prison during his incarceration prior to his death, including one in which he had noted how the "virus" of free thought appeared to be spreading in Russia's prison system, voicing hope that the secret services would struggle to suppress it. 

Lindner described Navlany as a "super-spreader" of this virus in Russia. 

"His aim was to, in a way, infect society in order to democratize and permanently immunize it against every form of oppression and autocracy," Lindner said. "Like a virus, he was first isolated, and then repressed in the most brutal way. In the end, the regime — I have no doubt — even murdered him."

Christian Lindner speaking to DW at the event in Berlin. June 5, 2024.
Lindner praised both Navalny and Navalnaya for their courage for opting to return to Russia despite the obvious risksImage: Ronka Oberhammer/DW

Lindner said the DW award served as a reminder of the meaning of democracy and the rule of law. 

"We cannot take for granted any of the core values on which our society is built, even if in Germany we sometimes think that we can, with a certain arrogance. In Russia, you risk your life if you fight for them," he said.

But Lindner also said it was crucial to remember the words of Navalnaya, namely that "Putin is not Russia, and Russia is not Putin." 

Navalny had written in one of his letters from prison, when he was saying how he was reading Soviet-era dissident literature and despairing at how familiar the story felt, that he hoped that by 2055 nobody could have the same experience in Russia. Lindner voiced hope that not only would this day come, but in much less than another 30 years. 

"We must not lose sight of the fact that time is on our side. It is a fact that Putin's time in office will come to an end one day. Which makes it all the more important that Russia is prepared for democracy when the time comes. Ladies and gentlemen, in the long term, the will to be free will always prevail over oppression," said the leader of the neoliberal Free Democrats.

Freedom of Speech Award: DW honors Navalny's widow

Who was Alexei Navalny? 

Alexei Navalny founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in Russia in 2011. Its original primary aim was to combat corruption by uncovering and publicizing cases of bribery and abuse of power among the Russian elite. 

But he became one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of President Putin. 

Navalny decided to return to Russia, despite having barely survived what German doctors designated as an attempt to poison him with a Soviet-era nerve agent in January 2021.

He was immediately detained on his return, accused of violating the terms of his bail for prior convictions, and was later sentenced to a series of other charges he dismissed as politically motivated. 

In December 2023, he went missing from his prison cell near Moscow for around three weeks. It later transpired he had been transferred to a remote maximum security penal colony in the Arctic Circle.

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends the Munich Security Conference (MSC), on the day it was announced that Alexei Navalny is dead, by the prison service of the Yamalo-Nenets region where he had been serving his sentence, in Munich, southern Germany on February 16, 2024.
Navalnaya was in Germany in February when Russia's prison service announced her husband's deathImage: KAI PFAFFENBACH/AFP

On February 16, the Russian prison service reported that he had died at the age of 47.

That was just a matter of weeks before Putin's reelection as president.

Navalnaya's courage in Munich 'moving and most inspiring' 

Navalny's death came on the same day as the opening of the Munich Security Conference in Germany, as DW's chief political correspondent Michaela Küfner noted during the ceremony on Wednesday. Until the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the security gathering had always made a point of ensuring Russian participation.

Navalnaya still spoke at that event as scheduled, saying she intended to continue her husband's work. 

Navalny's death rocks Munich Security Conference

"Like you, Yulia, I was at the Munich Security Conference when the news broke. It was no coincidence, I'm sure," Lindner said of the timing of Navalny's death. "Putin wanted to send a message to the world. But he was wrong. If he achieved anything, it was to strengthen our resolve. It was you, Yulia, of all people, who gave us back our courage that day. For you to find the strength and determination in Munich to address the world was impressive, moving and most inspiring."

The FBK is now designated as a terrorist organization in Russia and is operating effectively from exile. "Deutsche Welle knows the feeling," Küfner said when mentioning this at the event, in reference to the closure of DW's offices in Moscow shortly before the invasion of Ukraine.

DW's Russian language service continues to operate and try to reach users in Russia, Director General Limbourg stressed at the event, despite Moscow's efforts, not unlike China, to restrict ordinary people's access online or by other means of reception.

What is DW's Freedom of Speech Award? 

DW launched the annual Freedom of Speech Award in 2015.

It "honors people who passionately stand up for freedom of opinion and of the press," as Limbourg put it during Wednesday's ceremony in Berlin.

Past winners include investigative journalists Oscar Martinez from El Salvador, Tobore Ovuorie of Nigeria, Anabel Hernandez from Mexico, the White House Correspondents' Association, Saudi Arabian dissident and humanist Raif Badawi, and Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka from eastern Ukraine, for their work soon after Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion.

Edited by: Natalie Muller

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam