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Alexei Navalny, Leader of the Russian Opposition, Dies in Prison

Updated: Apr 1

Death of the Anti-Corruption Activist Widely Condemned as Political Assassination by Putin’s Oppressive Regime

Author: JSL

On 16 February, Russian authorities announced the sudden death of Alexei Navalny in prison. A leader of the political opposition to president of Russia Vladimir Putin, his death has been widely condemned as a political assassination by the Kremlin. The Kremlin rejects this accusation, and attributes his death to natural causes after feeling unwell following a morning walk. Navalny was 47 at the time of death.

In the past 15 years, Navalny had risen from lawyer to anti-corruption activist to being the highest-profile opponent to Putin. Coming in second in Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013, Navalny was barred in 2018 from running for president due to a corruption conviction, after a trial described by the European Court of Human Rights as “unfair”. In August 2020, the protest leader fell unconscious during a plane trip in Russia and was subsequently evacuated to Germany. The German government shortly accused the Russian government of an assassination attempt, affirming the presence of a nerve agent of the Novichok family in Navalny’s body, a claim later confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Immediately arrested on his return to Russia in January 2021, (officially on embezzlement charges, internationally recognised as politically motivated), Navalny died in a maximum-security colony known as “Polar Wolf”, located north of the Arctic circle and built by Gulag prisoners during the Stalin era.

Even while he was in prison, in a popular series of videos (most available on Youtube with English subtitles), Navalny’s team uncovered networks of corruption, exposing the links of Putin and of notorious politicians to lavish villas in Russia and the European Union, many creating waves of scandals, and in particular reaching that subset of the population that seemed the most out of reach of the propaganda machine of the Russian government - the Russian youth with access to internet.

To many, Navalny represented a hope for a future democratic Russia, embedded in Europe, without corruption or war in Ukraine; in stark contrast to Putin’s vision of Russia, often described as authoritarian, conservative, and turned towards the past.

In an environment where any attempt to express political dissent is intensely oppressed, a wave of condemnation swayed the country following Navalny’s death, with people laying flowers on monuments to the victims of political repression. Illustrating the danger of protesting in Russia, cases have been reported of individuals being arrested for unsanctioned protests, and subsequently handed military drafts summoning them to the battlefront in Ukraine. A second wave of outcry followed a few days later, when Navalny’s mother declared that the authorities were refusing to hand over her son's body in an attempt to blackmail her into having a discreet funeral - a particularly bad image in a country that retains a high rate of religiosity and where Putin appeals to a part of the electorate by presenting himself as a pious man.

Even so, Navalny’s death seems unlikely to have any major impact within Russia in the short to medium-term. An increased exodus of the youth, the pro-democracy, and other portions of the population fleeing the consequences of the war in Ukraine since February 2022 means that those that seem the most likely to support Navalny’s legacy are also the most likely to be leaving or having left the country.

His widow Yulia Navalnaya, who remains abroad, announced to the European parliament and in a series of videos that she would continue the work of her husband. Immediately endorsed by Navalny’s team, and receiving support of European and transatlantic leaders, her political success remains to be seen. She joins an ever-longer list of Russian critics-in-exile against Putin.


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