Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march...

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia on Feb. 29, 2020. Russia's prison agency says that imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died. He was 47. The Federal Prison Service said in a statement that Navalny felt unwell after a walk on Friday Feb. 16, 2024 and lost consciousness. Credit: AP/Pavel Golovkin

Almost exactly two years after Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, the Russian autocrat shocked the world with his latest crime: the murder of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. For many of his supporters, Navalny’s sudden death represented a loss of Russia’s last hope. But a few evoked the adage that it’s always darkest before dawn.

Whether his death was an active assassination or stemmed from “natural causes,” to call it a murder is still appropriate. “Natural causes,” in this case, would mean a heart failure or other fatal event brought about by three years of near-constant abuse in prison — above all, confinement to a tiny and cold punishment cell. But the authorities’ refusal to return Navalny’s body to his family fuels suspicions of more literal foul play.

Kremlin propagandists in Russia and Kremlin apologists in the West have argued that Putin had no reason to kill Navalny. They say the anti-corruption activist was a marginal figure far more popular in the West than at home, and that in any case he posed no threat from prison. They even suggest, preposterously, that Navalny was murdered by Western agents — in a maximum security Russian penal colony — to boost the chances of aid for Ukraine.

The talking points are wrong. In 2021, independent polls by the nongovernmental Levada Center found that a sizable minority of Russians — one in five — approved of Navalny’s activism. By January 2023, that share dropped to one in 10. But this has to be seen in the context of the climate of fear that has grown much stronger in Russian society since the invasion of Ukraine.

There is widespread agreement among independent Russian commentators that Navalny, an energetic, charismatic lawyer who combined liberalism and populism, differed from most of the Russian opposition precisely in his ability to connect to ordinary people. In late 2011 and early 2012, he was the principal force behind massive protests against rigged parliamentary elections and Putin’s plan to return to the presidency in circumvention of constitutional norms.

Trumped-up fraud charges followed, at first with relatively mild suspended sentences and house arrest. When Navalny refused to be silenced, an attempted poisoning followed in 2020. After treatment in a Berlin clinic, Navalny famously chose to return to Russia in 2021. By then, Putin was laying the groundwork for an invasion of Ukraine, and the relative leniency was over. The prison sentences heaped on Navalny — for alleged embezzlement and “extremism” — left no doubt the dictator did not intend for his opponent to leave prison alive.

Yet even prison, and a transfer to a remote arctic penal colony, did not neutralize Navalny. He still managed to get out messages to post online. He recently asked supporters to help nominate an anti-war, anti-Putin candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, to run against Putin in next month’s presidential elections. (Nadezhdin saw a surprising surge in popular support but was predictably disqualified on technicalities.) On Feb. 6, Navalny urged voters to protest the phony elections by posting photos of themselves destroying or defacing their ballots, or otherwise signaling a boycott of the vote. This may have been the last straw for Putin, who sees elections as referendums on his legitimacy.

Most Russian dissidents believe that Putin killed Navalny to show that he could crush his enemies. In a just world, such a move would backfire by galvanizing resistance at home and abroad. And who knows? Judging by the intensity of the outrage, the “just world” scenario, in this case, may actually happen.


 OPINIONS EXPRESSED BY Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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