The extraordinary courage of Alexei Navalny

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In 2020, Alexei Navalny somehow survived being poisoned — almost certainly by Russian security agents — with a military-grade nerve agent. Now, after years of mistreatment in custody, Russia’s prison service says he has died after falling ill in a harsh penal colony inside the Arctic Circle. It was testament to the opposition activist’s exceptional courage that he chose, after being treated for his poisoning in Germany, to return to his homeland despite facing almost certain arrest.

Whatever the official cause of his death is said to be — and Navalny, though gaunt, seemed in good spirits in a court hearing a day earlier — foreign leaders are rightly holding the Kremlin responsible. Within the domestic political context it is one of the darkest stains yet on a Putin regime that has left a trail of opponents’ bodies in its wake.

Navalny’s death comes almost nine years after another opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down near the Kremlin. While Nemtsov was always a liberal, Navalny dabbled in anti-Putin nationalism in his early political years; his initial response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was ambiguous, though he shifted last year to insist Russia must recognise Ukraine’s 1991 borders.

Adapting his message to focus more on social justice, Navalny became the Kremlin’s chief antagonist through his political activism and work on exposing corruption in Russia’s ruling circle. He offered a glimpse of a different Russia from Vladimir Putin’s venal autocracy. After branding the pro-Kremlin United Russia party the “party of crooks and thieves”, Navalny was a driving force behind protests over rigged parliamentary elections in winter 2011-12.

The videos he presented with his trademark humour attracted a mass audience far beyond those who attend opposition rallies in the capital. His exposé of a billion-dollar Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin, boasting its own skating rink and casino, has been viewed tens of millions of times.

How nervous the regime was of him is highlighted by how it pursued Navalny’s circle after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. His anti-corruption foundation was declared a “foreign agent” then an “undesirable” organisation. Navalny, already jailed for nine years on bogus fraud charges, was handed a further 19-year term on charges of “extremism”. Many of his associates fled Russia. Several who did not, also ended up behind bars.

However Navalny’s death actually occurred, the Russian authorities are morally responsible; had he not been wrongly jailed he would surely still be alive. It shows how far Putin has dragged Russia back towards the darkest days of the 20th century. After Stalin’s death, political dissidents tended to face prison or internal exile, or being forced out of the country, rather than murder. Now, political violence is again a tool of punishment and intimidation.

The lesson is that no one inside Russia’s modern-day gulag can be considered safe. Foreign capitals must be unrelenting in their pressure on Moscow to release politicians, activists, human rights workers, lawyers and journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned — including through prisoner swaps.

Navalny’s wife Yulia, displaying her own extraordinary bravery and dignity, appeared at the Munich Security Conference on Friday within hours of his death being reported. She called on the international community to “come together” to “fight against this evil”. A first priority must be to give Kyiv what it needs to drive Russian forces out of its land, in what might just begin the unravelling of a thuggish regime. But the best way to honour the activist’s memory would be to ensure Putin and his entourage are eventually brought to justice for crimes committed in their own country, and Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine.

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