Navalny’s end

Today’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, but it is certainly a place where you may end up dead if you defy the authorities. 

Alexei Navalny at a protest.
Alexei Navalny at a protest. Credit: Mitya Aleshkovskiy

The news that Russia’s 47-year-old opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died in a Siberian prison did not surprise many people. He is merely the latest in a series of prominent casualties of the brutally authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Navalny became Russia’s leading opposition leader in about 2010. His views were sometimes uncomfortably nationalistic, but his criticism of Putin’s regime was informed and imaginative. He bombarded senior officials with witty, wounding, and well-informed films on YouTube. He called Russia’s ruling party the ‘party of crooks and thieves’. By 2023 he had earned himself a suspended sentence for embezzlement, but at the same time won a substantial chunk of the votes in Moscow’s elections for mayor. His bid for the presidency in 2016 was barred on fabricated technical grounds, so he advised people to vote for ‘none of the above’ in the next round of elections.

By 2020 Navalny had reached a huge audience at home and abroad, and Putin had become tired of the gadfly. Navalny was poisoned, probably by government assassins, and evacuated to Germany for treatment. He recovered and promptly returned to Russia. It was a courageous, indeed a foolhardy gesture of defiance. He was arrested as he landed in Moscow. Unbroken, he spent the rest of his life in grim prisons on trumped up charges. He seemed fit and well when he smuggled his last video out of prison on 15 February. He died suddenly the next day. The prison authorities claim it was from a blood clot.

It has been a long run. Putin emerged from obscurity to become President in 2000. Many Russians hoped he would bring back the stability, order, and self-respect they felt they had lost with the end of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s corrupt ‘democracy’ that followed. At first, we in the West were also encouraged, not least by Putin’s apparent desire to cooperate. But in 2003 it began to become clear that we were mistaken. That year Putin decided his authority was being unacceptably challenged by one of Russia’s richest and most independent men. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up tax charges, imprisoned for the next ten years, and then thrown out to the West, where his political influence drained away.

It was a technique which soon became entrenched. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a bitter critic of Putin’s war in the Caucasus, was shot in 2006. In the same year a former Russian secret policeman, Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned in London by assassins who fled to Moscow. In 2013 the oligarch Boris Berezovsky died in London, allegedly by his own hand. Many other critics have been silenced, imprisoned or exiled. Many are dead. Before Navalny, the most prominent to die was Boris Nemtsov. He had been a prominent political figure for 20 years. He was a strong and well-informed critic of Russian violence in Ukraine and Chechnya. He was shot outside the Kremlin in 2015.

Putin has not admitted that he gave the order for these deaths, but he has been scornfully dismissive of the victims, implying that they got what they deserved. And as the country’s leader he cannot avoid the ultimate responsibility. Today’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, but it is certainly a place where you may end up dead if you defy the authorities.

How long can it go on? Putin seems to be firmly in charge. If asked, most Russians will prudently say that they will vote for him in the forthcoming presidential election. The last halfway convincing alternative candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, was eliminated on a technicality only a few days ago. Even so, there are still Russians willing to oppose Putin, some with the same insane courage as Navalny and Nemtsov. The more prudent use the internet and the dark web to make their views known throughout Russia. We can’t judge how effective they are. In any other circumstances a leader who has been in office as long as Putin would start to lose his glamour. He has publicly humiliated several of his senior military and intelligence officials. Last year’s bungled coup by Putin’s mercenary crony Yevgeny Prigozhin was surely evidence of the tensions. The wise and experienced director of the CIA, Bill Burns, has spoken of the ‘dysfunction lurking behind Putin’s carefully polished image of control’.

And yet Putin is still there. None of us know if the regime will disappear almost overnight or continue for years to come. What we want when it does go is a prosperous Russia, at peace with itself and its neighbours. What we are likely to get, alas, is a Russia divided, dysfunctional, and profoundly suspicious of the West for a long time to come. We will have to muster a good deal of patient understanding if we are to have any hope of working with this new Russia. And the Europeans – no longer perhaps able to rely on the Americans – will have to build up their defences against unpleasant surprises from a country on their flank that is likely to remain a serious military power.

If we are sensible, among our best allies in this tricky endeavour could be Navalny’s courageous partners and successors, brave people of unimpeachable patriotism who understand that their country has got itself into a dead end.


Rodric Braithwaite