Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Bogomolov.PL

Alexei Navalny: Russia’s Sardonic Voice of Reason

“Your Honour, I will send you my personal account number so that you can use your huge salary as a federal judge to ‘warm up’ my personal account, because I am running out of money”, taunts Alexei Navalny with a smile as he is seen on screen, standing (literally) behind bars in a black correctional facility uniform at what would be his final court hearing on 15 February. Within the next 24 hours, the man long dubbed “Russia’s most vociferous Putin critic” was dead, after what the Polar Wolf Detention Colony’s prison service described as him “feeling unwell” during a walk earlier that day.

Throughout his political career, Navalny championed accountability in Russian politics and the end of authoritarian rule,

 Alexei Navalny’s demise is the most recent in a string of suspicious deaths that has long followed the enemies and critics of the Russian Federation’s President, Vladimir Putin, leaving the global community shocked and angered but not entirely surprised. His death comes almost exactly three years after his re-incarceration upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated after an attempt on his life which was confirmed to have been carried out by agents of the Russian state.  

 Throughout his political career, Navalny championed accountability in Russian politics and the end of authoritarian rule, devoting a large portion of his life since the late 2000s to exposing corruption within Russia’s elite governmental circles. He was largely regarded as the most serious threat to Putin’s rule since entering office in 1999, garnering wide support in Russia and abroad a threat which Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, vowed to keep alive in an emotional but determined address to the world at the Munich Security Conference several days later.  

 Born and raised in Obinsk, a small city roughly 100 kilometres southwest of Moscow, but of Ukrainian descent on his father’s side, Navalny kept his heritage alive and spent enough time there visiting his grandmother to learn the language. He remained in the Moscow Oblast throughout his formative years, eventually moving to the capital itself and obtaining a law degree at the People’s Friendship University of Russia in 1998. He went on to obtain a second degree in economics from the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation. During his period, he started getting involved in politics, joining the liberal social-democratic party Yabloko in 2000. Over the next couple years, he worked as a lawyer for various firms in the Moscow area while also remaining politically active and steadily ascending through Yabloko’s ranks, eventually becoming deputy head of the Moscow chapter. 

  It was not until 2007 that Navalny truly made his activist debut, in true noughties fashion, with a Youtube address. After being expelled from Yabloko due to his “growing nationalistic tendencies” and representing his newly formed movement ‘Narod’, he released videos advocating for gun rights as well as further right-wing rhetoric concerning the deportation of migrants, the justification for which was, counterintuitively, the prevention of fascism. The controversy of his early involvement with nationalism and participation in far-right rallies would later prove an effective tool in the Kremlin’s attempts to damage his image particularly abroad, where this narrative sparked a mixed and divided attitude amongst many otherwise would-be supporters.  

In 2008, Navalny’s most prominent work began, when he began investigating corruption in state-owned companies. He de facto infiltrated them by buying minority shares and then asking awkward questions on financial inconsistencies, thoroughly interrogating corporate officials, and otherwise being the proverbial thorn in the side of the well-oiled, well-established corruption machine that was (and continues to be) the Russian state. The culmination of what we can now call this “initial” effort was the creation of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in 2011.  

Another of Navalny’s flagship investigations was not on Russian corruption, but on himself and the attempt on his life

However, another of Navalny’s flagship investigations was not on Russian corruption, but on himself and the attempt on his life. In late August 2020, Navalny collapsed, screaming in agony aboard a flight from Tomsk, a small city in the Siberian region, after having filmed a video for his blog in what he called “an almost offensively calm environment” (referring to the lack of police and general disruptive activities perpetrated against him on a regular basis). After an emergency landing in a neighbouring town, he was eventually airlifted to Germany to receive treatment after suspicions of poisoning were categorically denied by the local medical staff. In the following weeks, it was confirmed that he had been the target of an assassination attempt by means of the notorious Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, which despite the Kremlin’s vehement denial of any connection to the attack left relatively little to the imagination when it came to speculations of who was behind it.  

Once he was functional enough, Navalny devoted the rest of his recovery period to figuring out exactly how and who had tried to kill him. The ensuing investigation was very thorough and quite complex, tracing first the origin of the poison to the Signal Institute in Moscow on the surface a manufacturer of sports and energy drinks, but somewhat ostentatiously employing a dozen scientists with chemical weapons research backgrounds. The team then obtained the phone records of the head of the Signal Institute, progressively linking bank transfers and phone calls made to individuals prior to the poisoning of Navalny and tracing them to flight manifestos in and out of the town of Tomsk prior to and after the poisoning.  

If this the plot of a movie, it would have been called over the top

Participant in Navalny Assassination Attempt

The pièce de résistance of the whole project came to fruition as Navalny obtained a recording of a phone conversation between himself (impersonating a pushy supervisor) and a member of the chemical engineering team involved in the production and delivery of the Novichok agent, in which the engineer describes, in considerable detail, why “he thought that the attack had not gone according to plan”. An incredulous member of the team who was present during the interview was quoted saying: “If this was the plot of a movie, it would have been called over the top.” The whole tangled intrigue is tackled, from bank records to phone interviews and tense moments to family TikToks, in a clear and entertaining fashion in the BBC’s Oscar-winning documentary Navalny released two years ago, in which, percolated by Navalny’s commentary in his signature dry humour, the investigation is explained in detail – I highly recommend it. 

The death of Alexei Navalny has struck a deep blow to the morale of the anti-corruption movement

The legacy Navalny leaves behind is one of action and fearlessness in the face of a formidable adversary. Despite starting out amidst controversy, he is remembered as the energetic and vocal advocate of a free and democratic Russia a goal which he set out to achieve through a combination of meaningful exposition of government corruption; political campaigning; and criticising many facets of Russia’s elite from the “bloodthirsty obsession with Ukraine” to the downright “repulsive opulence of Putin’s personal lifestyle, indicating signs of megalomania”. His gripe with Putin has been described as becoming “personal” over his years of investigation, a sentiment supported, for example, by the release of the online documentary exposing Putin’s “Secret Palace” only two days after his re-incarceration on 17 September 2021 in what can be considered a clear one-finger salute to his jailor. 

It is undeniable that the untimely death of Alexei Navalny has struck a deep blow to the morale of the anti-corruption movement and supporters of a democratic Russia. But the impact that he had on Russian politics survives him, and while many of those opposed to or persecuted by Putin’s regime may see this as another win for the Russian dictator, it remains yet to be seen whether the very real threat that Navalny posed to the regime will die with him. As the Russian presidential elections draw ever closer, it is impossible not to acknowledge the global scrutiny that Vladimir Putin faces as he once again strives to maintain his iron grip on Russia.

Never give up, for if they kill me then you will know, in that moment, that we stand strong

Alexei Navalny

In one of his final interviews, when questioned as to what he would say to the world in the event of him finally succumbing to the efforts to take his life, Navalny left us with a very simple message: “Never give up, for if they kill me then you will know, in that moment, that we stand immeasurably strong.” 


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