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The Critic Essay

The meaning of Navalny’s death

This tragic event illustrates the cruelty and fragility of the Kremlin

We should not be surprised that Russia’s prison authorities have announced the death of opposition leader, anti-corruption activist and political prisoner Alexei Navalny, aged 47. His demise is the latest in a long line of political deaths that stretch back to the tradition of prison and exile into the gulags, established by the tsars and massively expanded by Lenin and Stalin to hold not just criminals but all regime opponents. 

Based on his own harrowing experiences of detention, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote eloquently and movingly about Soviet camps and mortality in many novels, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), and later in The Gulag Archipelago of 1973, which resulted in him being stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled to West Germany.

In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, the regime relented and expelled most dissidents, such as Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky, whom I got to know in his latter days in exile in Cambridge. In To Build A Castle: My Life as a Dissenter (1979), Bukovsky explained the continued use of the gulag system and exposed KGB-controlled psychiatric hospitals where perfectly sane anti-Communists were interned during the Brezhnev regime. 

Andrei Sakharov was a leading Soviet physicist who also clashed with the regime, but was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work on worldwide human rights. He suffered nearly a decade of internal exile for his sins and survived the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 by only a month. In his memory the Sakharov Prize was established, which is awarded annually by the European Parliament to people and organisations dedicated to human rights and freedom. Alexi Navalny won it in 2021.

Vladimir Putin has wound back the clock to Stalin’s methodology of incarceration in miserable conditions, designed simply to kill. Although Moscow claimed a blood clot as causing Navalny’s extermination in penal colony IK-3 after a walk, the real reason is the appalling treatment he received behind bars. In his courtroom appearances, his steely-eyed good looks appeared increasingly gaunt, his medical health declined and his hair was falling out in a prison system where ill-treatment by fellow prisoners and guards is depressingly all too common. American businessman Bill Browder outlined in Red Notice (2015) how his Russian friend and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death while in a Moscow prison after investigating a $230 million fraud implicating Russian government officials. 

Very many violent deaths of prominent opponents have occurred during Putin’s watch, including members of the State Duma (parliament). One was former Soviet colonel Sergei Yushenkov, assassinated outside his apartment building in April 2003, just hours after his Liberal Russia Party had been established. Investigative reporter Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent and editor of Forbes Russia who had written about corruption, was killed outside his office in a July 2004 drive-by shooting in Moscow. 

Another media victim was the high-profile writer Anna Politkovskaya. A consistent thorn to the Putin regime, she was poisoned, detained, tried, acquitted and retried, all of which served to elevate international respect for her journalism. Her reward was to be gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building on 7 October 2006, Putin’s birthday, for investigating corruption in Russia and human rights abuses in Chechnya. In July 2009 it was the turn of award-winning human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova, who had collected evidence of abuses in Chechnya, to be kidnapped, tortured and later found peppered with gunshot wounds in a lonely forest. 

Former billionaire Boris Berezovsky “the most virulently anti-Kremlin, anti-Putin of the oligarchs” had been living in exile in Britain since 2000 when he was found dead in “uncertain circumstances” at his home in Berkshire in March 2013. Then there was the notorious case of another serving member of the Duma, Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister under President Yeltsin, and fiery critic of Putin. He was shot dead in February 2015 just yards from the Kremlin as he walked home. Another outspoken opponent of Putin and former Duma MP, Denis Voronenkov, fled to Ukraine in 2016, was given citizenship, but that didn’t prevent his murder in Kyiv in March 2017.  

Of Russia’s many unlucky oligarchs who have fallen foul of Putin, Ravil Maganov was doing well as chairman the second largest oil producer Lukoil. Then he openly criticised the war in Ukraine, and in September 2022, the 67-year-old mysteriously “fell from a sixth-floor window at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.” At the time of his death, he was the eighth Russian energy executive to have died suddenly in 2022 alone. 

incur the president’s displeasure in any way, and you will die, usually violently, and often in agony

Individually, many of these deaths could be taken as unfortunate events, accidents, or cases of luckless bystanders of gangland killings, or of individuals mired in nefarious activities themselves. However, collectively they represent a coda known to all Russians — incur the president’s displeasure in any way, and you will die, usually violently, and often in agony. In a very binary way, Alexei Navalny’s death underlines the fact that Putin and his mates are killers of anyone who stands in their way. Thus, it was not a good time for former President Trump campaigning on 10 February in South Carolina, to “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies who do not contribute enough to military spending. Yet, some starry-eyed Russophiles stubbornly refuse to understand or remain wilfully blind to these realities of life and death.

In the inter-war period their antecedents, such as the carefully-selected American Theodore Dreiser, author of Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928), Britons Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who penned Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation? (1935) and Frenchman and Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland in 1935, were fêted by Stalin and returned home to write glowing reports of the Soviet utopia. 

Another hoodwinked visitor was that great man of letters, Bernard Shaw in 1931. Accompanied by Lord and Lady Astor, Shaw conversed with Stalin for about three hours, later writing “I expected to see a Russian worker and I found a Georgian gentleman… Tomorrow, I leave this land of hope and return to our Western countries – the countries of despair.” 

Malcolm Muggeridge, the Manchester Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, was one of the few to report honestly about Stalin’s deliberate famine of Ukraine, the “Holodomor”, designed to achieve farm collectivisation throughout the state. Muggeridge wrote three reports, smuggled out in a diplomatic bag to evade censorship, and published anonymously in March 1933, but his was a lone voice. Today, the Telegram mobile and desktop messaging app achieves the same purpose, but its users know its contents are heavily monitored and originators tracked. 

Those starstruck pro-Stalin figures of the inter-war period find a distant echo in Tucker Carlson’s surreal two-hour filmed interview with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, from which he has just returned. Faced with a not unsympathetic ear, it seems extraordinary the Russian leader did not make more of the opportunity to swamp Mr Carlson with his propaganda, rather than treat him to irrelevant history lessons.

Ironically, Russian media has accused President Zelensky of committing just the same excesses of which Moscow is guilty. They allege Ukraine’s president sacked the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi on 8 February, because he is a political rival and the move will herald the general’s ultimate “silencing” and “disappearance”. Yes, the two may have had differences of opinion since Russia’s full-scale invasion of February 2022, but the move has historical precedents and can certainly be seen in a more positive light. 

Removing military commanders in a time of war is hardly unusual. Abraham Lincoln fired several during the American Civil War, including Generals McDowell, Pope, McClellan, Burnside and Hooker before finding his instrument of victory in Ulysses S Grant. Winston Churchill was likewise a great hirer and firer during the Second World War, sacking many generals before making the inspired choice of Bernard Montgomery for Eighth Army against Rommel in August 1942, whilst President Truman famously dismissed the highly popular Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.

Zaluzhnyi, in his late teens when the Iron Curtain fell and Ukraine achieved independence, had been appointed commander-in-chief in July 2021, aged 51. He was one of the first of his generation to be taught flexible NATO-style tactics, rather than rigid Soviet doctrine, which he put to great use after the Russian invasion two years ago. His success was in overcoming the mentalities of his Soviet-trained old guard, whom the Russians would certainly have defeated. 

Zaluzhnyi has achieved miracles in halting the Russian juggernaut in Ukraine, against all expectations. After two years in the (very) hot seat, he must not only need a rest, but may be suffering the effects of PTSD. I mean, wouldn’t you?

Meanwhile, the Carlson and Co. Russophiles, for whom the West and NATO are always irredeemably bad, seem also blind to the unforgettable photographs of Alexander Litvinenko dying slowly in agony in a London hospital in November 2006, weeks after drinking tea poisoned with polonium-210, a dangerous radioactive isotope. The former KGB colonel, who had fled to the west with his family and took British citizenship, drank the toxin secretly administered by two Russian spies. 

His wife Marina told me of her conviction that “Sasha’s death was a revenge killing personally ordered by his old boss, Putin”. President Zelensky of Ukraine, already the subject of numerous assassination attempts, understands the necessity for open eyes and clear thinking. Which is why he and his country will fight to this bitter end, with or without western arms.

Another intelligence officer who nearly died in England was Sergei Skripal, who moved to the UK after a spy swap. In 2018, Putin’s people discovered him living in Salisbury with his daughter, and attacked them with the nerve agent Novichok but the pair survived. And only last August, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once one of Putin’s closest associates, who had made billions controlling the Wagner private army for his boss, but became increasingly critical of the president and Russian military commanders, died when his plane exploded with no survivors, as I explained in The Critic at the time.

Yet, Alexei Navalny was no defecting spy, Duma opposition deputy or billionaire oligarch. He was a leading campaigner for the Russian people against the dishonesty of Vladimir Putin and his kleptomaniac cronies, who found fame through his social media channels which had a following of many millions. They are all over YouTube, many carrying English subtitles. Besides his life online, Navalny organised demonstrations, stood for office in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election and attempted to run in the 2018 presidential election but was barred by Russia’s Central Election Commission on Putin’s instructions. 

His death leaves only former Duma deputy and municipal councillor Boris Nadezhdin as an active opposition politician. Although he announced he was running for the 2024 Russian presidential election, the Central Election Commission has already ruled his candidacy invalid. Though suggesting the war in Ukraine is “a fatal mistake”, Nadezhdin credits the fact that he is still alive and free to his avoidance of criticising Putin personally, because “it is not a good idea”. An ally of Alexei Navalny, he will be more afraid for his own life now that his friend is dead. 

Loathed by Moscow’s establishment for founding a political party, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), in August 2020, Navalny was attacked with Novichok, the nerve agent used by FSB operatives in the Salisbury poisonings, and medically evacuated in a coma to Berlin for treatment. He survived and on being discharged, in a gesture of apparent martyrdom, insisted on returning to Russia in January 2021, when he was immediately arrested. Thereafter Alexei Navalny remained behind bars for the rest of his life.

The tragedy of Navalny’s death is that he represented an alternative future for Russia

He understood the regime he was fighting, describing the ruling party, United Russia, as a “gang of crooks and thieves”. This marked him out for especially rough treatment from Mr Putin. Last year, on being handed the last of three prison sentences totalling 30 years, all on trumped up charges, Navalny noted that his jail time “would be either as long as my life or the life of the political regime of my country”. 

The tragedy of Navalny’s death is that he represented an alternative future for Russia. He was not especially pro-Western, but anti-corruption. He often stated that he was a Russian nationalist, whereas Putin and his kleptocracy were “stealing from my beloved Motherland on an industrial scale”. The world grew to admire him because of his brazen media documentaries detailing the thefts of billions by Putin’s associates and their families, which he called a “thievocracy”. 

Navalny’s unnecessary death is a sign that the Putin regime is fragile and remained nervous of a man whom they locked up, throwing away the key, but then decided to destroy. We must understand that his murder is actually a sign of Putin’s personal fear and political weakness. In 2023, Navalny, a film about his political battles, won both a BAFTA and an Oscar for best documentary feature. President Biden has already declared “Putin is responsible” on hearing of this tragedy of our own times. Almost a saint for our technological age, I suspect the magnitude of Navalny’s impact on Russia and the rest of the world is only just beginning. 

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