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Alexei Navalny Was Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare

It’s why he was imprisoned the moment he returned to Russia in 2021. And it’s why he’s dead today.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation
Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation

In 2012, Russia still had a future, and Alexei Navalny symbolized it. While many post-Soviet politicians are bland and corrupt, Navalny was charismatic and campaigned against corruption. On a reporting trip in Moscow, I requested an interview with him, but his spokesperson declined, saying he was busy coordinating a rally with other opposition figures. I reported on that rally wearing a big blue city-issued press vest to avoid getting detained, and I watched as Navalny was immediately taken away in a police wagon.

Some months later, when I was back in Washington, his organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, reached out that it was finishing a report on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and I again asked for an interview. This time, I got it. In our conversation, Navalny was upbeat and made jokes, noting how it was ironic that Vladimir Putin had positioned himself as a guardian of religious values after a career in the KGB, which had shut down churches. However, two things were in conflict that would ultimately lead to his reported death on February 16 in a Russian prison colony in the Arctic Circle.

On one hand, he understood that his window to take part in Russian politics was rapidly closing: The Kremlin had allowed him to run for the Moscow mayorship in late 2013, likely hoping that he would finish in the single digits. But he had won nearly 30 percent of the vote, which he told me “very strongly scared the Kremlin.” (Putin refused to mention him by name.) At the same time, Navalny refused the idea that he would go into exile: He said that he and his supporters didn’t have “another country.” He added, “We believe in what we are doing, and we will continue because we think we are right.”

Navalny continued campaigning for another six years or so from inside Russia, but the window kept closing and he was in more and more danger. In 2017, as he tried to campaign for president, green dye was thrown at him, partially blinding him. He was banned from the 2018 presidential ballot. On August 20, 2020, while campaigning in Siberia for independent candidates, he was poisoned with the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. He might have died then, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally intervened and had him medevaced to Berlin’s Charite Hospital, which has treated other Russian independent journalists and opposition figures. Navalny later made a fateful decision to return to Russia on January 17, 2021. He was a patriot and calculated that he had to remain inside Russia to remain relevant as a politician.

But he was imprisoned upon arrival, and so the only politics that Navalny had left to practice were corporeal. He staged a hunger strike to demand medical treatment; whatever medical treatment he ultimately received was monstrously inadequate, like ibuprofen for leg pain so severe he could not put weight on it. His domestic political organization was ultimately outlawed as “extremist.”

In a 2021 letter to independent journalist Yevgenia Albats, he contemplated death: “It’s a historical process. Russia is going through it, and we are coming along together. We’ll make it (probably). I am all right, and I have no regrets. And you shouldn’t, either, and shouldn’t worry. Everything will be OK. And, even if it isn’t, we’ll have the consolation of having lived honest lives.”

In prison, Navalny communicated mostly through his lawyers, who posted the notes Navalny passed them to his social media platforms. He often used the phrase, “Everything will be OK.” This may sound like a throwaway line, but it wasn’t: He was trying to communicate that everything would be OK even if he wasn’t.

It is hard to believe that everything will be OK now. Putin, who has sought to bring Russia into an imaginary past, has caused the death of the politician who symbolized a different Russian future. Donald Trump, who also practices the politics of returning to an imaginary past, is fueling congressional opposition to aiding Ukraine, which is running out of ammunition in its fight to stave off an aggressive war against Russia. (From prison, Navalny spoke out against the full-scale invasion the day it began.)

In the days leading up to his reported death, Navalny appeared to be in typically good spirits. His mother said that she did not want any “condolences” because she visited him on February 12 and he was “alive, happy, and cheerful.” On February 15, his last appearance by video, he asked for part of the judge’s “huge salary” because he was “running out of money thanks to your decisions.” It may never be known what happened between then and now. But the “historical process” Navalny spoke of in 2021 that Russia—and the world—is going through now has never looked bleaker.