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Alexey Navalny was too brave to be allowed to live long

Alexey Navalny, who the Russian prison service says died Friday, Feb. 16, was a man as ambitious as he was spectacularly brave, punished for actions that would have been rewarded in other societies. All of those in the West who admire Vladimir Putin for his strength and anti-liberal values should take a long hard look, because Navalny’s fate is the true face of the Kremlin’s rule.

Navalny was arrested countless times for political protests, poisoned with a nerve agent, and jailed in effect for life on charges of “extremism.” In reality, he was punished for daring to oppose and expose Russia’s ruling kleptocracy. He had already outlived his life expectancy, not because he was unhealthy or, at 47, old, but rather because of the abuse he was subjected to in jail. He may well have fainted on a walk at his prison camp in northern Siberia, as the prison authority said, yet it’s all but certain that his death was caused by what was done to him before.

As a victim, Navalny was far from unique. Boris Nemtsov, one of the few genuine opposition politicians to survive long into Putin’s rule, was assassinated while crossing a bridge next to the Kremlin in 2015. Numerous countries have introduced so-called Magnitsky acts, in response to the 2009 killing in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax adviser who exposed a massive fraud by the same Interior Ministry that cooked up charges to jail him. A list of all the Kremlin-critical journalists, politicians, activists and inconvenient businesspeople who’ve been shot, poisoned or fallen out of windows in Putin’s Russia is long.

And yet Navalny was special, in that he seemed able to get under the Kremlin’s skin like nobody else. Had he ever been allowed to run in an election, he almost certainly would have lost to Putin, his nemesis. He was no liberal, in the “woke” sense of the word; early on in his political activism, he went on marches with nationalists and neo-Nazis, whom he saw as allies, because at the time — long before the invasion of Ukraine — they also opposed Putin.

What made Navalny dangerous to the Kremlin was that he had the extraordinary degree of courage needed to investigate and expose the secret wealth of the nation’s most powerful men, plus he had a genius for using modern media to broadcast their alleged theft in a country that has no free press. Navalny was poisoned while on a plane in Russia and almost died in 2020. He was flown to Germany for treatment, where it was found that the weapon used had been a military grade nerve agent called Novichok, which has also been used in other assassination attempts on Russian dissidents, including in the UK.

Navalny’s YouTube film on Kremlin corruption, Palace for Putin, was made while he was in Germany recovering. Yet he released it only after returning to Russia in 2021 — “because we do not want the main character of this film to think that we are afraid of him.”

As soon as he landed in Russia, Navalny was arrested, continued his activism in jail, was routinely placed in solitary confinement, and then transferred to a prison camp in northern Siberia in December, when he looked increasingly weak. Now he’s dead. Palace for Putin was viewed more than 129 million times — and that was just the one about a vast building on the Black Sea coast that the Kremlin has denied belonged to the Russian president. Then there was the expose that alleged Putin also owns a $700 million superyacht and another about vast estates Navalny tied to former President Dmitry Medvedev.

In a kind of quantitative take on Navalny’s place in Russia, the Levada Center, Russia’s most independent polling agency, asked in 2021 how many people had seen Palace for Putin, and whether it had changed their attitudes to the president. More than a quarter of the country, 26%, had watched the video, according to the poll. Of these, 17% said their view of Putin had gotten worse as a result, 77% said it had no impact, and 3% said they now thought better of him.

Like most dissidents, Navalny was no saint. But he stood out for the sheer bravery of his decisions, above all in returning to Russia after what was clearly an assassination attempt by the state. I say clearly not just because Novichok is a chemical weapon only available to Russian state organs, but also because Navalny recorded his call to one of the men suspected of putting the poison in his underpants while he was traveling; the man confirmed what he and his colleagues had done.

Navalny cooperated in a documentary about him while in Germany. Asked by the director what message he would have for the Russian people should he be killed, he said it should be that: “Evil is only able to proliferate if good people do nothing, so don’t be inactive.” Navalny was never that, even when he had already experienced the full extent of the regime’s plans for him. He may not have been afraid of the Kremlin, but the Kremlin was obviously afraid of him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

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