vigil with candles

Russian lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was clear-eyed about the dangers in prison, has died

The World’s Carolyn Beeler talks with Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia and friend of Navalny’s, about what his death means for the country and for his family.

The World

The stunning news — less than a month before an election that will give Vladimir Putin another six years in power — brought renewed criticism and outrage from world leaders toward the Russian president who has suppressed opposition at home.

After initially allowing people to lay flowers at monuments to victims of Soviet-era repressions in several Russian cities, police sealed off some of the areas and started making arrests. About 30 were detained in St. Petersburg, according to local media. Shouts of “Shame!” were heard as Moscow police rounded up more than a dozen people — including one with a sign reading “Killer” — near a memorial to political prisoners, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group. The group said arrests occurred in several other cities.

But there was no indication Navalny’s death would spark large protests, with the opposition fractured and now without its “guiding star,” as an associate put it.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service reported Navalny felt sick after a walk Friday and lost consciousness at the penal colony in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow. An ambulance arrived, but he couldn’t be revived; the cause of death is “being established,” it said.

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. He was later convicted three times, saying each case was politically motivated. After the last verdict, Navalny said he understood he was “serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of my life or the length of life of this regime.”

The World’s Carolyn Beeler talks with Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia and friend of Navalny’s, about what his death means for the country and for his family.

Carolyn Beeler: You say you were in shock, but was there part of you that expected this to happen eventually? 
Michael McFaul: No. I want to be honest with you. I knew him for a long time. He’s an incredibly — was — an incredibly courageous human being, fighting for freedom for his country. Last time we corresponded by email was the day before he went back to Russia. And he was very strong, both psychologically and physically, when he got on that plane, and he has remained under incredibly horrific, barbaric circumstances, strong and jovial and joking whenever we get clips of him. I always thought that he would outlive Putin. Turned out that I was wrong. 
And I just want to clarify that he went back to Russia after being poisoned. 
Putin tried to kill him in 2020. And let’s be crystal clear about this. There’s way too much passive tense being used in the discussion of this in the press. Putin killed Navalny.
We spoke with one of Navalny’s doctors on Friday, and he told us that given the circumstances of Navalny’s imprisonment, that his body couldn’t withstand it. And he thought it might have been natural causes triggered by the conditions of that imprisonment. Or he may have been murdered. Do you have an opinion on that? 
I think it’s a distinction without a difference. Obviously, doctors need to decide that. And I’m not a doctor and we need more details, although we’re unlikely to get them out of Putin’s Russia. But make no mistake, the last time I saw Alexei Navalny, he was an incredibly healthy, vigorous man, physically and emotionally and intellectually. They were slowly trying to kill him in jail, and they couldn’t break him down where they were holding him in the last place. So, they shipped him to an even more-horrific place. I got the gory details from his wife last night about his imprisonment. Just inhumane conditions.
Can you share some of that? What Julia told you about the conditions of his imprisonment at the end? 
Well, they moved him, remember? We didn’t know where he was for several days. They finally moved him up to this place way up north. He was in solitary confinement. Almost no contact with other humans. His space for walking was just another cell without a roof. His reading was constrained. Evidently, he had to listen to a radio that blasted all the time without his control, but piped in Putin’s speeches. So, this was torture. They were torturing this man, slowly, trying to break him down.
Is there any sense of why this might have happened now? You know, the timing is, I don’t know, strange. There’s about to be an election which Putin will easily win. You know, the Munich Security Conference is right now. And this, I imagine, is taking over the topic of conversation. Any thoughts on that?
All I would say is this: I’ve known Putin for a long time, too. I think there’s this myth in the West that we need to stop propagating, which is that Putin is strong, Putin is popular, he’s confident, and everything’s just fine back at home. And that’s why he can conduct his barbaric war against Ukraine. I see a very different Putin. This is a weak leader. You don’t need to kill your adversaries if you’re strong. You don’t need to remove people like Boris Nadezhdin, somebody else I know who was trying to run for president in a very controlled way, just to give this election some more legitimacy — he had to remove him from the ballot. So, to me, these are signs of desperation from Mr. Putin. And this is one more I mean, the one guy in Russia that inspired more opposition and emotion and hope was Alexei Navalny. And so, even in a prison cell, dying in a prison cell, that threat seemed too much for Mr. Putin.
You say that the Western view or maybe handling of Putin is misguided? What, if anything, could have been done to to stop this from happening?
Well, I just think analytically we think Putin’s strong and there’s nothing we can do. And I just disagree with that. I think we should think harder about ways to weaken Putin inside his country. The Western world has frozen $360 billion of assets from the Russian government. Give that money to Ukraine. That would be a sign that you’re trying to weaken Mr. Putin. Our House of Representatives, for reasons that are mysterious to me, are blocking aid to Ukraine. That is a gift to Mr. Putin. Let’s be very clear about that. If you are not giving Ukrainian warriors on the battlefield ammunition they need to fight against Putin’s invading, occupying soldiers. That is a gift to Mr. Putin. And hand over the money we’ve already frozen. I mean, can you imagine a US president or a German chancellor getting in front of their voters to say, ‘Well, in the name of some abstract thing called the liberal international order, we’re going to give this money back to Putin.’ That’s never going to happen. And I know that Alexei Navalny would want those things to be done.
Navalny said in 2022 that “if they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong,” talking about the opposition there. What does his death mean for the opposition in Russia? Will this galvanize or further instill fear in those who oppose Putin? 
Both. And I think we need to be able to say both will be true at the same time. So, if you’re a college kid living in Moscow today, and you hate Putin. There’s data to suggest that that’s the demographic that does not support Putin. You’re not going to go out tomorrow and demonstrate because you don’t want to go to jail, and you don’t want to die in prison. But we should make no mistake that those people — and there are millions of them, not just small handfuls — that don’t like this regime, that abhor this horrific war in Ukraine. This will be a sign that this regime has no future for them.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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