Another Putin enemy dies, and a little more hope for a free Russia dies with him

Russian president’s hatred for Alexei Navalny manifested itself in an almost pathological refusal to even say the name of his most dangerous opponent

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would have perceived enemies lifted in the dead of night, then tortured and killed by the KGB or sent to a remote Gulag prison camp, leaving the public to wonder about their fate as functionaries erased their image from all official photos.

Vladimir Putin cannot obliterate critics with such chilling silence, but his hatred for Alexei Navalny manifested itself in an almost pathological refusal to even say the name of his most dangerous opponent.

When Putin was asked about the man whose investigations exposed massive corruption in his regime, the former KGB officer would dismiss him as “that character”, “the citizen you mentioned” or, when Navalny was in Germany after a near-fatal poisoning by Russia’s security service in 2020, as “that patient in a Berlin clinic”.

Yet try as Putin might, Navalny refused to disappear.


A lawyer born in the town of Obninsk outside Moscow in 1976, Navalny was repeatedly roughed up and detained for his political activity before nearly dying on a plane from Siberia to Moscow following that attack by Putin’s operatives.

Many friends hoped the murder attempt would persuade Navalny to join other high-profile Putin critics in haranguing the Kremlin from the relative safety of the West, while enjoying life with his wife Yulia and their daughter Daria (now 23) and son Zakhar (15).

Putin surely hoped to have seen the last of Navalny in Russia, but instead, accompanied by Yulia and dozens of reporters on an aircraft from Berlin to Moscow, he flew back to his homeland in January 2021 to face an inevitable next wave of persecution.

“This is the best day in the last five months. I’m home,” he said, before police waiting at passport control took him away to what would be the first of a succession of prison cells. He kissed Yulia goodbye and gave her a hug. He would never again be a free man and, if reports from Russia’s prison service are correct, it was the last time they would be together.

Moscow courts duly piled conviction upon conviction, finding Navalny (47) guilty of outlandish charges ranging from embezzlement to extremism to rehabilitating nazism, which would have kept him behind bars until he was older than Putin (71) is now.

Navalny was dangerous to Putin not only as someone who revealed the murky financial secrets of the president and his friends, but as a politician who was ready use the power of the street against him – as when he dabbled with ugly nationalist rhetoric in the early 2000s, when right-wing marches briefly looked capable of shaking the Kremlin.

He dropped the inflammatory rhetoric as his international profile and domestic standing grew, but never expressed regret for addressing migration issues and other sensitive topics that he said bothered millions of Russians, even if they tainted his appeal to some big-city liberals who disliked his populist streak and occasional arrogance.

After another charismatic opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015, Navalny became the undisputed leader of efforts to oust Putin, who over 24 years in power has only become more isolated and authoritarian.

Navalny spoke English, loved computer games and US sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty, and used social media – even from jail via his lawyers – to rally supporters and mock “the old man in the bunker” as he called Putin, whose distrust of the West is matched only by his suspicion of the internet.

“I believe that the darkness will eventually fade away,” he said of Putin’s regime in a post from jail last year. “But as long as it persists, I ... urge everyone not to abandon hope. Russia will be happy!”

Perhaps, but probably not for a long time, and not with Navalny.

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