Russia lost the only man Putin was afraid of

Giosan, Alexandru

Russia lost the only man Putin was afraid of

 

On the 16th of February, Alexey Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition was pronounced dead in his prison cell after “taking a walk” and “feeling unwell” the next morning. He spent his last days in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic, where he was moved in December 2023, after spending another 3 years in and out of solitary confinement in several prisons outside Moscow.

 

The official cause of death was announced as a blood clot, even though Navalny’s doctors say he had no underlying conditions that made blood clots likely. Whatever the chosen cause of death will be, make no mistake that it wasn’t a blood clot that killed Navalny, it was Vladimir Putin.

 

Navalny rose to prominence during the 2011-2013 Russian protests, which he helped organise. The largest of the protests, which took place on the eve of the 2012 presidential election was attended by 50.000 people. It was at those protests that Navalny established himself as the de facto leader of the opposition, a title that he maintained up until his death. He participated in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election where he garnered 27% of the vote despite facing an uphill battle and trumped up embezzlement charges. After expressing his interest in participating in the 2018 presidential election as a candidate, the Kremlin barred him, citing a corruption conviction. He was not allowed to run in any other election.

 

Navalny invested in shares of major Russian state-owned oil and gas companies, then uncovered corruption within them. He exposed embezzlement schemes in Transneft, alleging billions of dollars were misappropriated during a major oil pipeline project. Initiating projects like RosPil and RosYama, he aimed to combat government corruption by utilizing online platforms to reveal irregularities in procurement and infrastructure maintenance. His most notable investigations targeted Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. In 2017, he released a 10-chapter documentary detailing prime-minister Medvedev’s corruption, highlighting his vast hidden wealth, including yachts, a villa, luxury real estate, vineyards, and a castle in Tuscany. Continuously producing YouTube videos, Navalny exposed corruption scandals within the Russian government, amassing millions of views and a substantial online following.

 

In 2020, Navalny was poisoned, becoming ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Following an emergency landing, he was hospitalised and placed on a ventilator after slipping into a coma. Miraculously, he survived. After being airlifted to Germany, he eventually recovered, with medical examinations confirming he had been poisoned with Novichok.

 

Any sane person would take a step back after surviving an assassination attempt, but Navalny did the opposite. He continued making videos and conducting investigations, even going as far as to impersonate FSB members in phone calls to uncover his would-be assassins. Remarkably, he managed to elicit confessions from them regarding the attempt on his life, all on tape. During the same calls, his attempted murderers admitted to locating the poison in Navalny’s underwear.

 

After fully recovering, Navalny announced that he would be heading back to Russia, to continue his fight, despite there being a warrant for his arrest. On the plane from Berlin to Moscow, he watched Rick and Morty with his family, unbothered by the media frenzy around him. Immediately after landing, he was arrested and taken away. Within weeks, he was sentenced to prison.

 

Shortly after his detention, Navalny’s team released an investigation accusing President Putin of using fraudulently obtained funds to construct an opulent estate on the Black Sea. The estate, allegedly 39 times the size of Monaco, was said to involve an elaborate corruption scheme implicating Putin's inner circle and costing over $1.35 billion to build. Navalny's exposé, which included aerial footage and detailed floorplans, garnered 92 million views within a week of its release, by far the largest investigation video conducted by Navalny and his team.

 

Despite spending the majority of his three years in solitary confinement in a cramped room measuring 6 square meters, lacking a bed, with only a hole in the ground for a toilet and a sink, Navalny's resilience remained unbroken. During court hearings, he consistently displayed a jovial demeanour, often seen smiling, laughing, and teasing prison guards, judges, and the legal system. In his final hearing, he humorously requested more money from the judges, quipping that he was "running out of funds." The next day he was dead.

 

Navalny is widely disliked in Ukraine. He started his political career in a niche, populist, nationalistic faction. Navalny made disparaging remarks about immigrants and minorities, and previously voiced questionable opinions regarding Ukraine and Russia's imperialistic behaviour. He initially supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, giving ambiguous statements about the Russian invasion of the Donbas region.

 

Nevertheless, since 2014, he has softened his rhetoric. His party is openly pro-LGBT and he has apologised for his statements, reaffirming his belief in Ukraine’s full territorial integrity. After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he became its loudest opponent and his team organised massive protests against it.

 

Unsurprisingly, neither Zelensky nor other prominent Ukrainian figures have come out with statements in the aftermath of his death. Even though Ukrainians’ dislike of Navalny is warranted, the truth is that it is them who should be mourning his death the most. His loss will certainly affect Russia but will be even more felt in Ukraine, because that’s where Putin’s wrath and unchallenged power will be unleashed. Navalny was the man who got the closest to ending Ukraine’s suffering because he was the only man Putin feared. It was never Prigozhin and never Zelensky.

 

 Regardless of any criticisms one may raise against Navalny (and there are many), it does not diminish his unwavering bravery and courage. Regardless of personal opinions about him, he did not deserve to be poisoned, tortured, and denied his human rights. He was the only one who dared to face Putin and the Russian propaganda machine head-on. He inspired millions of people within Russia and educated millions of young Russians, engaging them in politics. He demonstrated that Russia is not solely a nation of brainwashed individuals and gave a voice to millions opposed to Putin's imperialism. Most importantly, he offered people hope, hope that change is possible and that a Russia without Putin is not far from reach. Navalny exemplified bravery, honesty, and dedication to his cause, serving as an example not only to Russians but also to the Western world of how a politician should be: brave, honest and committed to their cause. His cause wasn’t to enrich himself or benefit from political power, it was to free his people. He died fighting for Russia’s freedom, and the Russian people certainly won’t forget his sacrifice.

 

Despite the certainty of imprisonment and torture upon his return to Russia, Navalny still chose to return. He understood that remaining abroad would render him merely one among numerous voices criticising Putin from afar. He knew that the only way to sway people’s minds was by leading by example. Many criticise Putin but not many willingly enter his den, knowing that death awaits them.

 

In the words of The Economist: “Russia’s opposition has lost a crucial leader but gained a martyr”. It is now up to his followers to make good use of his martyrdom. After the death of Jesus, it took centuries for Christianity to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. For the sake of Europe, let’s hope that Navalny’s ideas take shorter.

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