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The Distressing Death of Alexei Navalny

Vladimir Putin’s Russia can’t stay out of the news.


Anti-Putin crusader Alexei Navalny died on Friday at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony where he was serving a three-decade prison sentence, Russian authorities announced. Navalny, a Russian nationalist who nonetheless came to be the global face of the opposition, was 47 years old.

At the Munich Security Conference, Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said she did not know what to believe because “Putin and his government...lie incessantly.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Yulia at the Munich Security Conference, said, “His death in a Russian prison and the fixation and fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built.”


President Joe Biden was more direct. “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death,” Biden told reporters at a White House press conference. “What has happened to Navalny is even more proof of Putin’s brutality. No one should be fooled.” In June 2021, Biden claimed there would be “consequences” that “would be devastating for Russia” if Navalny died in Russian custody. 

According to the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Navalny began to feel unwell after going for a walk around the penal colony. Soon after, Navalny lost consciousness and died. Resuscitation attempts by the prison’s medical team were unsuccessful.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas remembered Biden’s threat well. “Alexei Navalny died as he lived: a champion of the Russian people and a brave voice of dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” Cotton tweeted after news of Navalny’s death went public. “President Biden pledged ‘devastating’ consequences should Navalny die in prison; now he must follow through. America can’t afford another erased red line.”

But it is also possible the language of sheer force contributed to Navalny’s death.

A lawyer and blogger by trade, Navalny rose to prominence in the early 2010s by speaking out against the “crooks and thieves” ruining the country. His anti-corruption crusade quickly made him a darling of the Western media. Beyond his anti-corruption positions, however, Navalny held political beliefs that the media would consider extremist if they were held by anyone in the West. 


In truth, his politics were often heterodox to the point of unintelligibility. But, over time, he drifted towards the establishment left. In his early days, Navalny flashed anti-immigrant sentiments and cozied up with the hard right. By 2020, Navalny was supporting Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd.

As Navalny was getting his start, he became co-organizer of the “Russian March” parade, which embraced slogans such as “Russia for the Russians” and “Stop feeding the Caucasus.” Navalny’s activism became such a headache for Yabloko, the liberal reform party that he was involved in, that the party expelled him.

Navalny supported the Russian war in Georgia and used racial epithets for Georgians while calling for all Georgians to be expelled from Russia in blog posts. Navalny later apologized for using the epithet, but stood firm on his other positions regarding Georgia. He also published a YouTube video in 2008, Navalny likened people from the Caucasus to “cockroaches.” Someone needs to call an exterminator. Navalny said he “recommends a pistol.”

Regime change in Russia is a quixotic concept. Regional destabilization in the wake of the Cold War and more recently American recklessness throughout the Middle East ought to have made that clear enough. Still, the death of Navalny (murder? negligence?) raises the question of just how reckless the Russian state itself has become. That, in turn, makes the imprudence of uber-hawkishness in this part of the world even more disquieting. 


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