Should we be surprised? Simon Cosgrove on the killing of Aleksei Navalny

18 February 2024

by Simon Cosgrove

Simon is chair of trustees of Rights in Russia; this blog is written in a personal capacity.

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Should we be surprised? No, there is no surprise that the homicidal and megalomaniac ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has killed yet another of his fellow citizens, Aleksei Navalny, aged 47. There was a long list of such people even before Putin began his current murderous war against Ukraine. Moreover, Navalny (an advocate of peaceful, democratic politics, whom Putin seems to have superstitiously avoided naming in public and who had been designated a political prisoner by Memorial and a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International) had been for at least a decade Putin’s most serious political opponent. What harm could a man in prison do to the ruler of Russia that would make him kill him? The answer would seem to be that, in Putin’s Russia, a brutal authoritarian realpolitik tops all other considerations. Putin’s political practice seems to follow Stalin’s saying, ‘No person, no problem.’ Yet, while Putin can kill Navalny, the 71-year-old dictator may be far less successful in killing the hopes and ideas for a democratic Russia that Navalny, through his work and courage, came to symbolise.

Today, against the background of Putin’s horrific war on Ukraine, some might say, rather brutally, that the death of a single Russian dissident is of little importance. Yet even putting to one side for a moment the immense personal tragedy and the despicable brutality of his treatment, in terms of the history of the Putin regime, Navalny’s killing is a significant moment, and for Ukraine. Not least because the ageing dictator’s highly personalised regime has almost certainly entered its last twenty years (and of course, it may last less than that) and, in the long run, the future development of Russia, and the political ideas that will lie behind it, are very much a matter of interest for Ukraine.

Navalny came of age as a young activist in post-Soviet Russia dedicated to the difficult task of engaging in a democratic form of politics – public debate, persuasion, taking part in elections – in Putin’s authoritarian state. More than that, he became adept at exposing the regime’s corruption – and, something which no doubt annoyed the dictator intensely, Putin’s personal corruption. Navalny’s slogans resonated with large numbers of Russians: for example, his telling description of the regime as one of ‘scoundrels and thieves’; and the hope for a brighter, democratic future he expressed in the phrase ‘the happy Russia of the future’. Navalny, a young, charismatic, vibrant and inspiring figure, a brilliant, tech-savvy organiser, over the years had a profound impact in Russia, especially on the younger generation, for whom he provided a contrast to the dull, uninspiring and insipid figure of the older Putin. For this threat to Putin’s power, Navalny (and increasingly also his colleagues) suffered years of harassment by the authorities. Yet he refused to be deterred, and over time this became a serious problem for the ambitions of the dictator.

War has been an essential element of the Putin regime from its beginning: the Second Chechen War, followed at intervals by the wars against Georgia, Syria and then Ukraine. If the annexation of Crimea was a huge success in Putin’s eyes, it seems plain that it led him to succumb to the dictator’s failing of overreach: he decided to celebrate his 70th birthday as the conqueror of Kyiv and to go down in history as the leader who returned Ukraine (and maybe not only Ukraine) to Russian rule (just as, one might remark, Hitler, after his early successful military adventures, wanted to bequeath Lebensraum in the east to the German people). And, having decided on his Ukrainian adventure, Putin thought it wise to rid himself of Navalny altogether as a potential focus for an anti-war opposition (just as he decided to eliminate Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and other human rights organisations). At that point, earlier concerns (if there had been such) of making Navalny into a martyr were jettisoned and, in 2020, Putin had Navalny poisoned with Novichok. Miraculously, Navalny survived, and, under international pressure, Putin allowed him to be taken out of the country to Germany, probably convinced that Navalny, even if he survived, would never dare return to Russia and could then be mocked by his propagandists as just another ‘unpatriotic liberal’ who had ‘fled the country’.

But Navalny showed himself of far sterner stuff and, in an extraordinary act of courage, returned to Russia in 2021. Thereupon Putin had him promptly arrested and imprisoned. No doubt at the time there was a great deal of diplomatic activity by Western countries to put pressure on Putin to keep Navalny alive. Yet it was clear that Navalny, whose health had been undermined by the Novichok poisoning, would suffer severely even in a normal Russia penal colony. When Navalny was kept in torturous conditions, such treatment was always likely to kill him (in the just over three years of imprisonment before his death, Navalny was placed in solitary confinement in punishment cells for 308 days).

At the time of writing there is also some circumstantial evidence that Navalny may have been actively murdered on 16 February 2024. This includes his transfer to a penal colony beyond the Arctic Circle, his placement there almost immediately in an isolation punishment cell, the discrepancy between the alleged time of death and the immediate diagnosis of the cause of death, reports that surveillance cameras in the penal colony were not working that day, the refusal to give his body to his family and reported bruises on his body.

Furthermore, one can speculate that the fact that Navalny died one month ahead of the coming presidential ‘elections’ in Russia may also indicate the timing was pre-planned. First, on the eve of his ‘re-election’ as Russia’s ruler, it is possible Putin wishes to continue his rule thereafter with a ‘clean sheet’, Navalny already a thing of the past. Putin’s concern for his legacy means that keeping a potential ‘Mandela’ figure in prison is intolerable for him. No doubt he has no idea who will rule Russia after he is gone, but the idea that Navalny – still young – could provide a focus for potential reformers must have been anathema to him. Second, the rupture with the West over the Ukrainian war means that diplomatic pressure to keep Navalny alive had lost all its former force. And third, given that the course of the war has been far from the success initially Putin believed it would be, Putin would not have wanted Navalny to be around to act as a magnet for the growing discontent that an unsuccessful war with mounting costs in lives and a deteriorating economy would be bound to bring.

When the history of the Putin regime is written, Navalny’s killing will doubtless, then, be seen as the moment when Putin, losing a war so costly in terms of lives and economic damage, with no prospect of mending fences with the West, sought to put an end to any hopes the Russian public may have had of an alternative to his rule. For that part of the Russian public that supported, or sympathised with, Navalny, his killing may for the present have that intended effect. While many people in cities across Russia laid flowers in memory of Navalny (often in the face of police brutality), a widespread view expressed on social media has been that the killing of Navalny has ‘killed all hope’.

Yet, as the Putin regime enters its last years, the dictator’s failure to create a lasting political regime independent of his person will become ever more evident. Whether Putin likes it or not, the search for an alternative will be very real and no doubt very intense. Democratic ideas will be bound to figure among the possible roads to be taken and the figure of Aleksei Navalny, his ideas – his speeches, writings, films, tweets and other social media – and the hopes that he inspired may then play an important role in determining how the future of Russian politics unfolds. Not least because Navalny’s life and death have set a bar by which future democratic politicians in Russia will be judged.

In the Oscar-winning film about his career Navalny said that if he were killed, it would be a sign of the weakness of the regime, and of the strength of the movement for democracy. Who knows how events in the longer run will turn out? Just as after Stalin came the ‘Thaw’ of Khrushchev, so after Putin there may come a more democratic Russia. And there may be at least as great a chance that future generations of Russians will drink tea in cafés on city squares named after Navalny as after Putin. After all, as long as human life continues on the planet, hope is a phoenix that will arise from the ashes – even after those who inspired that hope have, perforce, left the scene.

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