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Russian Dissident Alexei Navalny Dies in Arctic Prison; “No Doubt” He Was Killed, Says Masha Gessen

StoryFebruary 19, 2024
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More than 400 people have reportedly been detained in Russia for publicly mourning the death of Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic penal colony on Friday at age 47. He was the most prominent critic of Vladimir Putin in Russia and was serving a 19-year sentence at the time of his death on “extremism” charges. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders directly have blamed Putin for Navalny’s death. Prison authorities say Navalny died of “sudden death syndrome,” but his family has not yet been given access to his body to allow for an independent autopsy. For more, we speak with Russian American writer Masha Gessen, who charts Navalny’s political evolution from an ethnonationalist libertarian tapping into “xenophobic discontent” to an anti-corruption activist promoting a vision of civic nationalism. “I have no doubt … that he was killed,” says Gessen. “Putin was determined to see Navalny die in prison.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Russia, where more than 400 people have been detained for publicly mourning the death of Alexei Navalny, who reportedly died in an Arctic prison on Friday. Navalny was 47 years old. He was the most prominent critic of Vladimir Putin in Russia. He was serving a 19-year sentence at the time of his death.

President Biden and several other Western leaders directly blamed Putin for Navalny’s death. Navalny’s mother, who traveled to the Arctic town of Kharp in hopes of retrieving her son’s body, was told by prison authorities Navalny died of sudden death syndrome, but his family has not yet been given access to his body to allow for an independent autopsy. Kira Yarmysh, a spokesperson for Navalny, spoke on Saturday.

KIRA YARMYSH: Alexei was a symbol of hope and a symbol of courage for many Russian people, and now they feel like this idea of hope abandoned them. But that’s not true, and I’m sure that people will find strength to continue their fight, because this is what Alexei always wanted, and this is what he was telling everyone all the time, even from the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard called for an international probe into Navalny’s death.

AGNÈS CALLAMARD: Look, the international community needs to react with the strongest way possible. But we know that actions have very little impact right now on Putin and on Russia. But still, silence is not an option. We must stand up, and the international political leaders around the world must make as strong a statement as possible. They must demand investigations. They must, in fact, investigate his unlawful death themselves. We must call on the United Nations to investigate that death, that unlawful death, that killing, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Masha Gessen, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, award-winning Russian American journalist, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Surviving Autocracy. Masha’s new piece for The New Yorker is headlined “The Death of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s Most Formidable Opponent.”

Masha, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by just responding to Alexei Navalny’s death, what you believe happened, and the protests that have been taking place, the vigils that have led to hundreds of arrests?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, I have no doubt, like many other people, that he was killed. It was very clear from the time he was arrested upon returning to Russia in January 2021 that he was going to be kept in prison until he died or Putin died. They kept piling on sentence after sentence. And as Yulia Navalny, who spoke two hours ago — Yulia Navalny is Navalny’s widow — as she pointed out, he wasn’t just kept in prison. He was continuously tortured. He was kept in solitary. He was kept in a tiny concrete room with no place to sit or lie down except during the allotted hours of sleep, with one book and one mug of water. He was starved continuously for more than three years. And yet he was unbreakable. He kept being funny. He kept being defiant. And finally, they killed him, which is absolutely devastating despite being the expected outcome, I think, for all of us who have been following Navalny for many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you talk about what happened a few years ago, when Navalny was poisoned, did not die — it’s believed it was Novichok — his family got him out of Russia to Germany, and then his astonishing return to Russia? Talk about what happened then.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, let me be very clear: It’s not believed that it was Novichok, a chemical weapon; it has been definitively established that it’s Novichok. A chemical weapon developed illegally by Russia for chemical warfare was used to try to assassinate Navalny.

So, in August 2020, he was flying from one Russian city back to Moscow and was — started dying on the plane. The plan, clearly, by his assassins was that he was going to die on the plane, because the poison was going to do its irreversible job while the plane was in the air. But then a series of almost miraculous things happened. The pilot decided to make an emergency landing in the city of Omsk. When the plane landed, an ambulance was already there and administered essential first aid. It didn’t bring Navalny back to life. He was in a coma for six weeks. But the third thing that happened was that Yulia Navalny flew to Omsk and managed to pry Navalny out of the hands of the medical establishment, the Russian medical establishment, that would have killed him, and bring him to Germany for treatment and rehabilitation. German doctors who received him already had experience treating Russian political activists who had been victims of poisoning, and so they knew what they were doing. And that combination of factors, something that the assassins clearly could not have planned on, saved Navalny.

After about six weeks in a coma, he came out, and he teamed up with the Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, who was at the time working for Bellingcat. And together, they were able to track down — literally track down — the actual people who poisoned Navalny. They figured out that he had been followed for at least two years by a team of eight FSB agents, some of whom also happened to be chemists, that they would follow him to every town that he had traveled to, until, apparently, they found the right moment to apply Novichok to the underwear in his suitcase, which he then put on before flying that day that he was poisoned. And in an incredible performance, Navalny ended up calling one of his assassins — he tried several, but one of them picked up and continued speaking, thinking that he was speaking to some bureaucrat representing the head of the FSB, and he confirmed Navalny’s and Grozev’s hypothesis about what had happened. He added some detail about how they had tried to kill Navalny and how they had tried to cover up their tracks. And in December 2020, Navalny released a made-for-YouTube movie titled I Called My Killer, and He Confessed.

A month after that, Navalny returned to Moscow knowing full well that he was going back to a country where the president had ordered him killed. I think that there were a few things going on. One was that he just could not imagine himself staying in exile and becoming politically irrelevant. Another, I think maybe he believed that by exposing the plot to kill him, he had somehow embarrassed him. I think he had thought too highly of them. And I think the third thing that was happening is that perhaps he thought that the protests that would follow his arrest would be so massive that Putin would have to back down and release him. It wasn’t an unfounded thought, because the protests were indeed massive. Russians demonstrated for weeks after Navalny was arrested on January 21st, 2021. But it wasn’t enough to make Putin back down. Putin was determined to see Navalny die in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a piece that you wrote, Masha, three years ago, “The Evolution of Alexey Navalny’s Nationalism.” You say, on the one hand, you thought that he was “an extraordinarily brave, inventive, and committed opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime. On the other hand, he had allied himself with ultranationalists and had expressed views that I found extremely objectionable and potentially dangerous.”

And then, a few paragraphs later, you talk about a movement he helped to start in 2007 for which he released a YouTube video, one, a 40-second argument for gun rights; the other, a minute long, featured Navalny dressed as a dentist, presenting a slightly confusing parable that likened interethnic conflict in Russia to cavities and argued that fascism can be prevented only by deporting migrants from Russia. You said Navalny closed his monologue with “We have a right to be ethnic Russians in Russia, and we will defend this right.” “It is decidedly disturbing to view,” you wrote. And you said, “Around the time Navalny released the video, and for a couple of years after, Navalny took part in the Russian March, an annual demonstration in Moscow that draws ultranationalists, including some who adopt swastika-like symbols.” Can you talk about this? Talk about his whole evolution. He died at the age of 47.

MASHA GESSEN: I’m glad you’re asking me about this, because the Kremlin has been incredibly effective at wielding these accusations of ethnonationalism against Navalny and discrediting him among a lot of people, among a lot of leftists in the West, for one thing. And when I wrote this piece three years ago — this was after he was arrested — I did a lot of research that I say in the piece I should have done earlier. I knew Navalny. We were never close friends, but we were acquaintances, and we certainly had many conversations about the protest movement over many years. And I would see him when I went to Moscow, when I still could go to Moscow, and I covered his movement, his anti-corruption movement. But I never really had sat down and talked to him about those early videos and the evolution of his own political views, so I had to reconstruct them after he had been arrested.

And what I found was that he really had moved as far away from his early political views as I think a person can. He came into activism in Russia — and I think this context is important — at a time when Putin had already succeeded in destroying the public sphere. It seemed that there were very few people opposed to Putin. And the discontent that I think he was trying to tap into, and that he was also a part of, was a kind of xenophobic discontent. So his early political views were anti-migrant and libertarian. And by the time of his death, and really by the time of his arrest and earlier, his biggest concern was not even so much with corruption as with social welfare, and his views, he had evolved from an ethnonationalist to civic nationalist. I think this is a distinction that Americans are not quite aware of, but it is an important distinction. It’s not — the focus of it is on national liberation and civic pride, participation in politics, enfranchisement, and not at all the early views of ethnonationalism and anti-migrant. I do wish that he had been more explicit about denouncing his early views. He did apologize for those early videos. But he never apologized for taking part in the Russian marches, as I understand it, because he was afraid of alienating part of his base. But I am quite certain that his own views and his own priorities lay very, very far away from those early views.

AMY GOODMAN: Navalny argued Russia was discriminating against Muslims by refusing to allow them to have Qur’ans in prison, saying, “Russia found a new enemy in Muslims. I can have a Bible but a Muslim can’t have a Quran,” Masha.

MASHA GESSEN: That’s a great example, actually, of how his views had evolved. And from what I understand, the way that he came to try to advocate for prisoners’ rights, particularly for Muslim prisoners’ rights, was that he had asked for a Qur’an himself. He was an inveterate reader. I mean, he was really an autodidact. His formal education in Russia was not great. He spent several months at Yale as a World Fellow, which I think was a huge sort of step forward in his political evolution. This was way back in 2010 or 2009. And once he was in prison, he wanted to understand more about religion. He said that he — this was something that was entirely foreign to him. He was a hyper-rational being. And he kind of envied his friends who had faith, so he decided to read the great religious texts. And when he asked for the Qur’an, he had found out that this was not something that prisoners were allowed to have, and that led him to advocate for the rights of Muslim prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Friday. It was just after she learned that her husband may well have been killed.

YULIA NAVALNAYA: [translated] I want Putin and all of his entourage, Putin’s friends and his government, to know that they will be held accountable for what they have done to our country, to my family and to my husband. And that day will come very soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have that same kind of confidence, Masha? You’ve written that the death of Navalny doesn’t indicate the strength — the weakness of Putin, but his strength. We just have 30 seconds.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah. I don’t have that same kind of confidence, but I admire Yulia Navalny’s confidence. And two hours ago, she actually made another address, and she said she’s going to be stepping into Navalny’s shoes, and I think she’s going to lead the movement that he founded. It was an extraordinary address, and I recommend that every viewer search for it on YouTube when the show is over.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of his mother going to the penal colony? Fifteen seconds.

MASHA GESSEN: The mother went to the penal colony hoping to pick up Navalny’s body. The body has not been released, most likely because the body bears the traces of whatever was used to kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen, we want to thank you for being with us, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, award-winning Russian American journalist, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Surviving Autocracy. That does it for our show. We’ll link to your latest piece on Alexei Navalny. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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