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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Alexei Navalny, imprisoned Russian opposition leader, is dead at 47

    Protesters stage a demonstration opposite the Russian Embassy in London, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in reaction to the news that jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died in a Russian prison, according to the Federal Penitentiary Service. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

    Alexei Navalny, the steely Russian lawyer who exposed corruption, self-dealing and abuse of power by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, sustaining a popular challenge to Putin for more than a decade despite constant pressure from the authorities and a near-fatal poisoning, died Feb. 16 in a Russian prison colony just above the Arctic Circle. He was 47.

    His death at Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, was announced by Russia’s prison service. Prison authorities said in a statement that Mr. Navalny “felt unwell” after a walk, “almost immediately losing consciousness,” and added that a medical team failed to resuscitate him.

    Mr. Navalny had endured the country’s harshest prison conditions since December; the region is brutally cold. In August, his prison sentence was extended by 19 years on charges connected to his anti-corruption foundation. Supporters said the charges were politically motivated and part of a campaign by Putin to silence him.

    Mr. Navalny emerged over the years as a singularly successful blogger, activist and opposition leader in Putin’s Russia, reaching a mass audience through online videos that detailed ruling-class corruption and lavish spending. He was handsome, articulate and charismatic - a natural politician in a country where there is virtually no competitive public politics.

    His corruption investigations received tens of millions of views on YouTube, fueling widespread street protests in Russia and embarrassing the Kremlin. Authorities branded him as unpatriotic, declaring that Mr. Navalny was a tool for Western intelligence agencies, and sought to diminish his popularity among liberals and other oppositionists by noting that he had allied himself with ultranationalists early in his career.

    While Mr. Navalny spent weeks in jail at various times, he largely stayed out of prison as authorities seemed uninterested in making him a martyr. That calculus seemed to have changed by August 2020, when he became gravely ill and went into a coma. Western officials said he had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok, which British authorities said had also been used in the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy who was living in England.

    While recuperating from the poisoning in Germany, Mr. Navalny partnered with the investigative journalism group Bellingcat to uncover evidence linking the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, to the attack. In a brazen act that was captured on film for the Oscar-winning 2022 documentary “Navalny,” he phoned one of the FSB perpetrators, posing as his superior making an after-action report, and fooled the officer into revealing that the operation was intended to kill Mr. Navalny through the application of Novichok to his underwear. The officer blamed its failure on the quick work of the plane pilot and paramedics.

    The Kremlin denied involvement, with Putin joking about the attack during a news conference. “Who needs him?” he said of Mr. Navalny with a laugh.

    After the attack, Mr. Navalny continued to goad the Kremlin. “His main resentment against me now is that he will go down in history as a poisoner,” he said of Putin. “There was Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.”

    Facing certain arrest, Mr. Navalny returned to Moscow in January 2021, declining to remain in relative safety in Germany. He was taken into custody at the airport and sentenced to more than two years in prison, found to have violated parole conditions in a case that relied heavily on technicalities.

    “Hundreds of thousands cannot be locked up,” he said in a courtroom speech. “More and more people will recognize this. And when they recognize this - and that moment will come - all of this will fall apart, because you cannot lock up the whole country.”

    Mr. Navalny was sent to a penal colony east of Moscow, where he went on a three-week hunger strike to protest inadequate medical attention. In 2022, he was sentenced to nine years in a high-security prison after being convicted in a separate trial, where he was accused of allegedly misusing donations received by his anti-corruption foundation. Mr. Navalny and his team said the charges were fabricated to silence him and slammed the trials as a sham. He was later sentenced to an additional 19 years on “extremism” charges.

    “I perfectly understand that, like many political prisoners, I am sitting on a life sentence,” he said on social media after the verdict. “Where life is measured by the term of my life or the term of life of this regime.”

    His convictions and imprisonment were widely condemned in the West as a crude way to gag one of the Russian government’s few prominent critics. When Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Mr. Navalny spoke out against it in social media postings he passed from prison through his lawyer. That November, he tweeted that he had been placed in permanent solitary confinement with limited access to his family. “They’re doing it to keep me quiet,” he said.

    Although Russia’s 1993 constitution had created a democratic system and guaranteed personal rights, Putin slowly strangled political opposition after taking office in 2000. He used a combination of subterfuge, cash and coercion to silence the oligarchs, the news media and political adversaries, often putting his friends in positions of power and creating a personalized system of control that brooked no rivals. Some of those who challenged him ended up poisoned or shot to death.

    Mr. Navalny developed a following by exposing corruption based on open sources and then summoning people to join him and contribute to his organization. He had extraordinary political intuition and was tireless in combating popular indifference and pessimism, becoming the only oppositionist in recent years to become known across Russia - even though state television controlled by the Kremlin all but ignored him.

    His investigations, conducted through his organization the Anti-Corruption Foundation, brought to light the underside of the Putin era.

    In a 2017 investigation, he revealed that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had accumulated more than $1 billion worth of property, using a photo of the prime minister wearing a distinctive pair of Nike sneakers to unspool a web of companies and charities connected to him and his associates.

    The next year, Mr. Navalny aired a 25-minute portrayal of a potentially corrupt association between a top Putin aide and one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, featuring a secret rendezvous on a luxury yacht with a call girl.

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    His most explosive investigation was released just after his return to Moscow in 2021. A two-hour video report titled “Putin’s Palace” revealed the construction of a Versailles-scale palace on the shores of the Black Sea, with its own casino and underground ice hockey rink. Mr. Navalny alleged that the palace was built for Putin through an opaque network of hidden financing.

    The YouTube video was viewed more than 100 million times and fueled nationwide protests, occurring after hundreds of thousands of Mr. Navalny’s supporters had turned out across Russia to protest his arrest, braving subzero temperatures and the batons of riot police.

    Mr. Navalny paid repeatedly and dearly for speaking out, as did members of his family. In 2014, he and his younger brother Oleg were convicted in a fraud trial that Kremlin critics said was politically motivated. His brother was imprisoned until 2018, while Mr. Navalny received a 3½-year suspended sentence.

    The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that Mr. Navalny and his brother were unfairly convicted in the case, saying the Russian courts handed down decisions that were “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”

    Mr. Navalny wanted to run for president in 2018 but was barred, and he was given a 30-day jail term the next year after calling for unauthorized protests against the disqualification of independent candidates for the Moscow city council. During that jail sentence, he became ill and thought he might have been poisoned. He also suffered a serious chemical burn to his right eye in 2017 after unknown assailants threw antiseptic dye at him on the street in front of his offices.

    Mr. Navalny continued to speak out after his arrests, including through courtroom speeches and letters to his lawyers that were posted to social media. Condemning the war in Ukraine, he said that the conflict was started by a “group of crazy old men who don’t understand anything and don’t want to understand anything.”

    But his efforts were hindered after the Anti-Corruption Foundation and an affiliated political group were effectively dismantled in 2021, when a Russian court classified them as “extremist.” That October, a prison commission designated Mr. Navalny himself an extremist and a terrorist. He was awarded the European Parliament’s annual human rights prize the same month, named in honor of Soviet physicist and rights activist Andrei Sakharov.

    In December, Mr. Navalny’s family and friends were alarmed for several weeks when he could not be reached at the prison in the Vladimir region where he had been serving his sentence. On Dec. 25, his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, announced that he had been found in the penal colony in the far north, was visited by a lawyer and “is doing well.” But Mr. Navalny had often complained during his years in prison that he was denied medical treatment for a series of ailments. He was confined for months at a time in solitary confinement.

    His spirit of protest was undimmed. In January, he posted a long thread on social media calling on voters to all go to the polls together at noon in the upcoming elections to protest Putin. “This will be a nationwide protest against Putin, close to where you live,” he wrote. “It is accessible to everyone, everywhere. Millions of people will be able to participate. And tens of millions of people will be able to witness it.”

    Alexei Anatolievich Navalny was born in Butyn, a military town near Moscow, on June 4, 1976. His father was a Red Army communications officer, and his mother was an economist and loyal communist.

    The young Mr. Navalny often spent summers with grandparents in Ukraine but was told not to come in the spring of 1986, at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which caused his entire paternal family to be evacuated and resettled, according to writer Julia Ioffe in the New Yorker. She quoted his mother as saying, “Alexey doesn’t talk about it very much, but Chernobyl had a very big influence on him.”

    The Soviet authorities covered up the extent of the world’s worst nuclear accident from their own people and from the world.

    Mr. Navalny graduated in 1998 with a law degree from Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow and, a few years later, received a master’s degree in finance from the Financial University Under the Government of the Russian Federation. His experience working in a real estate company in Moscow, he recalled, “taught me how things are done on the inside, how intermediary companies are built, how money is shuttled around.”

    His early interest in politics began with the liberal democratic party Yabloko. He also joined Maria Gaidar - daughter of Yegor Gaidar, the foremost free-market economist of the Yeltsin era - in creating a reform movement, “Da!,” that captured the attention of many young people eager for open and free debate about the issues of the day.

    In 2007, he began campaigning against corruption, frequently questioning shady transactions by the largest Russian companies and blogging about them. He bought a few company shares, then probed deals in which the companies were being looted, often in transactions involving strange intermediaries and disappearing cash. To draw greater attention to his campaign, he created an online forum where people could openly question government contracts.

    As his reputation grew, he became the leading potential challenger to Putin. His views were populist, and liberal on economics. But his support increased most of all because of his vigorous challenge to the “crooks and thieves,” as he dubbed Putin’s party, United Russia.

    In 2013 he ran for mayor of Moscow and came in second, with 27 percent of the vote. By 2018, he had created a network of offices across Russia and organized popular protests in dozens of cities over changes to government pension plans.

    Mr. Navalny was again at the forefront of protests in Moscow the next year, when the authorities arbitrarily disqualified some 30 independent candidates for the city council. He championed a system of targeted voting for council candidates that depleted Putin’s support.

    Survivors include his wife, the former Yulia Abrosinova, who was often seen standing alongside Mr. Navalny in his political campaigns against the system; two children, Daria and Zahar; and his parents, Anatoly and Lyudmila.

    Over the years, Mr. Navalny drew admiration from many people who worried what might befall him.

    “I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing, but I think they’ll arrest him,” a high-ranking employee at a state corporation that Mr. Navalny was investigating told Ioffe. “He’s taunting really big people and he’s doing it in an open way and showing them that he’s not afraid. In this country, people like that get crushed.”

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