Putin still has an Alexei Navalny problem

Putin still has an Alexei Navalny problem

The death of Russia’s most famous dissident is causing huge headaches for the Kremlin.

Mary Dejevsky

Topics Politics World

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Predictably, there has been a huge fissure between the official coverage of Alexei Navalny’s death and funeral in Russia and the coverage in the Western world.

The Russian media have insisted he died of natural causes at the Polar Wolf Arctic prison camp on 16 February, where he had been held since December. The official Western response has been to say he was assassinated or murdered. According to this narrative, his death had been ordered by Vladimir Putin. No ifs and buts, no qualification.

The Putin-murder theory has become the dominant narrative in the West. Navalny had crossed the Kremlin so many times that Putin was therefore set on destroying his most powerful enemy, so this version goes. Indeed, Putin had already extended Navalny’s prison sentences. And he had already tried and failed to poison him. By choosing to return to Russia after his convalescence in Germany, Navalny had made himself fair game. Second time lucky.

The initial Russian version of events from the prison authorities was that Navalny died from a ‘sudden death syndrome’ after a walk. Predictably, this was ‘confirmed’ by the postmortem.

However, there have been unofficial reports that his body showed evidence of beating, while his family and spokespeople suggested yet another poisoning. The Kremlin did itself no favours with the mysterious transfer of his body to a morgue far from the camp. The authorities were also reluctant to release his body to his family, without an undertaking that the funeral would be held in secret. All this helped to reinforce the idea that Navalny was killed as part of a Kremlin plot.

At one point, there was a suggestion that the bruising on his body had come from a punch to the heart. This is not an implausible explanation, but there are alternative possibilities. Desperate attempts to revive someone who has suffered a cardiac arrest or similar involve a lot of adrenaline and repeated pummelling on the chest for CPR. The bruising in these circumstances can sometimes signify an attempt to save life, not destroy it. It does not necessarily mean that someone has been beaten to death – though in a Russian prison camp, of course, it cannot be ruled out.

There have been other possible explanations, too. Not all deaths (even of avowed Putin opponents) are necessarily ordered and carried out directly by agents for the Kremlin. Some may be explained by a desire on the part of an individual or group to ingratiate themselves with the centre of power. This may be why journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Putin’s birthday in 2006. Others may be the result of personal or group vendettas, especially those with a Chechen connection. And there could be local disputes, too. Besides, it would not have been implausible for Navalny to have been killed by prison guards or fellow prisoners. Russian penal colonies are, after all, violent places.

Of course, it is clearly the case that whatever the exact cause of Navalny’s death, the state and Putin are responsible for it. Indeed, Navalny had been transferred to an Arctic camp in the depths of winter. And he was reported to have had health problems even before this. The camp transfer amounted to a death sentence in itself. Whether he was murdered by someone or not, the state was clearly culpable.

Revelations over the past fortnight have cast doubts on what the motive might have been, however. Reports have emerged claiming that Navalny was on the verge of being released in a prisoner-swap deal with the US and Germany. This could have included Russian agent Vadim Krasikov (imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a former Chechen militant), US journalist Evan Gershkovich (held on trumped-up charges of spying) and maybe Paul Whelan (a US citizen with at least two other passports). This would make some sense. Both at his end-of-year news conference in December and in his interview with US journalist Tucker Carlson, Putin spoke about negotiations being in train for a prisoner exchange that could involve Gershkovich and maybe others.

Russian mourners pay their respects at Alexei Navalny's grave in Borisov cemetery, Moscow on 3 March 2024.
Russian mourners pay their respects at Alexei Navalny's grave in Borisov cemetery, Moscow on 3 March 2024.

Navalny’s name had not been mentioned, but it was confirmed separately that his release to a Western country was under discussion. It was known how desperately Russia wanted Krasikov back and Moscow appeared ready to pay a high price. Navalny had returned to Russia voluntarily after his recovery in Germany and vowed that his place was in Russia. But in ill health and facing over 20 years in a prison camp, maybe he would have been prepared for a deal. Or his family might have been on his behalf.

When these reports emerged, they dropped a big spanner into the works of the Putin-murder theory. Why would Putin have ordered the murder of someone who was about to be exchanged for an agent that the Russians were clearly so keen to get back? The only explanation offered was that Putin wanted to sabotage the deal. But no deal could even have been broached without Putin’s say-so. So why had talks about Navalny even started and why would Putin, or anyone else, risk the collapse of the deal by ordering the death of Navalny? From the Kremlin’s perspective, there can hardly have been a worse time for Navalny to die.

The probable cause of death then swung back to ‘natural causes’. To widespread astonishment, this hypothesis gained further traction when the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, chimed in to say that Navalny had not been killed, but had died of natural causes. Given that Ukraine and Russia are at war, there can be no reason whatsoever for any Ukrainian official to say that Navalny was not killed on Kremlin orders. Unless he really believed that to be true.

At this point, just over a week ago, the Western murder accusations were toned down, although never retracted. They remain the dominant version of events in the English-speaking world.

Speculation about the cause of Navalny’s death has since been superseded by disputes about the arrangements for Navalny’s funeral. Various claims have come and gone. Initially, we were told that Navalny’s body had disappeared. His mother supposedly had to institute a lawsuit to have it released and was then blackmailed to ensure his funeral would happen out of the public eye. When the body was released to his mother, there were reports of there being no venue available for either a funeral or burial, no hearse that anyone would hire, and no one who could be found to conduct the service or dig the grave. All of which may have been true at first, or true to an extent. (Indeed, this would be entirely consistent with how the Soviet Union would deal with events the regime wanted to stop.)

But despite these alleged setbacks, Alexei Navalny’s funeral was held on 1 March, two weeks after his death – not an inordinate delay for someone who had died suddenly at a remote prison camp – at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, in the Moscow suburb where the family had once lived. According to Navalny’s team, access to the church service was restricted to around 30 family and friends and mobile-phone signal was blocked to prevent a planned livestream (although it was not clear whether this was on privacy grounds or because of an edict from the authorities).

Big crowds flocked to the cemetery, where much of the ceremony was livestreamed. The church and cemetery were both heavily policed and high fences had been erected around the cemetery. But some of these were demolished by the mourners and the grave site was close to the cemetery entrance anyway, and so was visible to many. Thousands of courageous Russians braved the official warnings and police bag-checks to enter the cemetery for the interment. Many thousands more made their way to the grave later to lay flowers. Thousands upon thousands more laid flowers in their home towns and cities in the early evening, as had been suggested by Navalny’s team.

The queues of those wishing to pay their respects continued through Saturday and Sunday. Despite the heavy police presence, there was no interference anywhere or at any stage. According to one foreign television station, the serried ranks of law enforcement ‘stood respectfully by’.

Russian president Vladimir Putin answers questions from ordinary Russians in a televised end-of-year press conference on 14 December, 2023.
Russian president Vladimir Putin answers questions from ordinary Russians in a televised end-of-year press conference on 14 December, 2023.

It is worth considering the dilemma that Navalny’s death and the funeral rites posed to the Kremlin. I cannot be the only Russia-watcher who switched on the TV that day fully expecting to see graphic footage of Russian police laying into flower-carrying mourners with their sticks and water-cannons. I expected to hear fierce condemnation from every Western leader under the sun. But it quickly became clear that Navalny’s funeral had been relegated to low in the evening’s running order on the BBC and other international news channels. And that, well, basically, nothing happened.

Navalny’s funeral soon vanished entirely from the headlines. In fact, it featured nowhere at all on the front page of the BBC News website.

Since then, a new Western hare has started running. Supposedly, the funeral had been a mass two-fingered salute to Putin and specifically to Russia’s security services, the FSB. The FSB was under strict orders not to allow anything like the scenes in central Moscow in 1989, when Soviet-era nuclear scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov was laid to rest. The point of these Western reports seems to be to cast Navalny’s funeral as a public display of popular defiance, and a cataclysmic defeat for Putin and the Kremlin.

I’m not so sure. And I say this as someone who reported from Sakharov’s funeral and spent many hours with the mourners queuing quietly in sub-zero temperatures to pay their respects.

With Navalny, the Kremlin faced a dilemma. The powers-that-be knew the extent of his support, which was unusual for a regime opponent in that it spread beyond Moscow and St Petersburg to many provincial towns and cities. This was thanks largely to Navalny’s tech and social-media savvy and his primarily young following. In terms of the Russian population, however, his support was not huge. Navalny was never likely to mount an outright challenge to the Kremlin – both because of the barriers put up against his participation in the official political process, and because his support was never such as to foment a widespread popular revolt. At least during his lifetime, that is.

At the same time, the authorities – in common with those in sub-democratic systems everywhere – fear the power of their dead enemies, almost more than they fear them alive. The real risk is that an emotionally charged mass event – like the funeral of a dissident – has the potential to go very quickly awry. What is more, the timing was bad, given the funeral was little more than two weeks before Russia’s presidential election. So far 71-year-old Putin is sailing, without complication, into another six-year term.

It seems that, for a while, the Kremlin was genuinely in a quandary about what to do. Eventually, though, it took the risk that reluctant acquiescence might be the lesser of two evils. The calculation seems to have been that an outright ban on Navalny’s funeral could produce massive resistance, precipitating violent repression from the notorious riot police. Also, the desecration of a religious event is probably not something Putin would be willing to countenance. After all, Putin followed Boris Yeltsin in bringing the Orthodox Church back into public life.

The pictures of any repression would be beamed around the world, then back into Russia, in time for the presidential election starting on 15 March. Not that there is, or would have been, any doubt about the result. But elections, however closely controlled, can be as perilous as funerals in uncertain times. Authorities certainly don’t want the bother that could ensue – and that has the potential to escalate.

What the Russian authorities chose to do seems to me rather reminiscent of the Sakharov formula. They sought to maintain order and avoid surprises, rather than invite protest or revolt. What happened – or has happened so far – should be seen not as a defeat for the Kremlin, but as a vindication of its tactics. This was about as trouble-free as a memorial event for Navalny was ever going to be. The proof was in the speed with which Navalny and all his works simply dropped out of the international news. Without conflict, there has been no further story.

But this itself is a story. Navalny’s death moved thousands upon thousands of Russians to come out of their homes and make a public gesture of support. Or if not of support, then of sympathy for someone whose life’s work became opposition to corruption and then to the Kremlin itself.

Yes, what happened last Friday and over the weekend was a revolt. But it was a quiet revolt. And it could perhaps offer a template for the future, where cracking heads and carting masses of people off to police stations and then to the courts is not the authorities’ response of first resort to public dissent.

This does not mean there will be no adverse consequences for those who dared to lay flowers for Navalny. Technology allows individuals in crowds to be identified and tracked after the event. There may well be repercussions for those who had the courage to pay their respects in person. Still, it does look as if the authorities had qualms about preventing the public mourning of Navalny.

Navalny has become the standard bearer for a new sort of politics in Russia. And this is, in part, thanks to the way the Kremlin has responded to him. It is likely, of course, that when the Russian authorities ordered the ranks of riot police to stand respectfully aside, they were motivated less by tolerance and respect for an erstwhile enemy than by fear. Still, whatever the motive, the result was a dignified send-off for a brave man. It was a public occasion that nearly went out of control, but did not. And it offered a glimpse of what Russia, and its politics, could one day be in future.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

Pictures by: Getty and YouTube.

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Topics Politics World


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