Putin’s boldest opponent is gone—but in Russia’s far reaches, others can still rise

The death of Navalny is a tragedy and a blow to the Russian resistance

February 22, 2024
Flowers and messages adorn a memorial to Alexei Navalny in Vilnius, Lithuania. Image: Michele Ursi / Alamy Stock Photo
Flowers and messages adorn a memorial to Alexei Navalny in Vilnius, Lithuania. Image: Michele Ursi / Alamy Stock Photo

Alexei Navalny, the most capable leader of the anti-Putin opposition, was killed last week at a turning point in the Russo-Ukrainian war and as political turmoil takes hold in the US. This is not a coincidence—how could it be, in the Russian world of conspiratorial thinking? It is unlikely that Putin had a long-standing plan to turn the hero into the martyr at this particular moment, and the decision to torture him to death may have been somewhat ad hoc—but it fitted a pattern. A few weeks before he died, he was moved to the Arctic “penal colony”—in fact, a high-security, high-secrecy prison in one of the most remote places on the planet. Just a few days before he died, Russian security officers allegedly visited this establishment and disabled security cameras. 

Hard as it is to admit, Navalny’s death signals failure on many fronts. 

First and most importantly, Navalny’s death marks a tragic failure of his plan to change Russia through his voluntary return, reliance on the rule of law, and self-sacrifice. The sacrifice has been made, but I doubt it will achieve its political or mystical objectives, which consisted in a radical transformation of Russia. The international community will respond by punishing the Russian government with a new package of sanctions, reinvigorating supplies to Ukraine and attempting the symbolic renaming, after Navalny, of the streets adjacent to Russian embassies. As I wrote for Prospect, the law of nemesis reigns in Putin’s Russia—evil invariably turns against the evildoer in exaggerated forms. This will be as true for the Navalny murder as it has been true for the war in Ukraine. 

However, the tragedy is that the living Navalny could have advanced the cause of good far better than the dead one. A uniquely talented leader, organiser and communicator, he could have brought the Russian opposition further forward if, in January 2021, he did not make his fateful decision to return to Russia. Whether he knew that he would be arrested but wrongly counted on his survival, or did not know and wrongly counted on Putin’s weakness and cowardice, it was a great mistake.

Second, Navalny’s death is a strategic failure of the attempts by many global leaders and a moderate part of the Russian elite to de-escalate the conflict between the Kremlin and the west, and de-radicalise Putin’s Russia in the hope of reaching peace in Ukraine. Navalny’s death has radicalised ambitions, grievances and appetites for vengeance on both sides. Days after his death, Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, declared that she would continue the cause of her husband. She was as firm and eloquent as he was, but she emphasised one principle that he rarely mentioned: revenge. She also said that she knows exactly why Navalny was killed, and she would reveal it soon. Despite many previous attempts to kill Navalny, there had been a feeling that the authorities were keeping him alive as a hostage. The fact that they killed him is a very bad sign that demonstrates the Kremlin’s determination to fight its war on Ukraine and the west to the end, whatever it means for them—or the world.

Third, Navalny’s death is a technical failure of the negotiations over prisoner exchange. For months, there had been talk that such negotiations were ongoing, and that Navalny was often mentioned in them. If those negotiations happened, he was clearly transferred to the Arctic camp and killed there, or left there to die, because they failed. 

Fourth, Navalny’s death marks the political failure of Moscow’s peaceful protests in 2011 and 2012. Led by Navalny, the protests took Moscow by surprise and led to a visible panic in the Kremlin. Younger Muscovites remember these protests as the highest manifestation of Russian democratic hope and dignity. It is tragic that most of them now must think about those days from the relative safety of faraway shores. No trace of this civil protest has remained in Moscow. 

None of this means, however, that the peripheral regions of the Russian Federation are equally disappointed and de-politicised. From Dagestan to Khabarovsk and from Arkhangelsk to Bashkortostan, a new wave of Russian turmoil is coming from the provinces. Once the trigger for and vanguard of anti-Putin resistance, Moscow has turned into its scared, untrusting recipient. Every scholar of contemporary Russia understands that Moscow is the root of the new imperialism, and its singular beneficiary. I hope that Navalny also realised it—he had lots of time for such thoughts.