THE BELL WEEKLY: Opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies in prison

The Bell

Hello! Instead of the usual economic analysis, our newsletter this week is devoted to the announcement Friday of the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. We look at what we know so far about his death, how events unfolded after the announcement, and what the reaction has been among world leaders, as well as inside Russia.

What happened

A statement about the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, 47, appeared on Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) website on Friday at 2:19 p.m. Moscow Time (4:19 p.m. local time). “Prisoner Navalny A.A. felt unwell after a walk and almost immediately lost consciousness. Medical workers from the institution came to the scene immediately and an emergency medical team was called. All necessary resuscitation measures were attempted, but without success. Emergency doctors confirmed the prisoner’s death. The cause of death is being established,” said the press release.

For the rest of the day there was almost no more information about Navalny's death, unless we count an interview conducted by news agency Interfax with a representative of a hospital in Labytnangi, the closest city to Navalny’s Arctic penal colony. The representative said that an ambulance reached the prison in seven minutes, got to Navalny two minutes later, and that medics spent more than half an hour trying to revive him.

There were also two pieces of reporting, citing unidentified sources, about what happened to Navalny. Both of which appear to be dubious:

  • Within two minutes of the FSIN statement, a source told state-owned RT that the cause of death was a blood clot. A couple of minutes later, this claim was repeated by Telegram channel Channel 112, which usually publishes leaks from the security forces. However, if we accept that Navalny died on Friday morning, this account cannot be true: such a diagnosis can only be made after an autopsy, according to Alexander Polupan, the doctor who treated Navalny after he was poisoned with nerve agent Novichok in 2020. Human rights activist Anna Karetnikova, who has spent many years monitoring conditions in Russian penal colonies, pointed out that in FSIN jargon a “blood clot” is a generic term used to disguise the cause of death.  
  • News outlet Baza, which has close ties to the security services, reported that Navalny was taken ill at about 1:00 p.m. local time, and died at 2:17 p.m. However, as Radio Liberty's Sergei Nemalevich pointed out, after being transferred to his current prison, Navalny had said his morning walks began at 6:30 a.m. – meaning that Navalny could not have been taken ill immediately after his walk.

The day before his death was announced, Navalny took part in three court hearings as part of a lawsuit he had brought against the managers of his previous prison outside of Moscow. Media outlet SOTA published footage from one of those sessions, and there were no visible signs of any health problem. Navalny was also visited by one of his lawyers Wednesday, who later said “everything was fine then.”

How Navalny was tortured in custody

Navalny found himself behind bars on Jan. 17, 2021, after being arrested immediately on arrival in Moscow from Germany, where he had been treated after a suspected Novichok poisoning. Navalny alleged that Federal Security Service (FSB) officers were responsible for the poisoning. Two weeks later, a court sentenced Navalny to 3.5 years in jail for breaching the terms of the suspended sentence he received in the so-called Yves Rocher case.

Since he was serving that term, Navalny has received two further sentences: in March, 2022, he was sentenced to 9 years for fraud (Navalny allegedly embezzled funds donated to his Anti-Corruption Foundation), then in August, 2023, he received a further 19 years for creating an extremist group. In total, Navalny was set to remain in jail until 2048.

At first, Navalny was sent to penal colony IK-2 in Vladimir Region not far from Moscow. There, after suffering severe pains in his back and right leg, he went on hunger strike, demanding to be allowed to see a doctor and provided with medication.

In the summer of 2023, the BBC counted 70 lawsuits that had been filed by Navalny and his legal team in protest at the unlawful conditions of his detention at IK-2 and, after July 2022, at the nearby IK-6. Navalny particularly complained that, after prison staff identified him as a flight risk, they woke him eight times a night to check on him.

Most of the claims were about unlawful stints in punishment cells. In his three years in jail, Navalny was placed in solitary confinement 27 times. In total he spent 308 days there – almost a third of his entire jail time. “A concrete kennel, 2.5mx3m. Most often it is unbearable because of the cold and the damp. There is water on the floor. The window is tiny. The walls are so thick that air does not flow, not even the cobwebs move. There is no ventilation. At night you lie, and feel like a fish out of water. An iron bunk is fastened to the wall, a bit like on a sleeper train,” was how Navalny himself described the punishment cell.

In December, several months after receiving his latest sentence, Navalny disappeared from IK-6, where he had spent more than a year. Two weeks later he turned up in the far north, at IK-3, a high-security penal colony in the village of Kharp. It was notorious for its harsh treatment of inmates, and its poor medical facilities.


Navalny's death made front pages all over the world. And it attracted comments from many world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, who issued a statement. The U.S. president echoed the general thesis that Putin bears personal responsibility for Navalny’s death, if not direct responsibility for his murder. When asked if Navalny's death was murder, Biden replied: “We don't know exactly what happened. But there is no doubt that Navalny's death was a consequence of what Putin and his people did.”

In Russia, Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov was one of the first to comment on the news. “There is no statement from the doctors, no information from forensic experts, no conclusive information from the Federal Penitentiary Service, no information at all about the cause of death,” said Dmitry Peskov. “And yet these [Western] statements are already doing the rounds. It's obvious that [Western leaders] are absolutely rabid. We regard these statements as utterly inadmissible. They are unacceptable.”

RT head Margarita Simonyan was one of the first to promote the official narrative: “This is no help to the Kremlin… killing him was pointless, especially right before the [presidential] elections,” she wrote. Then, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova joined the chorus: “The immediate reaction of leaders of NATO countries to Navalny’s death, making direct accusations against Russia, betrays their motives. There is no forensic examination, but the West has already jumped to conclusion.” State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin bluntly stated that: “Washington and Brussels are responsible for Navalny’s death.”

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was due to address the Munich Security Conference on Friday. A few hours after the FSIN statement, she took to the stage and said:

“I don't know whether or not to believe the awful news that we have heard only from Russian state sources. For many years we have been unable to trust Putin and his regime. They always lie. But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around him to know that they will be held accountable for everything they have done to our country, and to my family.”

Navalny's relatives and his legal team will only reach his prison colony on Saturday. Anti-Corruption Foundation representatives initially refused to comment on the news. However, in the evening the foundation's director, Ivan Zhdanov, said that “there was a high degree of probability” that Navalny had been killed. According to him, the hospitals, morgues and prison had gone to ground, and were not replying to phone calls. And he pointed to the significance of Peskov’s comments, suggesting this implied the news was true.

Why it's good for the Kremlin

The reaction from Russian propaganda and Russian officials boils down to two narratives: the West is responsible for Navalny’s death, and the Kremlin gains nothing from it. The first idea, which suggests that “the West” could somehow reach one of the most closely-guarded Russian prisoners in one of the vast country’s most remote jails, is patently ridiculous. The second is a remix of an old tradition: in 2015, this was exactly how the Kremlin distanced itself from the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. However, it is much harder to make this case remotely plausible about Navalny’s death.

First of all, Russia's secret services have already attempted to kill Navalny. An investigation conducted by Navalny himself leaves little doubt that FSB officers tried to poison him, and that they acted with Putin’s personal approval. Apart from anything else, this greatly reduces the potential for reputational damage over a second assassination attempt.

The domestic political risks associated with Navalny's murder are also negligible. Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center told The Bell on Friday that there would not be any serious protests in Russia: protests in general feel like a pointless risk, while Navalny’s popularity has declined since he was jailed in 2021. “By the start of 2023 he was already out of the top 10 most trusted politicians. After this, in an open poll, Navalny's rating hovered around 1%. The lowest rating was in Jan. 2024, ” Volkov said.

However, the inevitable decline in Navalny's popularity after he went to prison did not mean he had ceased to be a threat to the Kremlin. “People have lost faith in any kind of change,” said political analyst Kirill Rogov. “But it could just as easily swing in the opposite direction. Over the longer term, Navalny remained a strong, popular politician with substantial accumulated political capital. In this way, he certainly posed a threat to Putin.”

Why the world should care

Navalny’s death will have a serious effect on Russians who do not support Putin, and who are opposed to the war in Ukraine. The story of Navalny’s extraordinary survival after he was poisoned by Novichok, and how he exposed his poisoners, made many believe he could get himself out of any tight spot. He had become a symbol of hope, and his death will destroy any illusions people still harbor that a miracle is possible in Russian politics.


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