Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death, explained

A photo of a row of yellow candles in glass jars; at the end, surrounded by roses, is a color photo of Navalny, a clean-shaven white man with sandy brown hair.
A vigil for Alexei Navalny in Krakow, Poland, on February 16, 2024. | Omar Marques/Anadolu/Getty Images

Navalny’s death is the end of an era for Russia — and cements Putin’s grip on power.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most famous opposition figure and President Vladimir Putin’s most effective rival, has been reported dead.

Russian state media — which is loath to even say Navalny’s name — reported the death on Friday. Prison authorities say Navalny fell unconscious and died after taking a walk in the prison complex where he has been held since December. Though it’s difficult to verify information coming from the Russian state apparatus, Navalny’s team indicated they believe the reports to be true due to unusual conditions around the prison camp close to the Arctic Circle where Navalny was being held, namely that they could not make contact with the prison. Navalny’s lawyers are headed to the prison to investigate his death, according to his spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh.

Navalny’s partner, Yulia Navalnaya, appeared at the Munich Security Conference Friday and warned that Putin’s regime is not to be trusted but, should the reports of Navalny’s death be true, “I would like Putin and all his staff, everybody around him, his government, his friends, I want them to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family and with my husband.”

Whether the Putin regime directly assassinated Navalny or his death was the result of grueling conditions — including being poisoned in 2020, being held in Russian penal colonies, and going on a hunger strike in 2021 — it will be understood by many as a signal about Russia’s future.

US President Joe Biden, for example, said the US did not know details of what happened but told reporters Friday: “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death.”

Navalny’s reported death comes right before the country’s March elections, in which he was attempting from jail to persuade fellow Russians to reject Putin, who is essentially guaranteed a fifth term.

“The war against liberalism that we have seen in Russia, taking place at the same time as the war against Ukraine, [the Kremlin] is doubling down on that,” Graeme Robertson, director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Vox in an interview. “Their sense of their ability to act with impunity is really just, it’s really off the charts.”

That impunity also signals to Russians in the country and the diaspora that there’s no Russia without Putin.

During the late 2000s, Navalny made his name as an anti-corruption blogger, Vox’s Alex Ward wrote in 2021. But it was during the wave of anti-government protests, or the so-called Snow Revolution, starting in 2011, that Navalny first came to national prominence. At the time, he was one of the many voices denouncing the Putin regime after Putin announced his return to the presidency and his United Russia party was caught rigging a legislative election.

Navalny ran on a highly nationalistic platform for mayor of Moscow in 2013, losing to Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin. And though his platform was alienating to many young urban people who might have otherwise been interested in an opposition candidate, his impressive showing paved the way for him to stay in the political spotlight — and seek more power.

Over time, Navalny realized that his nationalistic and Islamophobic message wasn’t going to appeal to a broad swath of Russians and instead focused on corruption, something he thought people could see made their everyday lives more difficult.

He built a network of opposition politicians throughout Russia and a massive social media following, in part through posting corruption exposés on YouTube. That built Navalny’s profile, but it could only do so much to challenge Putin’s popularity.

“Millions of people saw [Navalny’s] videos,” Robertson said. “Millions of people are very aware of how corrupt their system is. But on a certain level, it doesn’t attach itself to Putin, it doesn’t attach itself to the higher levels of the Russian state, in part because people see it as inevitable — they’re criminals, but they’re our criminals.”

Navalny announced in 2016 that he would run for president against Putin in the elections two years later. Though that campaign was likely largely symbolic — given both the doubts about how free or fair those elections were and Navalny’s low levels of support among Russians — his international support picked up over time, as he became one of the only vocal dissidents within Russia.

Since the widespread protests of 2011 to 2013, the Kremlin has cracked down on essentially all types of opposition to the Putin regime, and in many ways, it seems as though any hope for a free Russia has died with Navalny.

What does his death mean to the Kremlin, to Russians, and to the world?

Navalny has been imprisoned several times; in 2014 he was put under house arrest for embezzlement charges that critics say were meant to discredit him, and he was detained in 2019 for what authorities claimed was an unauthorized protest.

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok while on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow; he spent several months in Germany recovering from the near-fatal poisoning. When he returned to Russia in January 2021, he was almost immediately detained and imprisoned until at least 2031 for various charges, including extremism.

“We’re in this perpetual state of being shocked but not surprised” about Navalny’s death, Sam Greene, director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told Vox in an interview. “There’s no question about who’s culpable, but how that culpability is structured is a question to which we’ll probably never know the answer. The fundamental truth is that the Kremlin killed its most potent opponent.”

That is how Navalny’s death is being processed among Russian dissident expatriates.

“This is not death, this is a brutal murder,” Russian dissident and member of the artist collective Pussy Riot Nadya Tolokonnikova wrote on her Instagram Friday. “Navalny is the soul of free Russia and I, like you all, was sure that he is immortal as a soul.”

Navalny’s probable death strengthens a reality Putin has been building in Russia for a while — that there is no alternative to Putin, and that there is no hope and no room for dissent.

“Now, there’s not even the slightest public wiggle room when it comes to opposition,” Eliot Borenstein, interim vice chancellor and vice provost for Global Programs at New York University, told Vox in an interview.

Since Putin’s return to power, Russia has made public dissent almost impossible, essentially outlawing the free press or pushing it into exile, outlawing protests and speech that condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and most recently, cracking down on LGBTQ Russians by labeling the global LGBTQ movement an extremist movement. That’s not to mention the effects of those crackdowns and what happens to people who dissent — whether that’s arrest, prison, or worse.

“That’s been the goal for years — to make post-Putin Russia, Russia without Putin, unimaginable,” Borenstein said.

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