Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fights for his survival

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at a camera from a prison cell.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks from prison via a video link during a court session in Petushki, Russia, on Jan. 17, 2022. (Denis Kaminev/AP)

Exactly two years after he was arrested upon returning to Russia, convicted on fictitious charges in a trial whose outcome was never in doubt and shipped off to serve an 11-year sentence in a brutal penal colony, dissident politician Alexei Navalny has managed a feat that is rare for Kremlin opponents: He is surviving.

Navalny acknowledged the anniversary in a Twitter thread. “I’m not going to surrender my country to them, and I believe that the darkness will eventually fade away,” he wrote (the messages are sent by his associates outside Russia). “But as long as it persists, I will do all I can, try to do what is right, and urge everyone not to abandon hope.”

Survival has been especially difficult of late at the remote IK-6 prison in Melekhovo, to which Navalny was shipped off in June of last year.

That was, roughly, how Russian authorities in 2009 disposed of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax accountant who had uncovered massive fraud by top Kremlin officials. And given that Navalny is the most formidable political opponent of President Vladimir Putin, he seemed destined for a similar end.

A view of the IK-6 penal colony.
The IK-6 penal colony, where Navalny is serving his prison term. (Yulia Morozova/Reuters)

Yet so far, the 46-year-old pro-democracy activist has managed to avoid the plight of Magnitsky and so many other activists, journalists and politicians who have stood up to Putin. One key advantage for Navalny is his prominence on social media. After each prison visit, his attorney Vadim Kobzev connects with aides in the West who then turn Navalny's prison dispatches into long Twitter threads for the public — both in Russia and abroad — to consume.

Earlier this month, Navalny’s health seemed to deteriorate, and the outrage reached an extraordinary pitch. It is impossible to know how much, if any, impact the outcry had on the Kremlin, which claims not to care about international opinion but follows Western media closely.

Navalny’s allies believe that if the Kremlin had had its way, he would have been dead three years ago.

In 2018, Navalny unsuccessfully challenged Putin for the presidency but, in the course of doing so, became a Western icon, a lone voice for freedom in a country that was increasingly unfree. His cultural prominence may well have proved more threatening than his political movement to Putin, a keen student of Soviet propaganda.

Alexei Navalny with his arms raised among a crowd of people at a rally in Moscow.
Navalny at a rally in Moscow in 2018. (Evgeny Feldman/AP)

Two years later, Navalny survived a poisoning attempt while on a flight across Russia. The effort was almost certainly undertaken by the Kremlin, Western intelligence services have concluded. The Kremlin has a long history of suspected poisoning attacks against its critics and defectors.

After recuperating in Germany for several months, Navalny decided to return to Russia. He arrived in Moscow and was promptly arrested, as he, his family and his supporters knew he would be. Authorities said they were charging him with having failed to appear at a parole hearing, but the charges themselves were beside the point, as they often are in Russia.

Aware that he was handing himself over to the same tormentors who had tried to place a deadly poison in his undergarments several months before, Navalny seemed unfazed.

“This is the best day in the last five months,” he said in his final moments of freedom, as journalists and well-wishers — and his wife, Yulia — pressed around him. “I’m home.”

The ensuing court case drew only more attention to his plight, and to the deepening authoritarianism of the Putin regime.

For his part, Navalny remained as uncowed as ever. He used his closing statement to offer a sweeping denunciation of what Russia had become after 20 years of living under Putin’s rule. “We should fight not only against the lack of freedom in Russia but against our total lack of happiness,” he said. “We have everything, but we are an unhappy country.”

A still image taken from video footage shows law enforcement officers speaking with Navalny at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
An image taken from video footage shows law enforcement officers speaking with Navalny at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 17, 2021. (Reuters TV/Reuters)

Navalny ultimately received an 11-year sentence stemming from phony embezzlement and fraud charges. He began serving his sentence at the penal colony IK-2.

At least 1 million Russians perished in Soviet-era gulags, where hardened criminals, political dissidents, freethinking intellectuals and ordinary people suffered after running afoul of the Communist Party’s iron grip on public and private life — by making an innocuous complaint about food rations, for example. Though it was dismantled long ago, evidence of the gulag system remains in Russia’s penal colonies.

IK-2 is relatively close to Moscow; the transfer to IK-6, deeper into the Russian interior, seemed to presage a more difficult new chapter in Navalny’s incarceration. He was regularly put into an isolation cell and deprived of winter clothes, an especially cruel turn in a region where freezing temperatures can remain for months.

“They kill him slowly,” Anna Veduta, a U.S.-based vice president of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, told Yahoo News in November of last year.

Then, in the final days of 2022, authorities at IK-6 placed Navalny in isolation because he had washed his face at 5:24 a.m., 36 minutes ahead of schedule. He was made to share the cell with an inmate who had been infected with influenza, which was sweeping through the prison.

“It seems like they use him as a bioweapon,” Navalny wrote with his customary gallows humor. “No wonder he’s sad. Stay healthy in the new year!”

An aerial view of penal colony IK-6.
An aerial view of the IK-6 penal colony, about 150 miles outside of Moscow. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)

The message was punctuated with a winking emoji.

Veduta said Navalny’s condition had become “catastrophic” by the second week of January. She described him as “severely ill — fever, coughing and all the terrible flu symptoms. An attorney brought medication for him, but prison administration refused to let him give those to Alexei.”

In an interview on CNN, Navalny’s daughter, Dasha, described her father’s condition as “getting worse by the day.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary plea came from 200 Russian doctors who put their names on a letter stating they could no longer be “indifferent” to the “deliberate harm being inflicted” to Navalny. In a country where it’s outlawed to describe the invasion of Ukraine as a war instead of with the official euphemism of “special operation,” the letter was a rare show of courage — and an unambiguous affront to Putin, the man singularly responsible for Navalny’s privations.

“We demand an end to tormenting Alexey Navalny,” the doctors wrote.

Other governments also took up the call.

Germany demanded that Russia provide Navalny with immediate medical care while also denouncing the “inhumane prison conditions” that are the staple of Russian prisons for high-profile and ordinary inmates alike.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby acknowledged to Yahoo News that U.S. officials were monitoring Navalny’s health. “We’ve seen those concerns — and share those concerns,” he said at a White House news briefing. “And we’ll continue to make plain those concerns to Russian authorities.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby at a news briefing at the White House.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby at a news briefing at the White House on Jan. 12. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Kremlin has said nothing about Navalny’s fate, in keeping with its broader philosophy of pretending that opponents of Putin’s authoritarian regime do not exist. Doing so makes it easier to claim ignorance when those opponents are poisoned, defenestrated or otherwise killed in suspicious circumstances.

For Navalny’s backers, the best possible scenario — at least for now — is that he is too high-profile a figure for the Kremlin to kill.

On Thursday, they finally received some encouraging news. Navalny’s attorney Kobzev said his client’s condition had “stopped deteriorating.”

“Navalny sends his regards to everyone, thanks for the concern and special thanks to the doctors who supported him!” a Twitter message from Kobzev read late last week, after the ailing reformer appeared to have gotten some small measure of medical care.

He said that Navalny had been administered antibiotics and that his rations of hot water had been increased: “Two cups a day.”