Sunday, April 14, 2024

With Prison Certain and Death Likely, Why Did Navalny Return?

There was one question that Russians repeatedly asked the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who died in a remote Arctic penal colony on Friday, and he confessed that he found it a little annoying.

Why, after surviving a fatal poisoning attempt widely blamed on the Kremlin, had he returned to Russia from his extended convalescence abroad to face certain imprisonment and possible death? Even his prison guards, turning off their recording devices, asked him why he had come back, he said.

“I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs,” Mr. Navalny wrote in a Jan. 17 Facebook post to mark the third anniversary of his return and arrest in 2021. “I cannot betray either the first or the second. If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.”

That was the direct answer, but for many Russians, both those who knew him and those who did not, the issue was more complex. Some of them considered it almost a classical Greek tragedy: The hero, knowing that he is doomed, returns home anyway because, well, if he didn’t, he would not be the hero.

Mr. Navalny’s motto was that there was no reason to fear the authoritarian government of President Vladimir V. Putin. He wanted to put that into practice, Russian commentators said, and as an activist who thrived on agitation, he feared sinking into irrelevancy in exile. The decision won him new respect and followers as he continued to lambast the Kremlin from his prison cell, but it also cost him his life.

“Navalny was about action,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who sometimes had differences with Mr. Navalny over that job. “For him politics was action, not just democracy and theory like it is for many in the Russian opposition. They are quite content to sit abroad, speaking and speaking and speaking without doing anything with their hands. For him that was unbearable.”

The return marked both his unbridled emotional attachment to the cause and his deep sincerity, Mr. Gallyamov added.

Still, it prompted extensive bafflement and curiosity, not least because he had a wife and two adolescent children who stayed in exile.

“Many have written throughout these three years: ‘Why did he come back, what kind of idiocy, what kind of senseless self-sacrifice?’” Andrey Loshak, a Russian journalist, wrote in a tribute published by Meduza, an independent news agency. “For those who knew him, it was natural: You see him in life and understand that a person cannot do otherwise.”

Mr. Loshak said that after Mr. Navalny’s return, he had posted the opposition leader’s picture with just one word for the caption: “Hero.” Before, he had considered that kind of self-sacrifice as the stuff of movies. “He was a beacon in this darkness — here he sits somewhere in these terrible punishment cells and laughs at them,” he wrote. “It shows that this is possible.”

Some people were wary of Mr. Navalny. He began his political career in the nationalist camp and made some offensive comments about immigrants. Later, he characterized it as a temporary step needed to start building the opposition from someplace, because the nationalists were the only group then willing to take to the streets.

A 28-year-old man living in Belgorod, near Ukraine, said that he had long been unsure of Mr. Navalny, and never considered him presidential material, but his return to Russia inspired new respect.

“Very dignified behavior and dignified acceptance of the inevitable,” the man wrote online in response to questions, declining to use his name while the Russian authorities were arresting some of those who mourned openly. “Aleksei was a brave man, worthy of respect, an example for many.”

Mr. Navalny himself expressed frustration that many Russians refused to take his decision to return at face value, sometimes implying that he had made some kind of background deal with the Kremlin. Perhaps he failed to express himself clearly enough, he wrote in the January Facebook post.

There were some echoes of history in the return. In 1917, after years of exile in Europe, Lenin memorably steamed into Finland Station in St. Petersburg by train, igniting tumultuous demonstrations that eventually brought the Bolsheviks to power and gave birth to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gallyamov said he sometimes regretted that Mr. Navalny had returned in the middle of January, deep in the Russian winter and distant from any elections, so the protests ignited by his immediate arrest at a Moscow airport did not translate into any sustained political reaction.

Mr. Putin thought at various times that he had solved his Navalny problem, not least by letting him leave to recuperate in Germany after he had been poisoned. The perception was that anyone in their right mind would not come back, but Mr. Navalny did.

Even in prison, Mr. Navalny became an issue for the Kremlin with his ability to make his views heard, like endorsing the call for all voters in the coming March 15-17 presidential election to show up at the polls at noon on March 17 as a silent protest against the Ukraine war.

“When Navalny came back, it was a nightmare for Putin. People were saying that he was a survivor,” said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent Russian journalist now at Harvard University. Some went even further, she said, suggesting that he had been resurrected from the dead.

In authoritarian regimes, such political challenges often boil down to a duel between two men to see who can outlast the other, and that is what happened in this case, Mr. Gallyamov said.

“Deep down, it is a psychological fight between two characters over who is the more powerful person,” he said. “Since Navalny was a real challenger, a real fighter, that is why he stayed on the agenda.”

The most common reaction to his death among those who saw Mr. Navalny as the most viable opposition leader was that he had been murdered in prison, either directly or through three years of increasingly harsh conditions. The Kremlin, ever less tolerant of any criticism amid its stumbling war effort in Ukraine, silenced the moderates and gave free rein to the hawks, dooming Mr. Navalny, they said.

Asked about Mr. Navalny’s death, Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for Mr. Putin, told reporters that he had no information on the cause of death, but that it would be determined by doctors.

Ultimately, what drove Mr. Navalny to return to Russia was the fearlessness that he thought could bring him enormous political power, said Kirill Rogov, a former Russian government adviser who now leads Re: Russia, a Vienna-based think tank. “Navalny challenged them with his fearlessness,” he said. “They do not tolerate fearlessness.”

The example in South Africa of Nelson Mandela, who emerged from decades in prison a hero, troubled Mr. Putin, Mr. Rogov added.

In 2021, on the airplane back to Russia from Germany, Mr. Navalny sat next to his wife, Yulia, and together they watched “Rick and Morty,” an animated series involving a mad scientist.

At his first trial a month later, he quoted from the show in court: “To live is to risk it all,” he said. “Otherwise, you are just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.”

Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

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