February 20, 2024


Is Alexei Navalny’s death a blow to Russia’s democratic movement?

(Image credit: IlyaIsaev, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Oscar-winning documentary Navalny, the director asks Alexei Navalny what message he wants to leave behind if the unthinkable happens. In his native tongue, he responds in part, “We don’t realise how strong we actually are. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

Those words are now striking and take on greater meaning as Navlany died in a Russian prison. While the circumstances and cause surrounding his death will hopefully be known, the question now is, what becomes of the push for democratic reform in Russia? World leaders put the blame squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime. Does this signal the beginning of the end of Navalny’s or any pro-democracy movement?


The 47-year-old Navalny’s tryst with politics began as a grassroots anti-corruption campaigner. At the time, his blog took aim at the alleged corruption and malpractice of some of Russia’s biggest state-controlled corporations. He took a unique approach by becoming a minority stakeholder in several companies to question them about state finances.

His main target, however, was Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly accused Putin’s party of being full of “crooks and thieves”. He accused Putin of running a feudal state by concentrating power in the Kremlin. Navalny was a hit on social media among younger Russians. People caught on to his message and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

In 2011, he began leading large street protests against Putin and the Russian regime. He would spend most of his time in and out of prison as his organisation was banned for being extremist. When he challenged Putin in the 2017 election as the only capable opposition candidate, the government barred him from doing so.

Navalny escaped death not once but twice. The first time was when he was in custody. He was taken to hospital with a swollen face, eye problems and rashes all over his body. The official diagnosis was contact dermatitis. Navalny suspected something else.

In August 2020, he collapsed on a flight over Siberia and was rushed to the hospital upon emergency landing. A German-based charity convinced Russian authorities to airlift him to Berlin for treatment. The German government released the tests showing he was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent called Novichok. It was the same poison that killed former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018.

After his recovery, Navalny returned to Russia and was detained as soon as he landed. He would never return to civilian life after this. In the court cases that followed, he made public allegations against Putin for the poisoning. Meanwhile, members of his anti-corruption team, now barred from standing for parliamentary elections, continued his work. They developed a smart voting app to encourage people to vote for candidates who could defeat Putin’s United Russia Party.

Despite their best efforts, Putin continues to remain in power and, by all accounts, feels emboldened. With Navalny gone, what does the future of pro-democracy movements look like in Russia?

VIEW: His death won’t be in vain

Navalny’s life and purpose were devoted to his country. He wanted to bring about a positive change. He never wanted to leave Russia since he couldn’t work from foreign shores. Navalny was willing to go toe-to-toe with Putin and his regime. A regime that threatens, intimidates, arrests, convicts, and even kills anyone who dares question the Kremlin. In some ways, the majority of Russian society will survive this latest news. But Navalny leaves behind an important legacy and path forward.

While Putin might not have an electoral rival, he has an existential one. It’s similar to the feelings and reactions from across the world in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Navalny’s popularity in 2020 was at 20%. That’s quite remarkable in a country where the entire state media apparatus made him the villain. That number fell as people saw what would become of him and perhaps didn’t want to publicly show support.

Did the Kremlin and Putin fear Navalny? To his supporters, they sure did. They wouldn’t have gone to such lengths otherwise. In fact, when he attempted to run as a presidential candidate in 2018, Navalny energised and united activists and supporters across Russia. It was through a well-planned network, and it showed that the movement was bigger than him. Even behind bars, Navalny never relented using social media to continue his work and spread his message. That message is to the next generation to continue his fight.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s a grim future

Navalny spoke and always believed in the ‘beautiful Russia of the future’. That future, without him, looks increasingly like Putin’s to choose and orchestrate. Navalny’s team, based in Vilnius, have said they’ll continue his work. How successful they’ll be without their leader remains to be seen. The opposition, whatever’s left of it, is factionalised. They did come together with statements of condemnation, anger, and sorrow following Navalny’s death.

However, it’s doubtful whether that’ll be a catalyst. The past doesn’t bode well for what Navalny’s death could mean for Russia’s future democratic hopes. When former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed, it didn’t result in any groundswell or grassroots agitations. Any long-lasting change seems distant. The Russia in which Navalny made a name for himself is gone. Now, there’s even less space for independent figures to emerge and take on the Kremlin.

As people gathered to mourn and pay tribute to Navalny, Russian police detained hundreds. That’s the Russia of today. The same happened when people protested the invasion of Ukraine. Even someone seen as an ally in Yevgeny Prigozhin, who dared to question the government’s tactics, met his fate. There’s no one with the stature of Navalny to lead any agitation. He crafted a role for himself as Putin’s main opponent. In the short term, at least, there won’t be a Navalny 2.0.

Reference Links:

  • The Evolution of Alexey Navalny’s Nationalism – The New Yorker
  • The Death of Alexei Navalny—and His Alternative Russia – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • ‘Alexei would want to tell Russia not to give up fighting’ – The Guardian
  • After Navalny’s death, the West must get tougher on Putin – Politico
  • Alexei Navalny’s most powerful legacy is urging Russians to imagine their country without Putin – Chatham House
  • Alexei Navalny’s Death Spells the End of Politics in Russia – The Wire
  • Navalny’s death deprives Russia’s opposition of a leader and hope – Reuters

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Alexei Navalny’s death isn’t a blow to Russia’s democratic movement.

b) Alexei Navalny’s death is a blow to Russia’s democratic movement.


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