By Nic Robertson, CNN
Surviving President Vladimir Putin’s poisoners was just a warm-up, not a warning, for Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. But his defiance, according to his political team, has put him in a race against time with the Russian autocrat.
The question, according to Navalny’s chief investigator, Maria Pevchikh, is whether he can outlast Putin and his war in Ukraine — and on that the verdict is still out. “So far, touch wood, they haven’t gone ahead with trying to kill him again,” she told CNN.
On January 17, 2021, undaunted and freshly recovered from an attempt on his life five months earlier — a near lethal dose of the deadly nerve agent Novichok delivered by Putin’s henchmen — Navalny boldly boarded a flight taking him right back into the Kremlin’s hands.
By then, Navalny had become Putin’s nemesis. So strong is the Russian leader’s aversion to his challenger that even to this day he refuses to say his name.
As Navalny stepped off the flight from Berlin onto the frigid tarmac at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport that snowy evening, he knew exactly what he was getting into. Just weeks before leaving Germany, he told CNN: “I understand that Putin hates me, I understand that people in the Kremlin are ready to kill.”
Navalny’s path to understanding had come at a high cost. He knew in intimate and excruciating detail exactly how close he had come to death at the hands of Putin’s poisoners while on the political campaign trail in Siberia to support local candidates.
As he recovered in Berlin from the August 2020 assassination attempt, Navalny and his crack research team — acting on some creative sleuthing by investigative outfit Bellingcat and CNN — figured out who his would-be killers were and discovered they’d been tailing him on Putin’s orders for over three years.
So detailed was Navalny’s knowledge that, posing as an official with Russia’s National Security Council, he was able to call one of the would-be killers, who promptly confessed to lacing Navalny’s underwear with the banned nerve agent Novichok.
The security service agent, one of a large team from the feared FSB, the Soviet KGB’s modern replacement, even offered a critique of their failed murder bid. He told Navalny he’d survived only because the plane carrying him diverted for medical help when he became sick, and suggested that the assassination attempt might have succeeded on a longer flight.
When challenged face-to-face at the door of his Moscow apartment by CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who along with journalists from Der Spiegel and The Insider had also helped in the investigation, the agent swiftly shut himself inside. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attempt on Navalny’s life.
When Putin was asked if he’d tried to have Navalny killed, he smirked, saying: “If there was such a desire, it would have been done.”
Despite his denials, Putin’s desire was transparent: Navalny’s magnetism was positioning him as the Russian leader’s biggest political threat.
Today he is the best-known anti-Putin politician in Russia and is putting his life on the line to break Putin’s stranglehold over Russians.
Navalny’s team, who are in self-imposed exile for their safety, believe their boss is in a race for survival against Putin.
Pevchikh, who heads Navalny’s investigative team and helped winkle out his would-be assassins, says the war in Ukraine — which Navalny has condemned from his prison cell behind bars — will bring Putin down. The question, she says, is whether Navalny can survive Putin. “It’s a bit of a race. You know, at this point, who lasts longer?”
Navalny’s almost immediate incarceration after landing from Germany and his subsequent detention in one of Russia’s most dangerous jails prisons — he was moved in June to a maximum-security prison facility in Melekhovo, in the Vladimir region — is no surprise.
What is remarkable is that despite every physical and mental blow Putin’s brutal penal regime has dealt him, Navalny still refuses to be silenced.
Even while behind bars, his Instagram and Twitter accounts keep up his attacks on Putin. “He passes hundreds of notes and we type them up,” Pevchikh says. She didn’t specify how the notes were relayed.
But it’s not without cost: With every trumped-up turn of Putin’s tortuous legal machinations, Navalny has had to fight for even basic rights like boots and medication. His health has suffered, he has lost weight.
His daughter, Dasha Navalnaya, currently studying at Stanford University in California, told CNN he is being systematically singled out for harsh treatment.
Prison authorities are repeatedly cycling him in and out of solitary confinement, she says. “They put him in for a week, then take him out for one day,” to try to break him, she said. “People are not allowed to communicate with him, and this kind of isolation is really purely psychological torture.”
His physical treatment, she said, is just as horrendous. “It’s a small cell, six (or) seven-by-eight feet… a cage for someone who is of his six-foot-three height,” she told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “He only has one iron stool, which is sewed to the floor. And out of personal possessions he is allowed to have: a mug, a toothbrush, and one book.”
In the past few days, Navalny’s lawyer has said he has a “temperature, fever and a cough.” He hasn’t seen a doctor yet and his team is struggling to get medicine to him in his isolation cell.
His wife Yulia, who says she received a letter from Navalny on Wednesday, has also raised concerns about his health. She says he has been sick for over a week, and that he is not getting treatment and is forced off his sick bed during the day.
At least 531 Russian doctors as of Wednesday had signed an open letter addressed to Putin to demand that Navalny should be provided with necessary medical assistance, according to the Facebook post where the letter was published.
His family haven’t seen him since May last year and his daughter fears what may come next. “This is one of the most dangerous and famous high security prisons in Russia known for torturing and murdering the inmates,” she said.
In his last moments of freedom as police grabbed him at Sheremetyevo airport on his return to Russia nearly two years ago, Navalny kissed his wife Yulia goodbye.
Outside, riot police beat back the crowds who’d come to welcome them home. It was the beginning of a new chapter in Navalny’s struggle, one he is aware he may not survive.
Before leaving Germany, he’d recorded a message about what to do if the worst happened: “My message for the situation when I am killed is very simple: not give up… The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.”
When Navalny appeared in a Moscow court after his arrest at the airport, the huge scale of his problems was just beginning to become apparent. He was defiant; cut off from the world inside a cage in the crowded court, he signaled his love to his wife just yards away in the tiny room.
The trial itself was a farce. He was handed a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence for allegedly breaking the terms of his probation in an old, politically motivated case.
The courtroom theater was a typically Putinesque twist of Russia’s easily manipulated judicial process. Navalny’s alleged probation violation came as he lay incapacitated in the Berlin hospital recovering from the Novichok poisoning he and Western officials blame on the Kremlin.
If the court process in Putin’s Russia was a surreal circus, jail was to be its brutal twin where the Russian leader hoped to break Navalny’s will.
But far from defeated, and a lawyer by training, Navalny fought for his basic prison rights through legal challenges.
After his sentencing, Navalny went on a hunger strike, complaining he was being deprived of sleep by prison guards who kept waking him up. He began suffering health issues and demanded proper medical attention.
Against a backdrop of international outrage, Navalny was moved to a prison hospital; meanwhile Moscow’s courts moved to have him declared a terrorist or extremist and Putin shut down his political operations across the country.
In January 2022 Navalny appealed this designation, but after another six months of judicial theater he lost.
And there were more charges. In March that year, he was convicted of yet more trumped-up charges — contempt of court and embezzlement — and he was transferred to Melekhovo’s maximum security penal colony IK-6, hundreds of miles from Moscow.
At every turn, Navalny fought back, threatening in November 2022 to sue prison authorities for withholding winter boots, and, most recently, mounting a legal challenge to know what prison medics have been injecting him with.
Putin’s efforts to break him have no bounds, Navalny has said, describing his months in a punitive punishment cell as an attempt to “shut me up.” Often, he has been made to share the tiny space with a convict who has serious hygiene issues, he said on Twitter.
Navalny says he saw it for what it was: Putin’s callous use of people. “What especially infuriates me is the instrumentalization of a living person, turning him into a pressure tool,” he said.
But his suffering is paying off, according to Pevechikh. “We have had a very successful year in terms of our organization,” she said. “We are now one of the most loud, anti-war, anti-war media that there is available.”
It’s the fact Navalny returned to Russia that persuades people he is genuine, she said. “The level of risk that he takes on himself personally… is very impressive,” she said. “And I would imagine that our audience recognises that.”
Perhaps because of this, but certainly despite the more than 700 days in jail, where he remains subject to Putin’s vindictive whims, Navalny’s spirit seems strong.
At New Year he made light of his inhumane treatment, saying on Instagram that he had put up Christmas decorations he’d been sent in a letter from his family. When the guards took them down, he said, “the mood remained.”
His team posted a poignant photoshopped picture of him with his family — a way of keeping alive their New Year tradition of being together — and quoted Navalny as saying: “I can feel the threads and wires going to my wife, children, parents, brother, all the people closest to me.”
His New Year message to his many supporters is both stark and sincere: “Thank you all so much for your support this year. It hasn’t stopped for a minute, not even for a second, and I’ve felt it.”
For what dark horrors Putin may yet choose to visit on him, even the resilient Navalny will need all the support he can get.
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