As the World Mourns Alexei Navalny, Authoritarianism Gains Strength

The imprisoned resistance leader represented the hopes of many within and outside Russia. His death carries global significance

As the World Mourns Alexei Navalny, Authoritarianism Gains Strength
A memorial for Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg on the day of his death in a Russian prison. (Artem Priakhin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the hours and days after the world learned that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died in prison in the frozen Arctic, protests sprung up in front of Moscow’s embassies, demanding justice. There were also vigils, where tea lights and red carnations were placed beside photos of the charismatic 47-year-old. Some of these, bravely, were in Russia itself, where the regime of President Vladimir Putin has been directly blamed by Western leaders for killing Navalny. At one of these small and tenderly organized tributes in a Russian city, a young woman held a handwritten sign saying, “Putin killed Russia.”

For those both within and outside Russia who believed in a brighter future and who held on to Navalny’s unique defiance of the Kremlin as a reason to dream, his sudden demise has dealt a final blow to hope — for Russia, for the chances of democracy and for challenges to authoritarianism. It is a message that has global ramifications.

“This is truly the end of the greatest hope we have ever had,” said Russian photojournalist Evgeny Feldman, who photographed Navalny for a decade, often accompanying him on the campaign trail. With Navalny, “There was some possibility of a good, nice and friendly Russia,” he told the dissident news site Meduza’s podcast, The Naked Pravda, shortly after the death was announced on Feb. 16.

Navalny amassed a huge following in Russia, daring to go where others would not because they were too afraid or too cowed and broken by a system that had become increasingly authoritarian. Trained as a lawyer, Navalny rose from being a grassroots anti-corruption activist to become the only real political challenger to Putin’s continued rule.

As a Moscow correspondent for various news outlets for close to a decade, I covered his ascent. In the late 2000s, the Russian capital felt like it was swimming in cash from the oil and gas industry. It was an exhilaratingly flashy place to live, even if most of the downtown restaurants selling bottles of wine for $100 were out of reach to most foreign reporters. In 2008, Moscow replaced New York as the world’s billionaire capital. But the luxury boutiques and Bentley-gridlocked streets told a darker story that went beyond Kremlin greed — loyalty to Putin was paramount, and if anyone fell out of line, whether an influential oligarch or a local reporter in Siberia, the punishment could be severe. At first, the wisecracking man with straw-colored hair was part of a collection of voices exposing the widespread official corruption consuming the country. Russia is both very corrupt and very big, and Navalny, whom I described in my reporting as “an anti-corruption blogger,” didn’t particularly stand out.

But by 2011, when Putin’s ruling party was accused of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections, Navalny was becoming a household name. He created his graft-exposing Foundation for Fighting Corruption, and he had a simple message: Russia was run by “crooks and thieves.” The epithet stuck. Soon young Muscovites began to openly question the kleptocracy, and it felt like perhaps one day change could actually be possible. During the anti-government protests of 2011-12, when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in the biggest uprising of Putin’s rule, Navalny was electrifying in his ability to rouse the crowd. At one of the movement’s first demonstrations, as a cold December wind tightened around us, Navalny yelled from the stage, “Do we exist?” to which a booming chorus replied, “Yes!” He soon became a people’s hero, and his photo was hoisted by demonstrators chanting, “Russia will be free!” and “Russia without Putin!” No one challenged Putin in this way, and most of my Russian colleagues in the Reuters bureau were stunned. One afternoon, after leaving a protest early, I returned to the office to find my colleagues huddled over, listening to a protestor’s live audio of the demonstration. I had never seen them so fixed on a story before. Glassy-eyed, they appeared almost delirious with both fear and awe. Though it was the start of winter, there was a sudden bounce to the office. Breathing felt easier, as if we were buds opening up for new sunshine.

In those days, Navalny was in and out of jail for various alleged offenses. I attended one of his hearings in a boxy Moscow courtroom, when he stood before us, lanky and composed, a glint of mischief in his eyes, and confidently blamed Putin’s party for his wrongful detention.

When Navalny ran in municipal elections for Moscow mayor in 2013, he came only second behind the Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin. Putin found him such an existential threat that he has never publicly mentioned his name. This did little to dissuade the opposition leader: It felt like the more the government tightened the screws, the further Navalny would go in his mission to fight the repressive regime. He produced deeply researched investigations on YouTube, where he wittily described his findings about wealth stolen by the Russian state. His most-watched documentary, on an extravagant palace he said was built for Putin, has been viewed over 130 million times since it came out in 2021.

In 2017, after organizing anti-corruption protests across the country, he was barred from standing in the general election on the basis of a trumped-up embezzlement conviction, cementing his role as the sharpest thorn in Putin’s side. It was around this time that my husband, a keen runner, would see Navalny on his route, often bounding around the Moscow River and the Ministry of Defense in the evening. Despite suffering various physical attacks, Navalny didn’t run with security accompanying him. When, in 2020, Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok while in Siberia, he almost died. He was transferred to a hospital in Berlin, recovered, and controversially returned to Russia the next year, where he was instantly arrested and imprisoned with little hope of release. In the documentary “Navalny,” which won an Oscar last year, he told viewers, “If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. We need to use that power.”

While U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have placed responsibility for Navalny’s death on Putin and his regime, with the U.K. summoning the Russian Embassy to make this clear — it remains to be seen if the power Navalny described even exists, let alone in a way that can be utilized.

Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. Some Western reporters have been banned from living there; the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, facing spy charges, is still in pre-trial detention in Moscow almost a year after his arrest. The war has allowed the Kremlin to intensify its crackdown on internet freedoms, civil society organizations and free speech. In the two days following Navalny’s death, at least 400 Russians were arrested for laying flowers at the makeshift, hastily organized memorials to him in major cities across the country, according to the OVD-Info rights group. Videos show men in riot gear dragging people by their legs through piles of snow.

Navalny’s death comes as the world gears up for its biggest election year in history, and 2024 is being framed as a time of referendums on the institution of democracy itself. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned the Munich Security Conference that Navalny’s killing sent a direct message to world leaders that a Russian victory in Ukraine could lead to more countries exempting themselves from a rules-based order. Biden said he hoped Navalny’s death would push Congress into approving further support for Ukraine, an issue that has become enmeshed in U.S. domestic politics in the lead-up to the November presidential election, which could see the return of Donald Trump.

Rights activists warn that the world’s global order is at a tipping point — the past 17 years have seen a democratic decline, as authoritarian regimes have become more effective at shutting down institutions designed to support basic liberties and have provided aid and backing to others who wish to follow suit. According to Freedom House’s 2023 report, 80% of the world’s population lives in countries that the Washington-based political advocacy group deems not completely free.

With winter not even over, leaders in a string of countries have already secured new terms in elections devoid of any real political alternatives, including Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, military strongman and accused torturer Prabowo Subianto secured a presidential victory last week. Belarus will go to the polls later this month, its first elections since Aleksandr Lukashenko stole the presidential vote four years ago. Russia’s mid-March elections will almost certainly see Putin secure a fifth term as president. His rival Boris Nadezhdin, who has opposed the war in Ukraine and surprised the Kremlin when he garnered popular support in polling, was barred from running earlier this month.

Navalny will now not see the world slide deeper into the kind of authoritarianism he spent the better part of two decades fighting against. “They killed him because that’s all dictators can do,” said Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean activist and clergyman who was a Yale Fellow with Navalny. The two men share a similar history: Mawarire fought the regime of Robert Mugabe and was flung into a maximum-security prison when he came back to the country from abroad. Will Navalny’s death spur others in exile to return home to stare down tyranny? Perhaps. Speaking from his new home in the United States, Mawarire continued in a video post: “Alexei came to the conclusion that self-preservation was no longer an option.”

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy