The grave of Alexei Navalny. Credit: Flickr.

The death of Alexei Navalny: Has the torch been extinguished for Russian opposition?

By Paul-Matthieu Faure

Writer Paul-Matthieu Faure examines the impact of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and speaks to Russian UofG students following Navalny’s death.

On 16 February, Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, died at the arctic “Polar Wolf” gulag from “sudden death syndrome,” according to the Russian prison service. This came almost 4 years after his attempted assassination by FSB agents using the Soviet nerve agent “Novichok,” and 3 years on from his ill fated return to Russia in 2021. 

His death has brought worldwide condemnation from leaders in the UK, France, the USA, and Ukraine. However, it has also brought worldwide mourning from ordinary people against Putin’s authoritarian regime. In Russia, tens of thousands came to his funeral on 1 March, and chanted anti-war slogans as flower shops nearby ran out of stock by midday. 

Navalny was an opposition politician loved by many, a man who rose to fame blogging about corruption, and eventually reached the highest echelons of Russian opposition politics, mobilising some of the largest protests in modern Russian history in 2011 and attempting to run for president in 2018. However, for many, Navalny was also a deeply polarising figure as he used to attend the ‘Russian march,’ an annual nationalist far-right demonstration, likened dental cavities to immigrants, and compared Crimea to a ham sandwich that Russia can’t just give back to Ukraine in 2014.

Navalny’s controversial status as a politician was echoed by two Russian UofG students which the Glasgow Guardian has spoken to, with one describing Navalny as “ambiguous” and another saying he was not “always delighted with Navalny’s ideas and actions.” He carried on saying that time had shown Navalny’s often “unproductive manners” with which he fought corruption, and that his status as the only representative of the opposition seemed “a little bit sketchy” almost as if he was planted in power by someone. 

Despite this, he went on to say that for many he was a “bright hope of necessary changes and reforms that Russia lacks so much” and that his death and the outpouring of grief showed him that there were still “significant portions of the population” in Russia who wanted to make it a better country. He just hoped that people did not place all their optimism in “the figure of Navalny” and that they will “realise that all major changes start from themselves and their close ones.”

Another student from Russia said that Navalny was a “significant and strong figure who did everything to fight the Russian autocracy and had a real effect.” He argued that since Navalny’s death will be so fresh in the electorate’s mind when they went to the polls on 17 March, it “may provoke the liberal-minded population to some very unexpected actions”. Nevertheless, he doubts “his death will have a strong impact since, unfortunately, such things are quickly forgotten” and that “everyone in Russia already knows the result of the elections”, but he still hopes “for a miracle.” Putin was handily re-elected in the 17 March election, with official results pointing to an 89%, despite numerous reports of fraud.

So, was Navalny a hero or a villain? According to the Russian students interviewed, the situation is much more nuanced. Even though Navalny was a man with a controversial past, it is clear that he was also a source of hope for many and had a tangible effect on Russian politics at a time where more and more of the opposition was being wiped out. Could his death finally signal the end of Russian opposition? Not likely. Russia is a large country with a long history, and the opposition is still operating today, albeit more underground than before. It is simply a matter of time before Russians free themselves from Putin’s clutches.


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