Sudden Death Syndrome

Tony Wood

‘Sudden death syndrome’ was the explanation the prison authorities gave to Alexei Navalny’s mother when she arrived at Corrective Colony No. 3, in the remote village of Kharp, just north of the Arctic Circle, the day after his death. Medically, this was total nonsense, but it was also brazenly false in a deeper sense: ever since Navalny survived a poisoning attempt in August 2020, it was clear that the Putin regime had signed his death warrant. Imprisoned in January 2021, he was kept in appalling conditions, often in isolation, and deliberately denied medical attention. Whether they killed him quickly or slowly, there is no doubt who is responsible for Navalny’s demise. Yet even though his was a death many times foretold, the news that came on 16 February was still a profound shock, and a demoralising one for Putin’s opponents.

Navalny shot to prominence in the late 2000s and early 2010s as an energetic anti-corruption campaigner, gaining popularity for his scathing denunciations of the greed of the ruling United Russia party. In the broad coalition of oppositional forces that took shape during the protests in 2011-12 against electoral fraud and against Putin’s return to the presidency, Navalny stood out as the most politically astute, able to channel popular grievances while continuing to hammer his main message. Over the next few years, his Anti-Corruption Fund produced a string of hard-hitting and irreverent documentaries detailing the illicit wealth of top functionaries.

In 2013 Navalny stood for mayor of Moscow, coming second with 27 per cent of the vote – an impressive score in a rigged electoral system, and a sign of substantive popular support. From this point on he was the foremost oppositional figure in Russia, around whom any alternative to Putinism would have to coalesce. This of course made him the regime’s top target.

In 2020 he fled to Germany for treatment after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt. His return to Russia in January 2021 coincided with the release of a film about Putin’s lavish new palace on the Black Sea coast. He was arrested immediately, as he must have known he would be. His courage in accepting that fate was admirable, as was his attempt to turn his personal ordeals into a blow against the regime. At his sentencing, he denounced the trial as ‘not a demonstration of strength … but a demonstration of weakness’, since ‘you can’t imprison the whole country.’

He bore his judicial ordeals and imprisonment with an impressive combination of dignity and humour, describing severe physical and mental hardships with playful irony. A biting wit was always a central part of Navalny’s political repertoire, as was his clever use of social media. The attempt to poison him in 2020 seems to have involved security agents smearing novichok on his underwear; Navalny took to referring to Putin – in the tradition of Peter the Great, Alexander the Liberator or Yaroslav the Wise – as ‘Vladimir the Pants-Poisoner’.

Ideologically, Navalny moved from Russian nationalism in the 2000s through pro-market neoliberalism in the early 2010s to a more social-liberal outlook at the end of the decade. Some of his early stances were certainly ugly – he is on record expressing outright chauvinism towards migrant workers and people from the North Caucasus – and the 2014 platform of his Party of Progress would simply have cleaned the facade of actually existing Russian capitalism. But in the course of his rise to nationwide prominence, he took a more progressive and welfarist turn. In 2018 he opposed the government’s move to raise the retirement age, and in 2019 launched an initiative to press for higher salaries for public sector workers. How deeply he held these new convictions is hard to tell, but there can be no doubt that Navalny aspired to do more than change the faces at the top: he saw the need to offer an alternative to Putinism as a system.

In 2022, Navalny took a principled stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, immediately denouncing it as a ‘war of aggression waged by our little tsar’ and calling for mass demonstrations. Given his former nationalist views, it’s possible to imagine an earlier version of Navalny backing the war. Instead, he stood out as the leading voice of an anti-war movement that was rapidly stifled by the government. A year after the war started, Navalny put out a fifteen-point plan that included demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops, recognition of Ukraine’s 1991 borders, reparations for war damage and a full investigation of war crimes. He was also clear about the scale of change required to bring these things about: his programme called for elections to a constituent congress and the transformation of Russia into a parliamentary republic.

The news of Navalny’s death on Friday led to impromptu vigils across Russia, as people gathered to leave flowers and signs at memorials to the victims of Stalinist repression, or at the feet of statues to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Osip Mandelstam. Close to four hundred people were arrested on 16 and 17 February alone, a level of repression not seen since 2022, when almost twenty thousand were arrested during protests against the invasion of Ukraine.

In 2023, according to the human rights organisation OVD-Info, more than half the criminal cases brought against opponents of the war ended in prison terms, and the average sentence was double that of the previous year. Just before Navalny’s death, a five-and-a-half-year sentence was handed down to Boris Kagarlitsky, a socialist opponent of the war. He and hundreds more are likely to languish in jail for most of Putin’s next presidential term, with pro forma elections due in mid-March.

The proximity of the elections raises the question: why now? Was Navalny killed before he could pose any problems for Putin’s inevitable re-election, or as a warning to the broader population against any form of dissent? The first idea seems a stretch: though Navalny had urged people to turn out en masse at noon and cast ballots against Putin, he knew that the vote will be rigged. The second is more plausible: since Navalny was widely seen as a viable presidential challenger, for the regime to eliminate him just before the election might be a timely reminder that there can be no alternative to Putin.

But the reality is probably more banal and grim: when the regime imprisoned Navalny they had already decided to kill him, and it didn’t matter to them precisely when or how he died. According to Navalny’s lawyer, he had seemed in good health on Wednesday; so either someone murdered him on Friday or the compound cruelties inflicted by the prison system abruptly took their toll.

It remains to be seen if Navalny’s killing prompts a new wave of unrest in Russia or a retreat into stunned silence. In the meantime, his death highlights once more the Putin regime’s willingness to resort to the most basic forms of brutality, as well as its vindictiveness towards those who challenge its hold on power. That grip may seem as secure as ever, but regimes that rely on repression have a way of being caught out by unforeseen swings in the popular mood. In Russia, that change will come too late for Navalny, but he did more than most to make it imaginable.


  • 21 February 2024 at 8:42pm
    Ian Ross says:
    Putin has developed a more effective means of keeping Russians quiescent than Stalin. 21st century technology no longer requires the execution of hundreds of thousands or Gulag imprisonment for millions more. A pliant judiciary, press censorship, the assassination of prominent opponents both at home and abroad, and the facade of elections remain a constant. What is new is manipulation of both broadcast and social media as the key channels for promulgating state propaganda and identifying, and then silencing any opposition.

    What characterises both is the premise that human beings are dispensable and justified by the higher vision of the recreation of an Imperial Russia. The Ruler's narrative is not subject to negotiation.

    Putin and Stalin are or were both megalomaniacs.

  • 23 February 2024 at 11:41am
    XopherO says:
    This is obviously shocking news, but given Putin's record, not unexpected. What bothers me is why Kashoggi's murder by the Saudi state did not elicit the same demands for sanctions and why we still give them weapons, and smile on the leader of the murderers. Kashoggi of course was the tip of the iceberg in Saudi and gulf states in general. I think the women who wanted to drive a car are still in prison, and mass executions still quite common.

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