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Alexey Navalny: The Man Who Won’t Die Nicely

John Sweeney reflects on the bravery of the Russian opposition leader, poisoned by Putin, who has returned to face his tormentors

Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny, detained upon arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport on 17 January 2021. Photo: Sergei Bobylev/Tass/PA Images

Alexey NavalnyThe Man Who Won’t Die Nicely

John Sweeney reflects on the bravery of the Russian opposition leader, poisoned by Putin, who has returned to face his tormentors

By returning to Russia and getting locked up, yet again, Alexey Navalny is doing what he does best: daring the poison toad in the Kremlin to kill him, knowing his assassination would endanger the toad’s grip on power and, consequently, on life. 

It’s a deadly poker game in which the Russian President appears to hold all the winning cards. The master of the Kremlin controls the machinery of death, that is the internal security services of FSB (formerly the KGB); he rules over the vast corruption engine that is the Russian economy; the oligarchs in Russia and abroad are always willing to do their master’s bidding, come what may. 

I fear for Navalny’s life but everyone must be in awe of his ‘bottle’. Russians admire courage and they know by now that Navalny has it. 

But Navalny’s blast of outrageous courage and clever mockery has upended the green baize table, scattering the cards to the four corners. Navalny, his devoted wife, Yulia, their two kids, his office, a band of brilliant super-heroes and his extraordinarily brave supporters – mostly young and very committed – are together creating the biggest single threat to Vladimir Putin’s two-decade lock on power.

If Putin’s goons kill Navalny in cold blood, then his regime’s pretend democracy stands exposed for what it is – a neo-fascist killing machine. Navalny’s timing is pitch-perfect, daring Putin to act against him just as the Kremlin’s bitch, Donald Trump, makes way for Joe Biden – who is in no mood to look the other way at its interference in America’s democracy.

I met Navalny twice in 2018, once in Strasbourg and once in Moscow, and there are three things about him that are striking.

Firstly, he’s got extraordinary charisma, up there with Bill Clinton as someone who commands a room. Secondly, he’s deadly serious about getting rid of the man who he calls “the czar of corruption”. And, thirdly, he’s very funny – Putin never refers to Navalny by his name; Navalny’s come-back is to call Putin “Lord Voldemort”. 

Charm, fire, wit: it’s a winning combination in the age of social media. Look up, if you can, a BBC Newsnight film I made with producer Nick Sturdee in 2016 about Navalny’s campaign against a grotesquely corrupt Russian prosecutor, Chaika. 

People who think that Navalny is crazy to return to Russia after Bellingcat’s extraordinary journalism proving that FSB thugs had been trailing Navalny for three years before poisoning him unsuccessfully with Novichok haven’t been paying attention. Navalny has been challenging Putin for a decade and, in Russia, if you’re serious about that, you are likely to die. 

Three Russians warned me about Putin: Anna Politkovskaya, Natasha Estemirova and Boris Nemtsov. They were all shot. Navalny knows that history. He also knows that, if someone like him doesn’t challenge Putin, the rule of the poison toad will continue. 

And Navalny’s supporters? In 2018 I made a BBC Panorama, ‘Taking On Putin’, which tracked what happened to people who democratically opposed the master of the Kremlin. Tasered. Stabbed. Beaten senseless by masked men. Hit with an iron bar. 

Navalny himself was blinded in one eye by a pro-Kremlin agent provocateur, part of a gang. We interviewed this group and filmed them take down a wreath to Nemtsov, then spent the afternoon in a Moscow police station after the Kremlin’s machine accused me of doing what its proxies had done. In Russia, administrative law is used to deny natural justice. 

I fear for Navalny’s life but everyone must be in awe of his ‘bottle’. Russians admire courage and they know by now that Navalny has it. 

Downsides? The Kremlin’s sleaze machine says that he is racist. This owes to a short time back in 2009 when he became xenophobic and allied with right-wing nationalists. Then he got locked up in prison and that was the making of him. He got to know his liberal opponents better and ended up absorbing their arguments and beliefs. Since then, he has dumped the far-right rhetoric, argued against Putin’s war in Ukraine and stands up for same-sex relationships in Russia. That, under Putin, is daringly liberal.   

But his greatest achievement has been to use social media to tell the story of the immense corruption of Putin’s regime to ordinary Russians. His videos are fast-edited, funny, forensic. They take the piss out of Putin’s goons, none better than the video nailing the FSB thugs who tried to poison him with Novichok. 

Vladimr Putin’s willing accomplices in the West have reason to fear Navalny. Even the independent, seemingly self-possessed ones – the likes of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich; some-time Arsenal co-owner Alisher Usmanov; and father-and-son oligarchs Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, who run the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers, are curiously silent on the topic occupying their country like no other: Navalny. 

Evgeny Lebedev was recently made a lord – Baron of Hampton and Siberia – by Boris Johnson in return for favours, known and unknown. Baron Siberia’s silence on Navalny’s poisoning in Tomsk – the oldest city in Siberia – and now his arrest is striking. It’s almost as if he dare not speak about what has happened to Navalny lest his controller, sorry, his father, the former London KGB rezident, fall foul of Putin.

There is a suggestion that Evgeny Lebedev is beholden to a foreign power and that is not good for a British law-maker. The strange friendship between Evgeny Lebedev and Boris Johnson is the subject of an upcoming documentary I’m making for Byline TV. Watch this space.  

Down the track, when Joe Biden has the time, cutting the rouble’s convertibility to the dollar would arouse the oligarchs’ attention. There will come a time when slavish loyalty to Putin may no longer be, for them, the best financial option. 

For now, the lethal game between Putin and Navalny continues. The challenger is, once again, in the cooler, waiting for the poison toad to croak. It’s an outside bet, but my money is not on the toad. 

WATCH John Sweeney discuss Alexey Navalny in conversation with Peter Jukes on Byline TV

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