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Alexei Navalny has died. What is his legacy?

We asked scholars of Russian politics for their insights.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in a photo from October 2011. Navalny died in a Russian penal colony on Feb. 16, 2024.
Alexei Navalny, in an October 2011 photo (cc) Mitya Aleshkovsky via Flickr

On Feb. 16, 2024, the world was shocked but not surprised to hear of the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote Russian penal colony in the Arctic where he had recently been transferred. Leaders and pundits around the world have spoken out in anguish, anger, and regret at his death. Pres. Joe Biden placed blame for Navalny’s death squarely at the feet of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president Navalny had so long opposed.

In the aftermath of this tragic news, I reached out to a number of longtime scholars of Russian politics. I posed two questions: First, what is the significance of Navalny’s death; and second, what does his death mean for Russian politics going forward? I appreciate those who took the time to answer, as many in this community either know Navalny, his family, or his close associates and are undoubtedly dealing with their own emotional responses to the news. (Note that these responses were provided before Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posted a video online indicating that she planned to continue his fight in the aftermath of his death.)

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their responses. 

Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

Navalny’s death marks the end of an era – an era in which against incredible odds, an opposition leader competed for power playing by the increasingly skewed rules of the Kremlin. From 2011 to 2018, the Russian state slandered Navalny, barred him from state television, and put up obstacles at every step. But Navalny managed to challenge state power on the national level like no other candidate. He ran for mayor of Moscow, fielded candidates in national and regional elections, and organized nationwide protests after being barred from running for the presidency in 2018. 

With Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and now with his death, the rules for the opposition have changed. Without any public opposition, the farcical “elections” proclaimed by the Kremlin for 2024 will be utterly devoid of meaning. Navalny’s death removes the final vestiges of any public opposition to Putin via the political system. The transition from a dictatorship of deceit to a dictatorship of fear is complete. 

But Navalny’s most dangerous weapon was never his protests or election campaigns; it was his vision of a “beautiful Russia of the future” that offered an alternative to Putin. That Navalny’s vision was never precisely defined is beside the point. It inspired many young Russians who hunger for a better Russia – one less corrupt, more democratic, and better integrated with the outside world. In the end, the mere existence of Navalny’s vision of an alternative Russia was so dangerous that the Kremlin destroyed him. 

What does this mean for Russian politics going forward? Navalny was a singular political talent who will be difficult to replace. No other opposition politician managed to create a nationwide organization that could raise funds, field candidates, and organize protests. No other opposition figure connected with his supporters as Navalny did. No other opposition figure displayed more courage in openly challenging the Kremlin. And no other opposition figure did it with such good humor. 

In the longer run, the question is whether Navalny’s vision will outlive his murder. This is up to the Russian public. They would do well to remember Navalny’s mantra: “Don’t be afraid.” Dictators thrive on fear and Russia will not change for the better until Russians replace fear with hope. 

Bryn Rosenfeld, assistant professor of government, Cornell University

Many have noted that the Putin regime murdered Navalny slowly. Last August a court sentenced Navalny, who was already imprisoned, to 19 years for extremism. The regime moved him from a penal colony not far from Moscow to the remote prison in the Arctic region of Yamalo-Nenets, where he died. What he was subjected to there, others have discussed. But the regime murdered him slowly in other ways as well. 

As Putin kept Navalny locked up, the Kremlin tried alternately to discredit him and to keep him out of view – hoping to assassinate his reputation, to make him fade into obscurity. Surveys by the respected Russian polling organization the Levada Center show that Navalny became less known to Russians over time, that negative views of him rose, and that Russians became more likely to think that his prosecution was fair. 

Over nearly two years of war, our ongoing research confirms that views of the people who supported him, and not just of Navalny, changed. Antipathy and apathy both rose. By October of last year, one in three Russians rated their attitude toward people who backed Navalny a 0 out of 10, or very poor. Navalny and his movement had become a convenient scapegoat for the Kremlin’s undemocratic actions. Marking a new era of impunity, the Kremlin now seems to feel it does not need even a scapegoat.

Thinking about what comes next, I am struck that what today ties together Putin’s actions – domestically and internationally – is a growing emphasis on what the Kremlin propagandizes as “purification.” Whether it is Putin’s ominous calls since the war began for “self-cleansing” at home or his absurd policy of de-Nazification in Ukraine – the common logic is one of purges. 

What comes next? Chillingly, I think we must assume more purges. One day, however, anger at what Putin’s regime has done to human life and done to Russia will replace the current climate in which Russians are increasingly unwilling to take any political risks.

Andrei Soldatov, senior fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

(Note: this response draws on commentary by Soldatov and Irina Borogan posted on the website of the Center for European Political Analysis.)

Every time Putin’s opponent gets killed – a journalist, a politician, an activist – the Kremlin offers up with the same line of defense: The victim was so insignificant that Putin didn’t need them to be killed. Sometimes the Kremlin’s spin doctors will elaborate a bit that maybe the killing was carried out by uncontrolled elements – in the army, in society – who could take it upon themselves to get rid of a troublemaker, but Putin and the Kremlin had nothing to do with that. Because there was no need for Putin to do so: This line has never changed.

More than 20 years of Putin’s grip over Russia is a pretty good case study that a political assassination makes perfect sense. Putin, being a very practical man, made political assassination part of his political toolkit. 

In this marketing strategy where the main product is Putin, who sells himself to Russia as the only possible leader of the country, everything counts – the method of assassination, the reaction of the Kremlin, the narrative promoted in pro-Kremlin media – all that helps to calibrate the effects on a target audience.

There is always a very practical sense to attack a victim with poison or bullets – or torture them to death in a prison camp beyond the Arctic Circle. 

Killing Navalny slowly by moving him constantly between Russian penal colonies, up north to more and more horrible conditions, eventually beyond the Arctic Circle, was meant to serve one purpose: to evoke the memory of Joseph Stalin’s Gulag archipelago

Short term, Navalny’s death could have a chilling effect on Russian society. But it may work against Putin in the long term because the elites are getting uncomfortable with the methods Putin increasingly uses.

Daniel Treisman, professor of political science and acting director, Center for European and Russian Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Any authoritarian regime can kill individuals. Most can destroy or incapacitate the organizational structures of opposition. But that leaves them fighting not something concrete but rather an idea, a mood, or a collective emotion. With Navalny’s death, Russia’s opposition has become less a matter of particular people and more about broad, inarticulate, but powerful discontent. This is hard to measure since these days Russians know what is expected of them when they are questioned by a pollster. 

But there are signs that this discontent is gradually growing. The discontent coalition includes those who support the war but are angry at how it is being fought; those who view Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as immoral and disastrous; and those who resent being cut off from the West, sentenced to lives of diminished opportunities amid political corruption and a stagnant economy.

For the Kremlin, such a situation may seem quite manageable in the short run. But fighting a discontent coalition can be harder than fighting concrete individuals. We saw in the Arab Spring how, in the absence of opposition leaders, leaderless protests could spread faster than security services could react. In Russia in recent weeks, long lines of people have waited to sign nomination papers for the previously inconspicuous liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin, who was trying to run for president on an anti-war message. That the authorities disqualified him – after apparently approving his candidacy at first – suggests they did see a potential risk. In a climate of discontent, new potential leaders appear quickly when opportunity arises.

We shouldn’t exaggerate. There remain powerful voices of opposition to Putin – in prison and in the West. Vladimir Kara Murza, like Navalny, was poisoned but still courageously returned to Russia, where he was jailed for opposing the Kremlin. He is a forceful and eloquent voice of dissent. I very much hope that Western leaders will urgently do all they can to save him. He is in obvious peril. 

Still, within Russia, the greatest threat to Putin’s regime will become less an individual leader or an organized movement than the prospect of spontaneous eruptions fueled by widespread dismay at the Kremlin’s course. 

Konstantin Sonin, John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor, Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Putin ordered the death of Navalny because Putin is unpopular; he is feared but unloved. Navalny was able to draw tens of thousands to dangerous protests, while Putin was not able to draw thousands to safe rallies in support of the regime. Most of all, Putin and his henchmen feared Navalny’s popularity among regular police, security, and armed forces. 

Going forward, with the war more and more unpopular, this fear would have only increased. It’s so easy to find a personal angle. Putin is short, not physically attractive, unable to speak well, and prone to gaffes and displays of bad humor. Navalny was the opposite – tall, star-like, well-spoken, with a great sense of humor and a fantastic ability to connect to any audience. In a novel, Putin would have killed Navalny because he was jealous. In real life, he killed Navalny to stay in power. Short term, this is clearly a blow for the opposition. Navalny personally was perhaps the most popular Russian politician, Putin and other politicians in government or parliament included. There is no opposition figure who could immediately fill the void. 

For Putin, this is a new stage in his rule. Killing a popular opponent in the open raises the stakes of losing power. Now, when Putin’s gone, the new leadership will see Putin’s entourage as a gang of criminals and will deal with them accordingly. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the 1950s, he had Joseph Stalin’s henchmen like Abakumov, Merkulov, Beria, Kobulov, Ryumin, etc. executed – not because he cared about their crimes in old times, but because he feared them. 

In a model I developed with Georgy Egorov in an article called “The Killing Game,” the cost of killing your political opponents is that it makes you more likely to be killed when you are out of power. Do not believe Stalin’s security chief, Lavrenti Beria? Ask Idi Amin. Ask Moammar Gaddafi. Ask Saddam Hussein.

Kathryn Stoner, director, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law; senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; professor of political science and senior fellow, Hoover Institution (both by courtesy), Stanford University.

(Note: Stoner’s remarks are a summary of a piece she recently published at The Journal of Democracy, included here with permission.)

Courageous, funny, brave, brilliant, creative, tenacious, charismatic – these are all the things that Aleksei Navalny was in life, and what made him such a dangerous foe for a paranoid authoritarian ruler like Vladimir Putin. As Pres. Biden said in his remarks following the announcement of Navalny’s death at 47 years old in one of Russia’s harshest prison camps in the Arctic Circle, Navalny was everything that Putin is not. Navalny could have remained safely in Germany after he finished recovering from a near-lethal chemical poisoning by Russian FSB agents in August 2020, but he courageously insisted upon returning to Russia in January 2021, knowing that he would be arrested at the border for violating his parole provisions (from a previous politically motivated conviction). He joked that evidently while he was in a coma, induced by Putin’s agents’ attempt to kill him, he wasn’t able to call his parole officer to tell him where he was.

Navalny had boundless charisma. He was one of the few Russian opposition leaders who could gather thousands of people on the streets of Russia’s largest cities to protest corruption (his signature issue) or stolen elections. He later built an organization spanning Russia’s 11 time zones encouraging voters in creative and entertaining social media posts to vote for any candidate most likely to defeat Putin’s United Russia, regardless of party. This system, called “smart voting,” was evidently enough of a worry for the regime that FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service, one of the successor institutions to the KGB of old) agents sprinkled his underclothes with Novichok, assuming that it would kill him. It didn’t. As he later said, he accidentally survived – a testament to his tenacity.

Before he was sentenced last summer to another 19 years (on top of the 11 he was already serving) in prison, Navalny explained to his jailers why he continued to fight Putin’s brutal regime when he could have lived abroad. Why make this huge personal sacrifice? He told them:

Maybe now it seems to you that I am crazy, and you are all normal, because you can’t swim against the current. And I think you’re out of your mind. You have a single, God-given life, and what have you decided to spend it on? … To help someone who has ten palaces build an eleventh?

Alexei Navalny’s courtroom commentary, Aug. 4, 2023

Navalny had a different vision for Russia – one that was free and prosperous. That vision, and his courage, remain an inspiration for millions of people inside Russia and beyond its borders. This is why even in death, he remains a danger to the stability of Putin’s ruthless autocracy.

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