Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, is fighting for his life in a Siberian hospital. On Thursday morning, aboard a plane that had taken off from Tomsk, a midsize city in western Siberia, Navalny suddenly felt ill, and asked his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, for a napkin to wipe the sweat from his forehead. A moment later, he headed to the bathroom. He let out a cry and collapsed, unconscious. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk. Yarmysh relayed the news in a tweet: “Alexey has been poisoned by a toxin. We are now in an ambulance headed to the hospital.”
More than twelve hours later, Navalny remained in a coma, hooked up to a ventilator, with doctors, in the words of the deputy head of the hospital, “honestly working to save his life right now.” Navalny’s own doctors say that he needs to be evacuated to Europe, and hope that he can be taken to a specialized toxicology center, in either Hanover or Strasbourg. Not only would the standard of care be higher at one of these clinics but, Navalny’s supporters believe, the chances of determining what substance was used to poison him would be significantly greater—that’s a question that no Russian medical facility would be all that interested in answering.
Indeed, doctors and staff in Omsk seemed just as concerned with restricting information about Navalny’s condition as with saving his life, raising unavoidable fears of a coverup, or worse. Yarmysh said that she suspected Navalny’s tea may have been poisoned—it was the only thing he ate or drank that morning before he became gravely ill—but doctors didn’t seem particularly eager to check that version of events, or to release Navalny to a European clinic.
When Navalny’s personal doctor arrived from Moscow, she was turned away because she didn’t have approval from the hospital’s security guards. Navalny’s wife, Yulia, was initially not allowed to see her husband because she didn’t have her marriage certificate. She was told that the patient, in a coma, had not given his approval for her to visit. On Friday, hospital staff, having initially agreed to release Navalny on a medical-evacuation flight, suddenly refused; doctors treating him were in an obvious panic, repeatedly changing their diagnosis and contradicting themselves throughout the day. When in doubt, Putin-era bureaucrats default to cruelty, not because they are necessarily sadists but because that is the path of least resistance, the one least likely to contradict or upset the will of the bosses, as they are left to guess at it.
Navalny’s apparent poisoning fits into a tragic and disturbing lineage—a history, as my colleague Masha Gessen puts it, that is “so long that it is almost tedious to recite.” The cases that received the most attention internationally were those of Alexander Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned with polonium in London, in 2006; and Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who defected to the United Kingdom, and his daughter, Yulia, who were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in the English town of Salisbury, in 2018—they recovered.
That same year, Pyotr Verzilov, one of the co-founders of the activist punk band Pussy Riot, was poisoned by an unknown but highly toxic substance. He was eventually airlifted to a specialized clinic in Berlin, and, over the course of many weeks, managed to recover. On Thursday, Verzilov said Navalny’s poisoning reminded him of his own: he, too, lost coördination, speech, and, finally, consciousness; what’s more, officers from the security services similarly tried to limit access to his hospital bed. “It took time for my body to cleanse itself and traces of the poisonous substance to disappear,” he noted.
Each time an opponent of the Kremlin is attacked, poisoned, or killed, attention understandably focusses on Putin. Did he order it? And why? In some cases, cold, Machiavellian political calculation would suggest that it would actually be against Putin’s interests to assassinate a critic or rival. The attention and fallout that such a killing would generate could be more dangerous than the threat a particular individual represents, this counterargument goes. Oftentimes, Kremlin spin doctors and political technologists use this logic to try to establish Putin’s innocence: he can’t be guilty, because it wasn’t advantageous or profitable for him to have O.K.’d such an operation.
In the most narrow of senses, they could be right, at least in some cases, but they are missing a much more ominous and damning big picture. It’s possible that Putin may not have ordered or even known about many of these poisonings and assassinations ahead of time. He may even have been upset when they occurred. In 2015, for example, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who became a charismatic leader of the anti-Putin opposition, was shot dead on a bridge across from the Kremlin. Not long after, I spoke with Gleb Pavlovsky, who had been an adviser in the Kremlin until he, too, fell out with Putin, in 2011. “He was obviously stunned,” Pavlovsky said, of Putin’s reaction to Nemtsov’s killing. “As a political assassination, this is direct interference in the politics of the federal center, and, what’s more, right under Putin’s nose.”
Who would dare carry out such a murder without Putin’s approval? Or was Putin, in fact, pulling the strings? Could it have been a case of Putin uttering a question along the lines of Henry II’s, before the killing of Thomas Becket: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” This guessing game, though tempting, is not only unsolvable; it misses the insight that attacks like Nemtsov’s murder and Navalny’s poisoning really offer about Putin’s Russia—the most pernicious and terrifying fact is not whether Putin did or did not issue orders to his underlings to off perceived enemies but that anyone from the ruling circle can use the over-all dysfunction and impunity of Putin’s system to do so on their own. For those who are considered svoi, that is, one of ours, deadly force is effectively legalized.
In the killing of Nemtsov, the trail appeared to lead to security forces and officials close to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler of Chechnya who makes a demonstrative performance of his loyalty, regularly calling himself Putin’s “foot soldier.” A Moscow court convicted a handful of Chechen men for the murder, but prosecutors declined to follow the chain of culpability any higher. Similarly, when Verzilov was poisoned, he had been looking into the killings of three Russian journalists in Africa, who themselves had been investigating the private army of Evgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman close to the Kremlin and the defense ministry.
In exchange for their loyalty and utility in carrying out the Kremlin’s dirty work, such individuals are free to settle their own scores or act in Putin’s’s interests as they interpret them. Prigozhin, for example, finances the Internet Research Agency and its so-called troll farm, which spread disinformation online during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. He also oversees Wagner, a private military company that has sent fighters to Ukraine and Syria, serving as proxies for Russian military forces. Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analysis firm R.Politik, calls such figures the “regime’s ‘guard dogs’ ”: they are useful in moments and situations when Putin needs to employ deniable violence, but he can’t readily control or stop them when he doesn’t. As Gessen put it, in the case of Navalny, it’s possible that an “eager self-appointed Kremlin avenger struck without being given explicit authority.”
Over the years, Navalny has morphed from a dogged anti-corruption activist to a skilled politician, adept in retail, on-the-ground campaigning in a way that most Putin-era functionaries are not. With the rise of his enormously popular YouTube channel, he has taken on the role of investigative journalist, releasing detailed videos that document cynical and extravagant corruption among members of the ruling élite. Before his poisoning, he spent several days in Siberia campaigning for local opposition candidates in regional elections. In recent electoral cycles, Navalny has heralded his “Smart Vote” system, an electronic platform that provides guidance on how best to defeat the pro-Kremlin ruling party in local races, even when independent candidates are not allowed to run.
All of that is to say, Navalny has assembled no shortage of specific enemies: prosecutors, governors, oligarchs, not to mention shadowy officials from the powerful security services and the Kremlin’s inner sanctum. Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov have featured prominently in Navalny’s investigations. In 2018, Viktor Zolotov, who rose from being one of Putin’s bodyguards to heading the country’s domestic-security troops, challenged Navalny to a duel, after Navalny released a YouTube investigation documenting alleged corruption by Zolotov and his family. Each of these figures, and many more, have the motive and the means to poison Navalny—and they know that nothing would happen to them if they did.
Of course, Putin and the system over which he rules is Navalny’s primary target, and it would be folly to say that Putin has absolutely no interest in seeing him sidelined, even killed. So far, the Kremlin has dealt with Navalny by tying him up in politically motivated court cases and keeping him off the ballot by citing his criminal convictions. But there is no reason that logic would hold forever. The more Putinism drifts into its late-stage geriatric period, the more jumpy, insecure, and rash the system and its members become.
As Gessen wrote, it’s possible that Putin got spooked by events in Belarus, where thousands of demonstrators are in the streets protesting the rule of Alexander Lukashenka, the country’s longtime dictator. They are the largest protests Belarus has seen in a generation; and, as with Ukraine, the Kremlin cannot help but see itself in the unrest and convulsions of its neighbors. So maybe it was Putin. Or perhaps not. But to phrase the question with such precision is, in a way, to let Putin off too easy: he is guilty even when he’s not, because after more than twenty years ruling over a highly personalized autocracy, the poisoning of opposition figures has become a terrifyingly normal aspect of the country’s political life, and there’s apparently nothing Putin cares to do about it, or can. That toxin has surfaced not for the first time and, certainly, not for the last.