Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 18 February 2024


How did Navalny die? Body found ‘bruised’ in morgue

FSB agents accused of disconnecting CCTV as the Putin critic’s wife posts a picture of the pair on social media
Police detain a man at a gathering in memory of Alexei Navalny at the Wall of Grief in Moscow, a monument to the victims of political repression
Police detain a man at a gathering in memory of Alexei Navalny at the Wall of Grief in Moscow, a monument to the victims of political repression REUTERS
The Times

Russian medical workers discovered bruising on Alexei Navalny’s body consistent with him being restrained while suffering a seizure, a report has said.

Novaya Gazeta, a highly regarded opposition newspaper, said that it had managed to contact an inmate at IK-3, who said that a “mysterious commotion” had erupted at the prison the night before news of Navalny’s death broke.

“We heard cars drive on to the prison grounds late at night but couldn’t see through our cell windows what they were,” the inmate added. According to an anonymous paramedic also cited by the paper, Navalny’s body was taken to the Salekhard district clinical hospital on Friday evening.

They said: “Usually the bodies of those who die in colonies are delivered directly to the forensic medical examination bureau on Glazkova Street, but for some reason they were taken to the clinic.

“As an ambulance worker with quite a lot of experience, I can say that such injuries, as those who saw them described them, appear as a result of convulsions.”


The paramedic said that such bruising could appear if medical staff were trying to restrain someone experiencing strong convulsions.

“They also said that he also had a bruise on his chest. But one that appears in connection with indirect cardiac massage,” the source added.

The Times could not independently confirm or deny the accuracy of the reports. Information about the potential direct cause of Navalny’s death has been patchy and contradictory.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of Alexei Navalny, and the lawyer Vasily Dubkov arrive in the town of Salekhard, near the prison colony where her son died
Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of Alexei Navalny, and the lawyer Vasily Dubkov arrive in the town of Salekhard, near the prison colony where her son died

Initially, Russia’s prison service had stated that he felt unwell while taking a walk and that doctors had tried to resuscitate him. Then, Kremlin-backed channels claimed that his death had been the result of a blood clot prior to any post-mortem examination apparently having taken place.

However, an unnamed doctor from the Labytnangi city hospital, speaking to MediaZona, an independent Russian media outlet, cast doubt on claims of resuscitation attempts, stating that the closest ambulance team was just over 20 miles from the prison, and he would have been dead by the time resuscitation attempts started.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posted a photograph of her and her husband on social media on Sunday. It showed Navalny kissing her face as they stood under an umbrella watching a band. She added the caption: “I love you”.

Over the weekend, Russian courts sentenced dozens of people to short-term prison sentences for participating in vigils or actions honouring Navalny.

The St Petersburg court service stated on Telegram that across Saturday and Sunday it had handed 154 people sentences ranging from one to 14 days for breaching Russia’s anti-protest laws. Others were given fines of up to 15,000 roubles (£130).


By Sunday evening, some 387 people had been detained across 39 Russian cities after participating in commemorative actions such as laying flowers at monuments to victims of political repression, according to the human rights media outlet OVD-Info.

It has also emerged that two days before Navalny was pronounced dead at the bleak “Polar Wolf” prison at Kharp, high in the Arctic Circle, that several officers from the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, were said to have paid a visit and disconnected and dismantled some of the security cameras and listening devices there.

The visit, which activists say was mentioned in a report by the local branch of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), was not the only suspicious event surrounding the opposition leader’s death on Friday. Equally astonishing was the speed with which the authorities announced and commented on the tragedy in the remote camp 1,200 miles from Moscow, according to a timeline published by, a human rights group.

Just two minutes after the time Navalny, 47, was officially reported to have died — 2.17pm local time (9.17am GMT) — the prison service put out what appeared to be a prepared press release; four minutes later, a state-controlled channel on the Telegram messaging site claimed the cause of death was a blood clot, and then, a mere seven minutes after that, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, was talking to the media about it.

“This rapid timing can only mean one thing,” the human rights group claimed. “Everything was pre-planned and co-ordinated, right down to the FSIN press release. Minute by minute. Second by second.”

A possible explanation was provided by an unnamed inmate speaking to Novaya Gazeta. He claimed prisoners at Polar Wolf had been told at 10am local time on Friday that Navalny was dead, which would have given authorities more than four hours to prepare their response. This followed the arrival the previous evening and during the night of vehicles in the grounds of the prison, he said, adding: “I think Navalny died much earlier than the time that was announced.”

Police detain a man after he tried to lay flowers for Navalny at a monument to gulag victims in St Petersburg
Police detain a man after he tried to lay flowers for Navalny at a monument to gulag victims in St Petersburg

It was not immediately possible to verify those claims., founded by the campaigner Vladimir Osechkin, has contacts among political prisoners and was the first site to break the news that Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner military company, had been recruiting in jails, though it has been proven wrong at some points in the past.


As was the case with the deaths of previous thorns in President Putin’s side — from Alexander Litvinenko, a former intelligence officer poisoned with polonium-210 in London in 2006, to Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader shot outside the Kremlin in 2015 — key details about how Navalny died may take some time to establish.

Navalny’s spokeswoman confirms his death

A further twist came when it emerged that Navalny’s mother had arrived at the mortuary where the authorities had claimed her son’s body had been taken, only to find it was not there. Lyudmila Navalnaya, 69, and Navalny’s lawyer, had flown 1,200 miles from Moscow to Kharp, where temperatures sank to minus 28C, to try to visit the prison camp where he had been serving a 30-year sentence.

It was the day after the Russian opposition leader was reported to have died in custody. They were handed a notice of death and told that Navalny had died of “sudden death syndrome”, a vague term for cardiac failure.

His mother was told by prison officials that his body was at a mortuary in Salekhard, a town about 30 miles away. However, on Saturday staff there said that it was not there.

“Alexei Navalny was murdered,” said Kira Yarmysh, his press secretary, in a video. Navalny had spent about 300 days in punishment cells before his death on Friday and had been subject to sleep deprivation, denied medical care and given little to eat.

“The whole world knows that the president of Russia personally gave this order [for his murder] just as it knows that Alexei was never afraid of him, never stayed silent and that he never stopped acting. We must not give up. This is what Alexei urged us to do,” she said.

Hundreds of people were arrested across Russia at Navalny memorials


Officials said they would not hand over the body to his family until they had completed their investigation into his death. His allies accused investigators of trying to cover up evidence that Navalny had been murdered. “It’s obvious that the killers want to cover their tracks and are therefore not handing over Alexei’s body, hiding it even from his mother,” they said on social media.

At the Munich security conference in Germany, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, the foreign secretary, urged G7 countries to seize Russian central bank assets held in the west to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction, as he signalled the UK would act over Navalny’s death. He also signalled the UK could sanction Russian officials in response.

Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief, announced that he would attend the EU foreign affairs council meeting in Brussels on Monday.

“EU ministers will send a strong message of support to freedom fighters in Russia and honour the memory of Alexi @navalny,” Borrell tweeted.

The depths of Putin’s hatred for Navalny appears undiminished even after his death. Overnight state security officers removed a deep pile of flowers that had been left at a makeshift shrine in Moscow.

Undeterred by a heavy police presence on Saturday, people brought new flowers, candles and photographs of Navalny to two monuments to the victims of Soviet political terror that have become a focal point for grief and anger in the Russian capital.

People remove flowers from memorials to Navalny before they are replaced

Even this symbolic gesture was too much for Putin’s security forces, who moved in swiftly to make arrests. “What are you doing?” shouted one young woman as she was wrestled to the ground by about half a dozen burly police officers. Others were marched to waiting police vans, their arms twisted painfully behind their backs. About 400 people have been arrested at events in honour of Navalny across the country, according to the Ovd-info rights group.

“I saw the arrests, but I couldn’t sit at home. It was like my heart stopped yesterday. My wife and I just didn’t say a word for two hours and then we went to lay flowers. And today too,” said Yevgeny, who laid flowers with his wife and left quickly to avoid being detained.

Navalny had been behind bars since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning that he blamed on Putin. He had been convicted on a range of politically motivated charges ranging from fraud to extremism.

“He really wanted to go home. I don’t think there is anybody in the world who could have convinced him not to go back,” Maria Pevchikh, the head of Navalny’s FBK anti-corruption organisation, told The Times recently.

His death is the darkest day for Russia’s opposition movement in many years. Yet the scale of the rallies would have been far bigger if Navalny had been killed a decade ago, when he led massive protests against vote fraud that briefly threatened to topple Putin.

Navalny’s parents, Anatoly and Lyudmila, leave the IK-6 penal colony where he had previously been held
Navalny’s parents, Anatoly and Lyudmila, leave the IK-6 penal colony where he had previously been held

In 2013, in a sign of Navalny’s growing influence, the Kremlin was forced to release him from prison shortly after he had been sentenced to five years on fraud charges that were widely seen as politically motivated. He would later be handed a suspended sentence. It was one of Navalny’s biggest triumphs over the Kremlin.

Polar Wolf — officially known as Correctional Facility No. 3 (IK-3) — was where Navalny arrived on board a prison train after “disappearing” in the Russian prison system for almost three weeks. One of the most northerly and remote establishments in Russia, the camp is notorious for its brutal conditions. In the depths of winter, the sun rises for less than two hours around midday and it is bitterly cold. Summer, when temperatures soar, brings swarms of mosquitoes.

Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya
Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya

One former inmate described being made to assemble in the courtyard in winter before being doused with water, according to testimony collected by Olga Romanova, a journalist who founded the campaigning group, Russia Behind Bars. But were the conditions so severe that they ultimately killed Navalny?

Navalny had appeared in good humour and outwardly healthy in video footage shot during a court appearance the day before his death, but there is no doubt that the after effects of his poisoning, coupled with three years of incarceration, had taken their toll on his health.

In its report, cited claims that Navalny had spent as long as four hours in the small exercise yard on Friday at a time when the temperature was about minus 20C. CCTV footage would have proved if this were true. It would also have clarified whether he had walked back to his cell or had to be carried. Past experience suggests that in Putin’s Russia, these — and other questions surrounding his death — may never be answered.

Russians have their say on Navalny’s death

Despite the rallies, Navalny’s death is unlikely to lead to any meaningful resistance to Putin. He has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister for 24 years, and many Russians have known no other leader.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Putin has unleashed the largest wave of political repression since the bloody reign of Joseph Stalin. People have been jailed for seven years for anti-war stickers, anti-war poems and even, in the case of a local councillor, for suggesting that Moscow should not hold an arts festival for children while babies were dying in Ukraine.

Navalnaya delivered a tearful and angry denunciation of Putin’s regime on Friday from a podium at the Munich security conference. The couple have two children together, Daria, 23, and Zakhar, 15. “I want Putin and everyone around him, Putin’s friends, his government, to know that they will bear responsibility for what they have done to our country, to my family and to my husband,” she said.

Navalny’s wife says Putin will “bear responsibility”

A decade ago, when Navalny first announced that he wanted to become president, he laid out his vision for Russia. “I want to change life in the country. I want to change the way it is ruled. I want to do things so that the 140 million people who live in this country, who have oil and gas coming out of the ground, do not live in poverty or dark squalor and live normally like in a European country,” he said.

That day now seems further away than ever. His final message from prison, which was posted to social media by his supporters, was a Valentine’s Day message to his wife. “Baby, everything is like in a song with you: between us there are cities, the take-off lights of airfields, blue snowstorms and thousands of kilometres. But I feel that you are near every second, and I love you more and more.”

As the crowd in Moscow continued to try to honour Navalny’s life, one man with a small child spoke about his hopes and fears for the future. “I don’t know how long this [political terror] will go on for,” he said. “Our parents lived in the Soviet Union all their lives. Somehow, they managed to raise decent children in these conditions. And so we will try.”

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