Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


How did Navalny die? Russian spies ‘visited prison’ days earlier

FSB agents are accused of disconnecting CCTV as the Putin critic’s mother demands his body back
Police forcibly detain a man at a gathering in memory of Alexei Navalny at the Wall of Grieg in Moscow, a monument to the victims of political repression
Police forcibly detain a man at a gathering in memory of Alexei Navalny at the Wall of Grieg in Moscow, a monument to the victims of political repression REUTERS

Two days before Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead at the bleak “Polar Wolf” prison at Kharp, high in the Arctic Circle, several officers from the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, are said to have paid a visit — and proceeded to disconnect and dismantle 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.”

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

A possible explanation was provided by an unnamed inmate speaking to Novaya Gazeta. He claimed prisoners at Polar Wolf had been told already 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 unknown vehicles on the territory of the prison, he said, adding: “I think Navalny died much earlier than the time that was announced.”


It was not immediately possible to verify the claims, although Novaya Gazeta is a highly regarded opposition newspaper., 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 from 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
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

A further twist came when it emerged that his mother had arrived at the mortuary where authorities had claimed her son’s body had been taken, 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.

Officials had initially said that Navalny died of a blood clot, or thrombosis. His mother was told by prison officials that the body was at a mortuary in Salekhard, a town about 30 miles away. However, on Saturday staff there said they had not taken delivery of it.

“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 fed miserly rations.

Hundreds of arrests across Russia at Navalny memorials

“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.


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 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. The foreign secretary also signalled the UK could sanction Russian officials in response.

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.

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.

Police stop people laying flowers at memorial

“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.

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. Its location enhances the misery: in the depths of winter, the sun is up for less than two hours around midday and it is bitterly cold. Summer, when temperatures soar, brings swarms of mosquitoes.

Navalny’s parents, Anatoly and Lyudmila, leave the IK-6 penal colony where he was jailed last June
Navalny’s parents, Anatoly and Lyudmila, leave the IK-6 penal colony where he was jailed last June

Navalny, predictably, made light of the hell on earth into which he had plunged. A few days after his arrival, in a thread on Twitter/X, he dubbed himself “the new Santa Claus”, with his sheepskin coat, fur hat and traditional valenki felt boots. “I don’t say ‘Ho-ho-ho’, but I do say ‘Oh-oh-oh’ when I look out of the window, where I can see a night, then the evening, and then the night again,” he wrote.


In subsequent postings he described being confined to a cell only 11 steps from one end to the other and being woken every day at 5am by the Russian national anthem — followed invariably by I’m Russian, a popular song by Yaroslav Dronov, a pro-Putin singer who performs under the name of Shaman. In another, on the Telegram messaging service, he wrote of the “invigorating” effect of going out at 6.30am, adding: “You can walk for more than half an hour only if you manage to grow a new nose, new ears and new fingers.”

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 and his wife Yulia Navalnaya
Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya

In its statement on Friday afternoon, the prison service claimed the opposition leader “felt unwell after a walk and almost immediately lost consciousness”, adding that emergency medical workers carried out “all of the necessary resuscitation measures” but they “did not yield positive results”.

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.

Yulia Navalnaya, the opposition leader’s widow, 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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