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Navalny’s Death Signals the End of Peaceful Opposition to Putin

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Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, who united people in his fight against Vladimir Putin’s regime, died Friday in a remote Arctic prison, where he was serving a decades-long sentence on trumped-up charges. He is survived by his wife, two kids, and the millions of Russians at home and abroad who yearned for a better future. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine, now in overdrive, lists the cause of death as a blood clot, spinning a narrative that Putin — ever-so-popular with the people — didn’t need Navalny to die.

In his 25 years in power, Putin has killed journalists, politicians, oligarchs, warlords, and activists — anyone who dared to speak up and oppose his brutal regime. Murder is Putin’s MO, and time and time again it proved to be an effective means of keeping his grip on power. But Navalny’s sudden death changes the equation for Putin — and for Russia’s future; it symbolizes a transfer of power from those who seek peaceful means to fight the regime to those who believe that the only way to change Russia is by force.

Navalny’s last call to action was when he asked opposition-minded Russians to take part in “a noon against Putin” — a silent protest planned for March 17, the last day of Russia’s three-day presidential election, that would have people flood the country’s polling stations exactly at noon and cast their ballot for any candidate but Putin. By no means a strategy to change the outcome of a predetermined election, this was a way for those opposed to Putin to see that they’re not alone. There’s little doubt that some Russians will come and express their disdain for Putin and his bloody ways, but sadly, a silent protest against a neo-fascist regime, amid its yearslong war of imperial conquest, is unlikely to bring about change.

Navalny’s struggle was peaceful. Throughout his political career, Navalny argued that free and fair elections and ending corruption would bring prosperity to ordinary Russians and give each of them a voice in deciding their country’s future. Arguably, his popularity was second only to Putin’s, which caused the latter to fear and, eventually, put Navalny in jail, where he died. Tragically, Navalny’s fight for a better Russia was short of bringing about a tectonic shift in the way that Russians perceived their country — and themselves. Navalny’s death wasn’t for nothing; his work — the extensive catalog of Putin’s corruption — will undoubtedly contribute to the eventual regime change in Russia. But that change won’t be won with the late freedom fighter’s values.

The fight against Putin is far from over, as a new generation of activists emerges in Russia. While they may share Navalny’s disdain for Putin, they see the futility of a nonviolent approach to bring change to Russia. 

Last June, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious financier of the Wagner mercenaries who sent tens of thousands of Russian convicts to storm the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, announced a “march of justice.” Blaming the corruption of the Russian elite for the country’s setbacks in the war in Ukraine, he assembled a group of fighters in a military that quickly took the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and proceeded towards Moscow. Prigozhin demanded that Putin hand him the Russian minister of defense and the chief of the general staff, so that he could punish them for their inept handling of the war in Ukraine.  

Prigozhin, whose plane was mysteriously blown out of the sky two months after his failed mutiny, was the new face of the Russian revolt: Whatever he lacked in political prowess, integrity, and even popular support, he made up for with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and a crew of mercenaries with no qualms about using them against their countrymen. Prigozhin’s death, meant to serve as a warning not to try and oust Putin, reinforced the belief that the next time an armed group marches towards the Kremlin, it better not stop at Moscow’s outskirts. 

Another Putin critic, Igor Strelkov (sentenced to life for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, now jailed in Russia on unrelated extremism charges) could be heard quoting Navalny’s investigations into the corrupt dealings of Putin’s inner circle, including the Defense Minister’s opulent villa outside of Moscow. Like Navalny, Strelkov was also convinced that corruption is preventing Russia from realizing its potential, albeit one of imperial glory. 

After Navalny was jailed and politics in Russia were declared a form of extremism, extremism invariably became a form of politics. Opposition to Putin is no longer limited to exiled intellectuals, writers, and liberal-minded Russians, but now includes the likes of the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps — paramilitary units consisting of Russian citizens fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war. Their successful incursions into Russia proper, along with the partisans’ derailing of trains and setting fires to oil refineries across the country, is slowly crystalizing the idea that death and destruction are legitimate and, arguably, effective tools to fight Putin and his men with guns.

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A bloody revolution was not what Navalny or the millions of his supporters stood for. It’s doubtful that anti-Putin rallies, held today in front of Russian embassies worldwide, call for mutinies, guns, bombardments, or the use of lethal force against a man who has never shied away from using such force himself. But with the rallies, the outrage, and the heaps of flowers laid in Navalny’s memory, it’s hard not to notice that an irreversible change happened in Russia: The voices of peace, even that of Navalny, are all but ignored. Russia’s future is no longer in an Arctic Gulag, sending messages of love, hope, and resilience. It’s no longer in books, ballots, or blogs. Rather, it’s in the hands of the people whose values, whatever they may be, are expressed through violent force.

Tragically, it’s not the future that Navalny had died for, but it may be one that Putin deserves.


Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, who united people in his fight against Vladimir Putin’s regime, died Friday in a remote Arctic prison, where he was serving a decades-long sentence on trumped-up charges. He is survived by his wife, two kids, and the millions of Russians at home and abroad who yearned for a better future. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine, now in overdrive, lists the cause of death as a blood clot, spinning a narrative that Putin — ever-so-popular with the people — didn’t need Navalny to die.

In his 25 years in power, Putin has killed journalists, politicians, oligarchs, warlords, and activists — anyone who dared to speak up and oppose his brutal regime. Murder is Putin’s MO, and time and time again it proved to be an effective means of keeping his grip on power. But Navalny’s sudden death changes the equation for Putin — and for Russia’s future; it symbolizes a transfer of power from those who seek peaceful means to fight the regime to those who believe that the only way to change Russia is by force.

Navalny’s last call to action was when he asked opposition-minded Russians to take part in “a noon against Putin” — a silent protest planned for March 17, the last day of Russia’s three-day presidential election, that would have people flood the country’s polling stations exactly at noon and cast their ballot for any candidate but Putin. By no means a strategy to change the outcome of a predetermined election, this was a way for those opposed to Putin to see that they’re not alone. There’s little doubt that some Russians will come and express their disdain for Putin and his bloody ways, but sadly, a silent protest against a neo-fascist regime, amid its yearslong war of imperial conquest, is unlikely to bring about change.

Navalny’s struggle was peaceful. Throughout his political career, Navalny argued that free and fair elections and ending corruption would bring prosperity to ordinary Russians and give each of them a voice in deciding their country’s future. Arguably, his popularity was second only to Putin’s, which caused the latter to fear and, eventually, put Navalny in jail, where he died. Tragically, Navalny’s fight for a better Russia was short of bringing about a tectonic shift in the way that Russians perceived their country — and themselves. Navalny’s death wasn’t for nothing; his work — the extensive catalog of Putin’s corruption — will undoubtedly contribute to the eventual regime change in Russia. But that change won’t be won with the late freedom fighter’s values.

The fight against Putin is far from over, as a new generation of activists emerges in Russia. While they may share Navalny’s disdain for Putin, they see the futility of a nonviolent approach to bring change to Russia. 

Last June, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious financier of the Wagner mercenaries who sent tens of thousands of Russian convicts to storm the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, announced a “march of justice.” Blaming the corruption of the Russian elite for the country’s setbacks in the war in Ukraine, he assembled a group of fighters in a military that quickly took the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and proceeded towards Moscow. Prigozhin demanded that Putin hand him the Russian minister of defense and the chief of the general staff, so that he could punish them for their inept handling of the war in Ukraine.  

Prigozhin, whose plane was mysteriously blown out of the sky two months after his failed mutiny, was the new face of the Russian revolt: Whatever he lacked in political prowess, integrity, and even popular support, he made up for with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and a crew of mercenaries with no qualms about using them against their countrymen. Prigozhin’s death, meant to serve as a warning not to try and oust Putin, reinforced the belief that the next time an armed group marches towards the Kremlin, it better not stop at Moscow’s outskirts. 

Another Putin critic, Igor Strelkov (sentenced to life for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, now jailed in Russia on unrelated extremism charges) could be heard quoting Navalny’s investigations into the corrupt dealings of Putin’s inner circle, including the Defense Minister’s opulent villa outside of Moscow. Like Navalny, Strelkov was also convinced that corruption is preventing Russia from realizing its potential, albeit one of imperial glory. 

After Navalny was jailed and politics in Russia were declared a form of extremism, extremism invariably became a form of politics. Opposition to Putin is no longer limited to exiled intellectuals, writers, and liberal-minded Russians, but now includes the likes of the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps — paramilitary units consisting of Russian citizens fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war. Their successful incursions into Russia proper, along with the partisans’ derailing of trains and setting fires to oil refineries across the country, is slowly crystalizing the idea that death and destruction are legitimate and, arguably, effective tools to fight Putin and his men with guns.

Trending

A bloody revolution was not what Navalny or the millions of his supporters stood for. It’s doubtful that anti-Putin rallies, held today in front of Russian embassies worldwide, call for mutinies, guns, bombardments, or the use of lethal force against a man who has never shied away from using such force himself. But with the rallies, the outrage, and the heaps of flowers laid in Navalny’s memory, it’s hard not to notice that an irreversible change happened in Russia: The voices of peace, even that of Navalny, are all but ignored. Russia’s future is no longer in an Arctic Gulag, sending messages of love, hope, and resilience. It’s no longer in books, ballots, or blogs. Rather, it’s in the hands of the people whose values, whatever they may be, are expressed through violent force.

Tragically, it’s not the future that Navalny had died for, but it may be one that Putin deserves.

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