Mr. Navalny insists that his poisoners, acting on Mr. Putin’s orders, intended to kill him. But perhaps, as an investigation by the Dossier Center — financed by the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Kremlin critic who spent nearly 10 years in prison — suggested, the plan was not to kill Mr. Navalny but to frighten him away. That would make sense. After all, many of Mr. Putin’s previous opponents have, in duress or fear, permanently left Russia.
When Mr. Putin agreed to allow Mr. Navalny’s evacuation to Germany for treatment, he in all likelihood felt sure that the man would not come back. It was a fair bet: Over the years of Mr. Putin’s power, the more people have had access to automobiles, appliances and consumer electronics, the more they have consented to limitations on their freedom and political activity. Mr. Putin probably felt sure that Mr. Navalny was like the others — that between prison in Russia and a life of comfort in Europe, he would choose the latter. But Mr. Putin miscalculated.
Even before completing his treatment in Germany, Mr. Navalny stated that he was going back to Russia; he even publicly announced his flight number and departure time. Once arrived, he was duly arrested at passport control. There followed an emergency hearing at a local police precinct house, several weeks in a Moscow jail and then sentencing to over two years in a penal colony. At every step, Mr. Navalny released statements on social media through his lawyers, his trademark humor and self-confidence visible throughout.
Even when in jail his legs started to fail and he demanded to see his doctors, he made a joke about it: He said that he had gotten used to his leg and didn’t want to lose it. It was the behavior of a brave, proud, unbroken man standing up to an inhumane system, whose weapons are prison and violence — an archetypical plot, familiar to any country that has experienced dictatorship. Though Mr. Navalny’s condition, at times dire, seems to have stabilized, there can be no assurance of his safety as long as he languishes in prison. The prospects for the opposition movement — not least after the activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Mr. Navalny’s political organization, were suspended on Monday — look bleak.
As for Mr. Putin, he has discovered the folly of refusing to face his opponent honestly. The protests that swept across the country on Wednesday — after major demonstrations in support of Mr. Navalny in January — attest to the strength of Mr. Navalny’s appeal and, more important perhaps, to the depth of ordinary Russians’ dissatisfaction with their ruler. This was of his own doing. By not recognizing Mr. Navalny’s right to participate in politics, Mr. Putin brought himself into a confrontation with a leader who is his equal.
Now, after getting rid of all his opponents, real and imaginary, Mr. Putin finds himself alone. Like the queen in a Russian fairy tale, who every day asks a magic mirror who’s the fairest of them all, he desperately craves supremacy. But when he asks the mirror who Russia’s true leader is, it answers: Aleksei Navalny.
Oleg Kashin (@KSHN) is a journalist and the author of “Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin.” This essay was translated by Carol Apollonio from the Russian.
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