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Alexei Navalny: The final weeks and death of Russia’s leading Putin critic

Alexei Navalny following his arrest in 2017
Alexei Navalny following his arrest in 2017 - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

Alexei Navalny was the leading critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime when he collapsed and died on Friday in an Arctic penal colony.

The 47-year-old had been imprisoned since 2020, but with court appearances and his team issuing updates on social media, has rarely been away from the headlines.

However, he disappeared for weeks in December before resurfacing at “Polar Wolf”, a notoriously brutal prison colony in the Arctic Circle. Two months later, he was dead.

How did Navalny die?

The Russian opposition leader died at a prison inside the Artic Circle where he was serving a 19-year sentence.

The facility, often called the “Polar Wolf” jail, is officially known as the IK-3 penal colony and is located at Kharp in the Yamal-Nenets region, 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow.

His death was announced by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, which said the 47-year-old lost consciousness on Friday after taking a walk in the prison where he was moved last December, and when for several weeks his friends did not know where he was.

After his collapse – just one day after he appeared in court and was making jokes – an ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for more than half an hour, officials at Labytnang City Hospital told Russian state-run media RIA Novosti.

“The doctors who arrived at the scene continued the resuscitation measures that the prison’s doctors had already provided,” RIA quoted an official as saying.

“They carried them out for more than half an hour. However, the patient died. The ambulance team reached the prison in less than seven minutes, and doctors reached the patient two minutes later.”

The Russian prison service said Navalny “felt unwell after a walk” and “almost immediately” lost consciousness. It said it was investigating his “sudden death”.

For some time his supporters and family declined to believe the news, pointing out there had been earlier such reports that proved false.

His long-time chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, wrote on Twitter: “We have no reason to believe state propaganda. If this is true, then not ‘Navalny died’, but ‘Putin killed Navalny’ and only that. But I don’t trust them one penny.”

The Kremlin said Putin had been informed.

Reuters said the 71-year-old former KGB spy was shown smiling while meeting workers at a factory in Chelyabinsk, in the Ural mountains.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said: “The immediate reaction of Nato leaders to Navalny’s death in the form of direct accusations against Russia was self-exposing.”

Widow claims death was Novichok poisoning

Navalny’s family have been unable to see the Russian opposition leader’s body, which went missing for several days until it was located in an Arctic morgue.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, his mother, travelled to the only morgue in Salekhard, a town near to where her son was imprisoned, but was told it was closed when she arrived.

A lawyer who accompanied her later said he had telephoned the morgue but was told that they did not have Navalny’s remains.

Russian media reported that another local state laboratory had denied holding Navalny’s body, prompting concern over its whereabouts.

“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,” Navalny’s team said.

Navalny’s bruised body was eventually found at a hospital morgue two days after his death.

A Russian paramedic told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that the marks on his chest and head were seemingly caused during attempts to revive him.

“The person convulses, they try to restrain him, and bruises appear…They still tried to resuscitate him, and he died, most likely, from cardiac arrest,” they said.

Reporters said no autopsy had yet been performed on the Russian opposition leader, whom prison authorities claimed had died of “sudden death syndrome”.

However, Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow, claimed that the body had been kept away from his family to allow traces of Novichok to disappear.

The Putin critic had been poisoned with the nerve agent in 2020, and was flown to Germany for treatment. He returned to certain imprisonment in Russia the same year.

“They’re now hiding his body, refusing to show it to his mother, refusing to hand it over,” Ms Navalnaya said. “They’re lying, waiting for the traces of yet another Novichok of Putin’s to go away.”

In a video posted on Twitter, she pledged to “keep up” her husband’s struggle.

Life at “Polar Wolf” jail

Navalny was moved in secret to the remote prison at the end of last year. It was a period when for some weeks his supporters were uncertain of his whereabouts.

It later emerged that he was being held in a place where the temperatures drop as low as minus 30C.

“It’s never been colder than -25F. Even at that temperature you can walk for more than half an hour, but only if you have time to grow a new nose, ears, and fingers,” he wrote in a social media post last month.

“Today I went for a walk, froze, and thought of Leonardo DiCaprio and his character’s dead horse trick in the movie The Revenant. I do not think that it would have worked here. A dead horse would freeze to death in about 15 minutes.”

The AFP news agency said he posted his first message from his prison colony, which requires a three-week journey to reach by road, on Dec 26.

“I am your new grandfather Frost,” Navalny said, in what supporters said was his usual sardonic manner.

“I have a tulup, an ushanka and I will have valenki soon,” he said, referring to traditional furry Russian winter coats, hats and boots.

He added: “I now live above the Arctic Circle ... But I don’t say ‘ho-ho-ho’, I say ‘oh-oh-oh’ when I look out the window, where first there is night, then evening, then night again.”

Navalny said he was tired from the journey from his previous prison in the central Vladimir region, closer to Moscow, but added: “Don’t worry about me, everything is well. I am so happy that I finally got here.”

He was often held in solitary confinement – more than 300 days in total, according to his supporters – and last month his spokesperson said he had been sent again to a so-called “punishment cell” for 10 days for “incorrectly introducing himself” to a guard.

Navalny later said: “The idea that Putin was pleased enough that he had put me in a barracks in the Far North that they would stop throwing me in solitary confinement was ... naive.”

He frequently mocked prison routines. On Jan 22, he said the wardens at IK-3 would wake everybody up at 5am to play the Russian national anthem.

“And right after that - the second most important song in the country: Shaman’s ‘Ya Russky’,” he said.

The song – which means “I’m Russian” – has become an unofficial anthem for Putin.

“Imagine the scene. Yamal-Nenets region. Polar night. In a penal colony of convicts, prisoner Navalny serving 19 years – who the Kremlin’s propaganda for years has scolded for taking part in Russian marches - is exercising to ‘Ya Russky’.”

One of Navalny’s final posts, published on Feb 14 – Valentine’s Day – was dedicated to his wife.

“Baby, you and I have everything, just like in the song: cities, airfield lights, blue snowstorms and thousands of kilometres between us,” he said, quoting a popular Soviet-era tune.

“But I feel that you are near me every second, and I love you more and more.”‌

Joking in court with judge

On Thursday Navalny appeared in court, where he joked with a judge, hours before his death.

Appearing via a video link, the activist said: “I will send you my bank account number so that you can warm it up a little from your huge salary as a federal judge because my money is running dry.”

He added: “And because of the decision you took, that money will end even sooner,” saying the “whole prison” should chip in.

One of Navalny’s lawyers, Leonid Solovyov, told the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper he was “normal” when a colleague saw him on Wednesday.

In addition to being seen smiling, state media reported he raised no health complaints during the session.

In a previous court appearance, on Feb 8, he urged prison service workers to vote against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I have a suggestion: to vote for any candidate other than Putin. In order to vote against Putin, you just need to vote for any other candidate,” Navalny said.

“I made a list of people I talk to and took upon myself, as my socialist duty, to give this recommendation for each one of them. And that is why I give it to you. And I hope you will follow it.”

Navalny, dressed in a black prison uniform appeared in good humour, and the camera panned away to show the court officials grinning along with him.

On Wednesday he posted on social media. “The Yamal prison decided to break Vladimir’s record of fawning and pleasing the Moscow authorities. They just gave me 15 days in solitary confinement,” he wrote on Twitter.

“This is the fourth solitary confinement spell in less than 2 months that I have been with them,” he added.

It was his final post.