Russian magazine more popular than ever after Kremlin censorship of Navalny cover story

The editor of a Moscow-based weekly magazine said the Kremlin’s crackdown on its front page coverage of Alexei Navalny’s death has made his publication more popular than ever.

Navalny, a fierce opposition figure who frequently spoke out against Vladimir Putin, died at an Arctic penal colony on 16 February in mysterious circumstances. Western leaders and Navalny’s family and team believe he was killed and that Mr Putin was responsible for his death.

Navalny’s mother Lyudmila said she was forced to sign a death certificate that stated that he died of natural causes.

Oleg Roldugin, the editor-in-chief of Sobesednik, said the paper was right to give front-page attention to Navalny’s death, which was largely either ignored or given minimal coverage in the majority of Russian media.

Most copies of Sobesednik with the Navalny cover story were confiscated by the authorities and removed from newspaper stands in Moscow.

Sobesednik carried a two-page spread on Navalny on 20 February with a front-page photograph of him smiling and captioned it: “...but there is hope!”.

The coverage included a lengthy obituary and reports of spontaneous vigils – also disrupted by Moscow’s police – held across the Russian capital to honour the opposition leader.

Mr Roldugin said the paper was right to lead with its the coverage of Navalny’s death. “We are doing our normal journalistic work. There was a newsbreak – a man who is well-known and influential enough had died,” he told Reuters.

“Therefore, we did our normal journalistic work, which our colleagues were supposed to do.”

Mr Roldugin said the copies of the newspaper were confiscated shortly after hitting Moscow stands “without any legal justification”.

The newspaper is now more popular than ever among readers, he said, adding that he received “many” calls asking for extra copies after the news of its confiscation began circulating in Moscow.

He could not provide figures for financial losses, but said the newspaper has a print circulation of around 154,000.

The Sobesednik coverage was in sharp contrast with most Russian state media reports which minimised the news of Navalny’s death in a far north Arctic penal colony. Some channels ignored the news, while others mentioned it briefly without running his picture or even, in some cases, referring to him by name. None ran his family’s critical comments about the conduct of the authorities.

Russia has observed an increasingly strict clampdown on press freedom under Vladimir Putin’s rule, which has only intensified and been codified since the invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has shuttered virtually all independent media outlets or forced them into exile and directed all state media to toe the government line, particularly with regards to the war – which they are still legally required to refer to as a “special military operation”.