A cold November morning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny received a visit from his family at Penal Colony No. 2 in the city of Pokrov. The wife and parents of the politician and lawyer brought bags of food to a waiting room, where an old telephone allowed them to announce their visit to the guards. Shortly after, the prisoner was led to meet him. he saw it skinny, with a shaved head and a wide smile framed by a prison hat. Had passed ten months since his incarceration, and more than a year since he nearly died of chemical poisoning. The effects on his nervous system were no longer noticeable; his hands had stopped shaking. “He looked good”his wife later told him Yulia Navalnaya to Simon Shuster from the magazine Time. “Without changes”.
Navalny did not decide to be there, but he was fully aware that if he returned to the country, the state would imprison him in this prison with silent guards and papered windows to create the sensation, according to the opponent, of living inside a shoe box. From his temporary exile, he decided almost exactly a year ago to submit to the custody of the regime that was accused of trying to assassinate him. But the poison had failed to kill him.
from his barracks, continues to lead a network of dissidents dedicated to overthrowing Russian President Vladimir Putin. His main allies are fugitives from Russian law.
Through them, the journalist simon shuster managed to contact Navalny to interview him through letters. The exchange between the two, which lasted until mid-January, coincided with a time of tension in Europe. Putin began massing troops near the Ukrainian border, threatening a possible invasion, in the face of US opposition, setting off a clash reminiscent of the Cold War. Envoys from both countries spent weeks exchanging threats and demands. “Time and time again, the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps”Navalny wrote in one of the letters addressed to Shuster. “It takes my breath away to see how Putin does this to the American establishment over and over again,” he said.
Navalny is an expert on Putin. He has been studying it obsessively for a long time. His extensive knowledge about the Kremlin leader allows him to know his true fears. They are not the deployment of US forces in Eastern Europe or the possibility that Ukraine may one day enter the NATO alliance. What Putin really fears, according to Shuster’s article in Time, is a change of power in Russia, followed by the liquidation of his clan of oligarchs and spies. Putin is kept awake by the space for democratic dissidence that NATO opens up along its border. This fear, Navalny says, is what drives all of Russia’s conflicts with the West. “To consolidate the country and the elites, Putin constantly needs all these extreme measures, all these wars – real, virtual, hybrid or just fighting on the verge of war, as we are seeing now”, he states in one of his letters.
Navalny wants the United States to put pressure on the Kremlin from the outside while he and his supporters do the same but from within. This combination, according to him, will divide the elites around Putin, giving way to what the opponent’s followers call “the beautiful Russia of the future”, free, democratic and at peace with its neighbors and the West.
Asked about the crisis in Kazakhstan and Putin’s help in suppressing the protests, Navalny understands it as the price of change after 21 years under the rule of one man. “Our path was never strewn with roses,” he said.
Navalny has long been a stone in the kremlin’s shoe. In 2016, he announced his plans to run as president of Russia, but authorities prevented him from voting. However, his campaign set up offices across the country. His supporters ran for local elections and denounced the Kremlin’s corruption. Navalny spent much of his time visiting his regional offices across the country, drawing crowds.
It was during a trip to the provinces that he became ill from poisoning. In August 2020, Navalny traveled to Siberia to shoot a video about corruption. On the flight back to Moscow, he turned to his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, and told her that he felt strange, unable to concentrate. Within minutes, he was lying on the floor of the plane, moaning in pain and barely conscious. The pilot made a emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was transferred to a hospital and then to Germany.
After three weeks in a coma, three European laboratories concluded that the main Russian opponent was the victim of a neurotoxic substance of the Novichok group, created in the Soviet era for military purposes.
The opponent decided to return to his country five months after being poisoned, even though the threats of capture were explicit. And so it was, the activist was arrested by the police as soon as he set foot on Russian territory.
Minutes after his arrest was released, the prison service, the FSIN, confirmed the arrest. He claimed he did it for “multiple violations” of a 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges.
The politician said goodbye with a kiss from his wife, Yulia, with whom he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had recovered for almost five months from the poisoning he suffered in August. “I can tell you that I am completely happy to have returned and that it is my best day in the last five months,” the opposition leader told the press shortly before his arrest.
Last June, a Moscow court designated Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist group. Under Russian law, the sentence made crime to work with or support the organization, a legal status similar to that of ISIS or Al Qaeda. The regional branches of the foundation closed. Security forces persecuted his staff, accusing some of extremism. Many others fled Russia for fear of arrest.
Putin, who denies Navalny his freedom, can stay in power until at least 2036, thanks to a constitutional amendment enacted last year. But if the West wants political change in Russia, “We absolutely do not have to wait for Putin’s physical death”says Navalny in the exchange of letters with Time magazine.
At the end of the correspondence, journalist Shuster asked Navalny about his regrets. Isn’t Putin better off with him in jail and his movement in exile? “He himself made things worse”, replied the opponent. “It is clear that it was a personal and emotional decision of Putin. First I didn’t die from the poison. Then I did not turn into a vegetable, as the doctors feared. Then I had the nerve not only to return but, once in Russia, to publish an investigation into Putin’s own corruption.”.
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