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The Kremlin Was Never Able to Fully Silence Navalny

While the Kremlin authorities worked tirelessly over many years to silence Aleksei A. Navalny, they never entirely succeeded, not even by locking him up in one of the harshest penal colonies located above the Arctic Circle.

Using both his reputation as the most respected, most viable leader of the often beleaguered opposition movement — and his training as a lawyer with a wily understanding of loopholes in the system — Mr. Navalny always found ways to be heard.

From prison, he denounced the war in Ukraine and continued to spotlight the vast wealth accumulated by senior government officials. In his latest effort, he endorsed the idea that, during the presidential election from March 15 to 17, all Russians opposed to the war should protest silently by showing up at polling stations across Russia exactly at noon.

“While in prison, Aleksei Navalny remained the moral and de facto leader of the opposition to Putin,” said Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a Russian political commentator based in Brussels. “This certainly bothered the authorities.”

While in prison, Mr. Navalny used several methods to communicate with the outside world. Barred from seeing his immediate family members, he spoke to his lawyers and some of what he said invariably ended up on X, formerly Twitter, and other social media apps.

For example, starting in early 2023 he had a 15-point posting pinned to the top of his profile in X attacking President Vladimir V. Putin for the war in Ukraine and predicting defeat. Russia criminalized such comments early in the war, but Mr. Navalny, already sentenced to at least two decades in prison, had nothing to lose.

“The real reasons for this war are the political and economic problems within Russia, Putin’s desire to hold on to power at any cost, and his obsession with his own historical legacy,” the post said. “He wants to go down in history as ‘the conqueror czar’ and ‘the collector of lands’.” It attracted more than 3.3 million views.

The authorities first tried to hinder communications by installing an opaque barrier in the visiting room, so he and his lawyers could not see written messages. When that failed, his three lawyers were arrested last year and charged with participating in an extremist organization. Both his organization, Foundation for Fighting Corruption, and his sprawling network of regional political offices were declared extremist organizations in 2021. The three lawyers who were accused are currently in pretrial detention.

Imprisoned under increasingly harsh conditions, often in solitary confinement, Mr. Navalny repeatedly brought lawsuits against the authorities over violations of prison regulations. That forced the authorities to hold open hearings, and Mr. Navalny used his appearance from a court inside prison to both denounce his treatment and to comment on political issues.

He sued over the fact that he was not given a paper and pen. He sued over the 10-minute limit imposed on him to eat, saying that since he was given boiling water he could not drink it in that time.

Last August, the prison authorities sought to punish him over his use of slang words, saying that he was contributing toward a “criminal environment.” But Mr. Navalny, who demanded that the prison authorities supply him with a list of prohibited words, again sued, arguing that senior Kremlin officials used similar vocabulary all the time. The concept of a “criminal environment” in Russia was a broad one that included “people in suit jackets,” he said.

His organization, which moved to exile in Lithuania even before Russia invaded Ukraine, continued with its anti-corruption investigations and its You Tube news channel, which also kept him in the spotlight.

Yevgenia Albats, a renowned Russian journalist currently at Harvard University, said Mr. Navalny maintained his appeal from prison. (She underscored that she was still waiting for confirmation of his death from his lawyers, because the government might just be “trying to hide him.”)

“He used every possibility to speak out and people were listening to him, people were watching for the news from the penal colony,” she said. “His main message was ‘I am not afraid, and you should not be afraid.’”

Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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