With Prison Certain and Death Likely, Why Did Navalny Return?

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An activist who thrived on agitation, he feared irrelevancy in exile. Winning new respect as he continued to lambast the Kremlin from behind bars cost him his life.

Aleksei A. Navalny surrounded by officials and people taking photographs with phones.
Aleksei A. Navalny returned to Moscow in January 2021 and was detained at the airport.Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Neil MacFarquhar

By Neil MacFarquhar

During the years he ran The New York Times Moscow bureau from 2014 to 2019, Neil MacFarquhar covered Mr. Navalny at numerous political rallies and protests.

There was one question that Russians repeatedly asked the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who died in a remote Arctic penal colony on Friday, and he confessed that he found it a little annoying.

Why, after surviving a fatal poisoning attempt widely blamed on the Kremlin, had he returned to Russia from his extended convalescence abroad to face certain imprisonment and possible death? Even his prison guards, turning off their recording devices, asked him why he had come back, he said.

“I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs,” Mr. Navalny wrote in a Jan. 17 Facebook post to mark the third anniversary of his return and arrest in 2021. “I cannot betray either the first or the second. If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.”

That was the direct answer, but for many Russians, both those who knew him and those who did not, the issue was more complex. Some of them considered it almost a classical Greek tragedy: The hero, knowing that he is doomed, returns home anyway because, well, if he didn’t, he would not be the hero.

Image

Police officers detaining a protester in Moscow during protests in support of Mr. Navalny after his return.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr. Navalny’s motto was that there was no reason to fear the authoritarian government of President Vladimir V. Putin. He wanted to put that into practice, Russian commentators said, and as an activist who thrived on agitation, he feared sinking into irrelevancy in exile. The decision won him new respect and followers as he continued to lambast the Kremlin from his prison cell, but it also cost him his life.


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