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Opposition leader Alexei Navalny's supporters blame Putin for his death in prison

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A spokesperson for Alexei Navalny confirms the death of the Russian opposition leader. He was in a remote penal colony in Russia's Arctic north. NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow and joins us. Charles, thank you for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What do we know about the circumstances of Mr. Navalny's death?

MAYNES: Well, we're still just left with this brief statement from Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service, which said that Navalny had fallen ill and lost consciousness after a walk in a prison yard on Friday and that medics had tried and failed to resuscitate him. But we also know this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So this is Navalny from just a day earlier at a court hearing he participated in by video feed from that same prison. You know, and as I think you can hear, he was in good spirits, and he looked healthy. So what changed? You know, we're all waiting for more information - for example, an autopsy report which the authorities are, in theory, required to provide. Though, obviously, transparency is a concern.

SIMON: Charles, what about reaction from Mr. Navalny's supporters and his family?

MAYNES: Well, as you know, Scott, Navalny's family and team now acknowledge that Navalny is gone, although they dispute the idea that he, quote, "died in prison." They argue he was murdered just as they, like President Biden, blamed Vladimir Putin personally for his death. Earlier today, Navalny's mother Lyudmila, together with his lawyer, arrived at the Arctic prison where Navalny was being held and were issued an official notification of death. They were also informed that Navalny's body had been taken away by investigators for an examination at the local morgue, despite demands to hand over his remains to the family. Only now the morgue says it never got a body. So it's not entirely clear where Navalny is right at this moment.

In terms of reaction, there were vigils held by Russian emigre communities and supporters across the world last night. Inside Russia, we saw more modest memorials - not surprising, given this is a highly repressive environment. And authorities had issued warnings against any gatherings. Yet here in Moscow and other cities, we saw people leave flowers and tributes at monuments to Soviet political repressions, only to see them quickly removed by police, who also detained some 200 mourners. And that's according to a local human rights monitoring group.

SIMON: And what about the response from the Kremlin?

MAYNES: Well, the Kremlin spokesman called accusations that Putin was responsible for Navalny's death, quote, "rabid and unacceptable." Russian officials countered Putin had nothing to gain here, even suggesting that Western outrage over Navalny's death was somehow evidence of a conspiracy to stir up trouble ahead of presidential elections here in March. Meanwhile, Putin himself has yet to address Navalny's death, despite being out in front of cameras, chumming it up with factory workers all day Friday. But let's remember, you know, Putin never acknowledged Navalny by his name even when he was alive, part of a tactic to treat Navalny as a nonentity in Russian politics, which, of course, wasn't the case. Navalny mattered enormously.

SIMON: And, Charles, remind us about what he meant in Russian society.

MAYNES: You know, his political skills were obvious from the beginning. He emerged the leader of this opposition movement for fair elections back in 2011, giving these powerful speeches and nearly won a race to become Moscow's mayor a couple of years later. Beyond that, he somehow managed to come up with these inventive ways to participate in Russian politics despite being blacklisted by the state. You know, so banned from TV, he'd launched his own YouTube channel where millions watched these investigations into Kremlin corruption. You know, banned from the ballot, he ran a shadow campaign for the presidency that was far more vibrant than those of the so-called real candidates.

You know, and you have to remember, he was not only fearless, but he was funny. You know, he would crack a joke no matter what ugliness was thrown at him, including during a poisoning attack in 2020 that nearly killed him or, more recently, these long stints in solitary confinement. And all of this, you know, gave Navalny an air of invincibility. You know, I remember once talking to a supporter of his who compared him to Batman. You know, it seemed as though nothing, not even prison, could break him. And that seemed to drive those who put him there crazy.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much for being with us.

MAYNES: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Charles Maynes