“Don’t be afraid. This is our country and we have no other.”
Alexei Navalny addresses supporters on the anniversary of his detention, as rallies were held all over the world demanding his release. A year ago, he bravely returned to Russia, having recovered from the Novichok poisoning — and was immediately detained by the government.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny called on his fellow Russians to be brave and fear nothing. On the anniversary of his return to Russia after his rehabilitation in Germany, he published a post on his Instagram page (https://www.instagram.com/navalny/p/CY01DoLoJec/)
“Having served my first year in prison, I want to tell everyone the same exact thing that I shouted at the crowd near the court, when the guards were taking me to the back of the truck: Don’t be afraid of anything. This is our country and we have no other. The only fear that should remain is that we may allow our homeland to be looted by a bunch of liars, thieves and hypocrites; that we surrender without a fight, voluntarily, forfeiting both our future and the future of our children. Thank you all very much for your support —I can feel it,” Alexei Navalny addressed his supporters in an emotional post.
“There are a lot of honest people in Russia—tens of millions. There are far more of them than is commonly thought. But it is not honest people who scare the authorities— disgusting then, and even more so now— but those who are not afraid. Or rather, to be more precise: those who are afraid, but overcome the fear,” he wrote.
He said that the year since his return to Russia flew by quickly. All this time Navalny remained behind bars.
“I do not know when my cosmic journey will end and whether it will end at all — just last Friday I was told that another of criminal cases against me goes to court. And there’s another one coming up —charging me as an extremist and a terrorist. So, I’m one of those “astronauts” who doesn’t bother counting the days until the end of the sentence. There is no point in counting. There have been people who spent 27 years in prison.
But I find myself in this group of “astronauts” because I tried my best to pull this end of the rope. I pulled to this side those among the honest ones who did not want to or could no longer be afraid.
I did it, I do not regret it for a second, and I will continue to do it,” Navalny wrote.
Navalny’s Arrest and What Happened in Russia Over the Year
On January 17, 2021, Russian politician Alexei Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent. Navalny spent the following year in custody: first in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, and then in prison no. 2 in Pokrov in the Vladimir region. The formal reason for his imprisonment was parole violation. The authorities claim that while Navalny was treated in Germany, he failed to register with the Federal Penitentiary Service as required by the sentence from the “Yves Rocher” case.
According to the parole violation sentence, the politician must be released no later than fall 2023. However, several other criminal cases have been brought up by the government against him, including one for creating an “extremist community”. According to prosecutors, Navalny has created an “extremist community,” the purpose of which was to “discredit the state authorities.” Under this article Navalny faces up to 10 years in jail.
In addition, in late 2020, Navalny was charged with criminal fraud— the case is expected to be heard in court in late January or early February 2022. According to prosecution, Navalny had spent 356 million rubles collected as donations for the activities of non-profit organizations headed by him for personal needs. The fraud case is combined with the charges of insulting Judge Vera Akimova, who presided over the trial on the case of “defamation of a veteran.” The criminal case on “defamation of a veteran” was opened after Navalny called the heroes of RT TV channel’s propaganda video about amendments to the Constitution, in which Ignat Artemenko, a 94-year-old veteran of the World War II, appeared, “corrupt lackeys” and “traitors”. The Investigative Committee considered that Navalny’s comment attacked the veteran’s honor and dignity. The court sentenced Navalny to a fine of 850 thousand rubles.
In the winter and spring of 2021, mass rallies in support of Navalny were held in Russia, resulting in mass detentions. In June, Navalny’s political network was declared “extremist organization” by a Russian court.
Navalny’s headquarters throughout Russia have been decimated, with dozens of their members either under arrest or forced to leave Russia, including Leonid Volkov, the former head of Navalny’s federal headquarters; Ivan Zhdanov, director of FBK; and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the foundation. On January 14, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov were added to the list of terrorists and extremists. During the entirety of 2021, repressions in Russia continued to intensify: dozens of organizations and citizens, including media outlets and journalists, were declared foreign agents, and opposition activists were put behind bars.
Free Russia Foundation estimates that more than 1,500 activists and journalists left the country in 2021. This estimate includes only “political” emigrants.
At the end of 2021, the European Union recognized Alexei Navalny and awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Human Rights Prize. Navalny’s daughter, Darya Navalny, attended the ceremony to accept the prize on behalf the imprisoned politician. “This is a message to the tens of millions of citizens of my country who continue to fight for a better life in Russia,” she said, speaking at the European Parliament.
In January 2022, it was announced that CNN and the streaming service HBO Max had produced and intend to stream a documentary, “Navalny,” about the Russian opposition leader. The movie, with the tagline “Poison Always Leaves a Trace,” was created by Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher. The film’s synopsis says it is about “a courageous and controversial presidential contender who is willing to sacrifice everything to bring reform to his homeland.” The film’s premiere date has not been disclosed. Navalny wrote on Instagram from prison: “The film is ready, and you will definitely see it before I do.”
Navalny in Jail: Deteriorating Health, Hunger Strike, Doctors’ Denial of Access, and Torture by Prison Authorities
In March 2020, Navalny filed a formal complaint stating that prison authorities purposefully deprived him of sleep. Navalny said he was woken up eight times a night by guards asking him to confirm to a camera that he is still in his prison cell. Navalny also complained that he was not allowed to read newspapers or have any books including a copy of the Quran that he planned to study.
Navalny’s lawyers said that he was suffering from health problems, including a loss of sensation in his spine and legs, and that prison authorities denied Navalny’s requests for a civilian physician, claiming his health was “satisfactory”. On March 31, Navalny declared a hunger strike demanding proper medical treatment. On April 6, six doctors, including Navalny’s personal physician, Anastasia Vasilyeva, and two CNN correspondents, were arrested outside the prison when they attempted to visit Navalny whose health significantly deteriorated. On April 7, 2021, Navalny’s attorneys claimed he had suffered two spinal disc herniations and had lost feeling in his hands, prompting international outrcy. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International accused Vladimir Putin of slowly killing Alexey Navalny through torture and inhumane treatment in prison.
On April 17, it was reported that Navalny was in urgent need of medical attention. Navalny’s personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva and three other doctors, including cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin, petitioned prison officials to grant them immediate access, stating on social media that “Our patient can die any minute”, due to an increased risk of a fatal cardiac arrest or kidney failure “at any moment”. Test results publicized by Navalny’s lawyers showed heightened levels of potassium in the blood, which may signal cardiac arrest, and sharply elevated creatinine levels, indicating impaired kidneys.
The following day, his daughter called on Russian prison authorities to let her father be checked by doctors in a tweet. Prominent celebrities such as J.K. Rowling and Jude Law also addressed a letter to Russian authorities asking to provide Navalny with proper medical treatment. U.S. President Joe Biden called his treatment “totally unfair” and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the Kremlin had been warned “that there will be consequences if Mr. Navalny dies.” The European Union’s head diplomat Josep Borrell stated that the organization held the Russian government accountable for Navalny’s health conditions. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also expressed her concern for his health. However, Russian authorities rebuked such concerns by foreign countries. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russian prison officials are monitoring Navalny’s health, not the president.
On April 19, Navalny was moved from his cell to a prison hospital, according to the Russian authorities, for a course of “vitamin therapy”. On April 23, Navalny announced that he was ending his hunger strike on the advice of his doctors and as he felt his demands had been partially met. His newspapers are still being censored as articles are cut out before the newspaper is given to him.
On May 20, Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov reported that Navalny had “more or less” recovered and that his health was generally satisfactory. On June 7, Navalny was returned to prison after fully recovering from the effects of the hunger strike.
In early November 2021 Navalny’s former prison-mates described his harassment in detention. An independent Russian TV channel Dozhd broadcast an interview “Torture for Navalny: Who Surrounded Him in the Penal Colony, How They Compromise Him and Break Him”. In the expose, former inmates at the Pokrov’s Correctional Facility Number 2, described the torture and abuse targeting Navalny.
Dozhd reporters spoke with former convicts Nariman Osmanov and Yevgeny Burak, who served time in the same quarters as Navalny. According to Osmanov, this unit was put together by authorities before the arrival of the opposition leader to the prison, and with each of the prisoners a conversation had been held in advance. Osmanov said that all prisoners in the brigade were instructed not to communicate with the politician and record each of his steps on a daily basis.
“Naturally, we suffered with him. Mentally, I still haven’t recovered, to be honest,” Osmanov told reporters. According to him, Navalny tried to talk to him, but he stopped these attempts.
During the hunger strike, which Navalny held from March 31 to April 23, inmates brought a bag of sausages into the barrack and roasted the sausages on the premises, perhaps with the intent to seduce Navalny with the smell of the food, which is not allowed could have only been done with the permission of authorities.
On another occasion, a detainee was placed in the same cell as Navalny, and later taken to the sanitary unit and declared to have a contagious form of tuberculosis.
Osmanov claimed both events had been staged and he managed to tell Navalny about that.
Another prisoner, Yevgeny Burak, talked about a movie screening that was held for the colony’s inmates on Navalny’s birthday, June 4. The movie insinuated that Navalny is a homosexual— which, in Russian prisons, would expose an inmate to grave danger of physical and sexual abuse by other inmates. The movie was attempting to discredit and threaten Navalny. These claims have been corroborated by Osmanov.
After Navalny returned from the hospital warden to the regular prison cell, he was again precluded from sleeping for several days — an inmate was roomed in the same cell with him and “made different sounds,” and all this was done on the instructions of the colony’s leadership, Osmanov claims.
To mark the anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest, his supporters rallied in dozens of cities around the world to call for his freedom. Pickets and rallies were held in Russia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, France, Canada, Norway, Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Spain, Finland, Georgia and other countries.
The U.S. Congress released a statement on the anniversary of Navalny’s arrest (https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/press-and-media/press-releases/helsinki-commission-marks-one-year-anniversary)
Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) wrote:
“In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist’ /…/ Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.”
“Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.”
“During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.”
“Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.”
“A Man Has Entered the Cage with a Tiger.” What Russian Public Figures are Saying on the Anniversary of Navalny’s Arrest
“It’s been a tragic year. I don’t think it’s right to put it in the category of defeat, because the authorities had pretty obvious goals— to completely isolate Navalny from society. And it didn’t succeed. As you can see, we constantly get his messages of hope even from the colony, even from prison. The second goal was to completely destroy his team. And that also failed, although many of them had to go into exile, but we continue not just to work, but to influence the political situation in Russia <…> So we continue to fight. Of course, we received a very serious hit, but we have withstood, we are fighting, I am sure that we will win in the end.”
“What a great man Navalny is. How great that he flew to Moscow a year ago. What a sensitive politician.
Have you looked in history books? There’s a lot of it there. At first, for a few years, everyone will say: Why did he do it? It made no sense, he miscalculated, he set us all up, do you see what happened as a result? But then. Everyone will say: can you imagine, it didn’t seem to make any sense, it seemed that he miscalculated, there were those who said “he set us all up”.
The Man went into the tiger’s cage, the Man puts his head into the beast’s mouth. And the beast is thinking— do I bite off the head and show everyone, which is all they expect, that I’m a bloodthirsty scumbag, or do I not bite it off and appear weak?
A man risking his life is high stakes, it’s memorable for decades, if not more. History is made up of these actions. Here we have another entry in Russian history. Our backbone.”
“When he returned a year ago, Alexei Navalny acted as a courageous man and a professional politician. Putin wanted to drive him out of the country, that’s why he allowed him to leave for treatment. Since Navalny could not be killed, Putin tried to throw him out of the country this way. He didn’t succeed. At the cost of his freedom, luckily, not his life, Alexei Navalny remains a huge factor in Russian politics even in prison. If he were free now, but outside, abroad, he would not be a factor in Russian politics.
He has acted as a politician, as a courageous, responsible and consistent man. The price he pays for his confrontation with Putin is enormous. It is not only the time he has spent in jail, but also his health. That said, Navalny is indeed Vladimir Putin’s number one political opponent.”
“I believe that the return of Alexei Navalny was the catalyst that forced Putin’s regime to finally throw off its mask and unleash repressions against the entire class of political activists, human rights defenders, independent journalists and opposition activists. There is no point in talking about any kind of hybridity: we are dealing with an authoritarian police dictatorship that is actively using terror against its opponents as a permanent practice. Vladimir Putin’s main goal is to remain in power, and intimidation is a method for achieving this goal.”
Today is a year since Alexei Navalny has been behind bars. He will, of course, get a new sentence (they might even kill him), but the winner in this war of one man against the whole machinery of the police state is already clear. And that’s exactly what Alexei does, every day and every hour: he holds the front line. The first part of the oath— “one for all”— is done. Now it’ s time to fulfill the second part.
“Exactly one year ago, Navalny flew to Moscow. They tried to kill him there, tried him in absentia, and made sure that he wouldn’t even think about returning to Russia. And as soon as Alexei crossed the border, they immediately snapped handcuffs on his hands.
Today again everyone will discuss— was it really necessary to take that risk? Was there a point in voluntarily going to jail? Maybe he should have stayed in exile? But the truth is that the question was never framed that way. There were no meetings, no discussions about Navalny’s return to his homeland. Because almost the first thing he said when he came out of his coma was, “I will definitely go back to Russia.”
And I understand very well why he did that. Many of us think that the point of Navalny’s work is to expose crooks and thieves in power. But this is a shallow view. The point of Navalny’s work is to demonstrate by personal example: in Russia, it is possible to live without fear, without hunching one’s shoulders or lowering one’s eyes. It is possible to remain a free man in an unfree country.
And when each one of us learns not to be afraid, the country will change very quickly. Navalny sets an amazing example of courage, and I am proud to call him my friend and comrade. And I believe he has a great future. Freedom to Alexey Navalny!”