Killing a prisoner of conscience: Navalny versus Putin and his sycophants

At 47 years old, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had spent more than a decade relentlessly fighting corruption in Russia before he died on Friday while serving a politically-motivated 19-year sentence at a penal colony. President Joe Biden is correct to blame Navalny’s death on Vladimir Putin.

That Putin didn’t personally push Navalny out of a window or slip him poison doesn’t matter, dead is still dead as the dictator engineers another electoral victory for himself.


There’s a common fallacy that to criticize something is to excuse its counterpart, and that’s just not true. To say that Russia is an imperialistic neo-tsarist oligarchy with Putin as an absolute autocrat at the top is not, obviously, to say that the United States is a perfect society with flawless institutions. This is a country that once elected a failed TV businessman with little grasp of government to the presidency, and which now seems willing to consider doing so again.

Yet for all our faults, it’s ridiculous for someone like far right commentator Tucker Carlson to go to Moscow and crow about Putin’s great society while a political dissident wasted away on phony charges. The Russian president will of course face no consequences for Navalny’s death, at least not internally, just as he has avoided any ramifications for his disastrous invasion of Ukraine, which nears two full years and has so far led only to death, destruction and suffering, not just for Ukraine’s people but Putin’s own.

Who’s going to check him? There are no institutions left in Russia that could bring Putin to account. He’s taken over the judiciary and the press, wrangling almost the whole of his country’s government and industry under his direct control, allowing only symbolic opposition. He’s divided the spoils among elite friends that must strive to stay in his good graces, lest they find themselves slipping out of a high window.

We may have had Donald Trump, but when it came down to the wire and he attempted to end American democracy, his coup failed and he was removed from power.

Navalny dreamed of another Russia, not one in which he himself stood atop an absolute political order but in which no one did, and the Russian public was able to chart its own path, free of the corruption, thuggery, cronyism and violence of the Putin regime. In this way, he was really an advocate not just for political reform but for fundamental rights, and by consequence a champion for all of us that hold such rights dear.

For this simple demand, Navalny paid the ultimate price; whatever explanation for his death is presented by the Russian authorities in the coming days, it’s clear that they are ultimately responsible.

But his movement will live on, because unlike Putin’s personalistic regime, the structure does not depend on just one man. As long as we don’t forget about Navalny, and as long as others inside and outside Russia strive to continue his mission of holding Putin accountable and untangling his entrenched system, the sacrifices that he made — which he never should have been forced to make — will not have been in vain.

Let’s remember his resolute belief in self-determination any time a Trump or a Carlson praises Putin again.