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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

What Happened to Them? Part 4: Alexei Navalny

Read What Happened to Them? Part 1: Elnaz Rekabi, Part 2: Peng Shuai and Part 3: Edward Snowden.

Occasionally, someone pops up in the news. Their name is mentioned, their story told, and they are linked to important political events or societal developments. And as suddenly as they appear in the spotlight of media attention, they disappear again. Observing this phenomenon I began to wonder: Why are these people and their lives of any interest? And what happened to them after they vanished from our screens? It is not just gossip. Their stories and how they are narrated—in the media as well as on the political and social stage—can reveal certain things about the systems we live in. More than that, individual stories are more emotional, hence more attention-grabbing, than general transmissions of information, and this attention can serve as a shield to protect politically persecuted individuals. Yet, the duration and nature of their telling reflect the attention span of society, and the people whose stories are told may be quickly forgotten, their protection or the attention to an important issue in their lives are linked to fading with our memory. 

In this series of articles, I bring to the spotlight four people who have been and disappeared from the news at some point, and who have caught my interest.

When I first started to work on this article, it was with Alexei Navalny who popped into my mind. I wondered what was happening to people like him. Last autumn, Navalny was in prison but media reports on his situation had stopped and so, I thought that writing an article myself might remind people of him and what he fought for. I had already bookmarked an article about his first appearance in a video since he had been transferred to a different prison when I heard the news that he had died on the 16th of February 2024. 

Navalny, originally a nationalist politician, became known for investigating and exposing cases of corruption and election fraud by the regime. He published his investigations as videos that were received by a large audience in Russia. His political activism made him a leading figure of the opposition movement and a challenger and threat to Putin.

In 2020, Navalny was the victim of a poison attack due to which he fell into a coma. Later, he accused Russia's security agency, FSB, of the attempted murder. He was evacuated to Germany where he was treated, something that his wife Yulia Navalnaya had strongly advocated for. After returning to Russia in January 2021, the opposition politician was arrested on the charges of extremism and corruption and sentenced to 19 years in prison. 

Navalny spent the past three years in prisons where his health conditions worsened and he was reportedly mistreated, malnourished, and denied medical treatment. In December 2023, he was moved to the prison “Polar Wolf” which is located 64 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and known as Russia’s toughest prison.

A day before his death, Navalny appeared in a court video, seemingly healthy and in good spirits considering the conditions. Russian officials reported later that Navalny had said he felt unwell while taking a short walk and collapsed quickly after. The medics, so it is claimed, tried to resurrect him for half an hour but he never regained consciousness. Navalny’s death was later confirmed by his family. His team reports that he suffered “sudden death syndrome” which is a commonly cited cause of death for many Russians who have become dangerous to the regime. Western leaders hold Putin accountable for Navalny’s death while the Kremlin claims natural causes led to his death.

The opposition leader has become a martyr: In several cities all over Russia, small protest groups have risked arrest or were arrested while laying down flowers for Navalny at provisional memorials. Several foreign diplomats and ambassadors as well as thousands of Russians attended Navalny’s funeral. Navalny’s wife Yulia Nawalnya declared publicly that she will continue leading her late husband's Anti-Corruption Foundation. She is certain that Navalny’s death was murder, accusing Putin and his regime, and is preparing for deeper investigations. Some observers interpret this as her entering the political stage as an actor of her own, and see in her a strong woman with the potential to unite the opposition forces. After having supported her husband’s political activism for many years, she appears to follow in his footsteps and continue his political mission. This may bring new momentum to the Russian democratic movement which has faced large-scale arrests in recent years.

When individuals appear on the news and their stories are told in the media, it is at times easy to forget that they are more than symbols. Instead of being brief sensations that fade within a moment as our attention is diverted to the next headline, continued reporting on their stories reminds us that they are real, living people: Their stories do not end when media attention shifts but continue beyond that.

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Photo of Navalny Memorial Tampere by Nina Kolarzik.


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