Alexei Navalny on the January 2021 flight that took him from Berlin to Moscow, where he was immediately arrested. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Alexei Navalny Lived and Died in Truth

We live in a world of moral confusion, writes Bari Weiss. The Russian dissident was as clear as he was courageous: there is freedom and there is unfreedom.

Alexei Navalny had a choice. 

After he was poisoned by Moscow in August of 2020, after he emerged from a monthlong coma in a Berlin hospital, after he overcame the terrible effects of the nerve agent Novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union, he could have stayed in exile in Germany. 

He had already become the most important dissident in Russia. The choice—certainly the rational choice—would have been to remain outside of Putin’s reach.

But Navalny made the opposite one. 

“There was never a question for me whether to return or not,” he said upon his recovery in Berlin. “They are doing everything to scare me. But what they are doing there is not of much interest to me. Russia is my country. Moscow is my city. I miss them.” 

So he flew back to Moscow. He was arrested at the airport on January 17, 2021. Then he was sentenced on bogus charges of embezzlement, extremism, and fraud and sent to a penal colony 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They called it “Polar Wolf.” The punishment was 19 years.

It was in that gulag that Navalny—a man who will be remembered forever as one of the heroes of our darkening century—was killed earlier today.

In this, Navalny joins a long line of ordinary and noble people who were and are the victims of Stalinist tyranny and now Russian authoritarianism. 

People like:

Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and author of Putin’s Russia, who was shot dead on October 7, 2006—Putin’s birthday—in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow. She was 48 years old.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent turned British defector, who was hospitalized for polonium-210 poisoning and died 22 days later, on November 23, 2006. His chief crime was saying out loud what everyone suspected: that the FSB had arranged for the the bombing of Moscow apartment buildings in 1999 as a pretext to start the second Chechen war.

Sergei Magnitsky, responsible for exposing corruption and misconduct by Russian government officials, who served 358 days in a Moscow prison before he died at 37 years old, on November 16, 2009. 

Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated on February 27, 2015, beside his Ukrainian wife on a bridge near the Kremlin, in Moscow, where he was organizing a rally against Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

“There has always been a surplus of servitude and a deficit of freedom in Russia,” he once said. “We value those who grovel, which is why Russia remains a ‘nation of slaves and princes’ to this day.”

When I woke up early Friday morning to the news that Russia’s most courageous hero had been murdered, I called up another one. Natan Sharansky spent nine years of his life in the gulag where Navalny was murdered. Sharansky’s crime was his desire to immigrate to Israel, where he now lives, in Jerusalem.

“I can’t collect myself,” Sharansky told me. “He was the most fearless person I knew—and the most stubborn in unmasking the true nature of this regime.” 

“Even after an assassination attempt by the regime left him on the brink of death, he turned his own horrific experience into a tool to expose Putin’s method, by getting one of his would-be assassins to reveal his mission and the men who sent him. And in going back he sent a clear message to the people of Russia and to the world that he was not afraid of Putin’s regime—and neither should they be too afraid to act,” Sharansky said.

“People prefer to run away from the truth because the truth is very tough,” he went on. “It demands that you change your behavior—not to just enjoy life and the privileges of being close to the regime. He did more than anyone in the history of Russia to show to millions of citizens the regime’s real nature. He was the great producer, the great actor. But the stage was the world. And the price was his own life.

“I dedicated my book The Case for Democracy to the memory of Andrei Sakharov, a man who proved that with moral clarity and courage we can change the world. That’s Navalny,” said Sharansky. “At some point people are scared. It is against nature not to be scared. But he said: you can be very strong. He said there is black and there is white. It’s so clear. It’s so simple. Moral clarity without any compromises.”

In our world of cynicism and cowardice, it often doesn’t seem so simple. But Navalny’s life—a life lived in truth—and his death—a death for the sake of truth—gives the lie to the moral confusion all around us. 

The life and death of Navalny insists on the following: there is a free world and an unfree world. There is right and there is wrong. There is better and worse, good and evil. There is truth and there are lies. And heroes, however imperfect, walk among us still. 

“My message if I am killed is very simple,” he told the filmmaker Daniel Roher in 2022. “Do not give up.” 

People across Russia heard that message. In St. Petersburg, people waved their phone flashlights at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression. In Moscow, people lined up in the snow to lay flowers in Navalny’s memory at a memorial to gulag victims. His wife, Yulia, got onstage in Munich hours after the news and said this: “I thought about it. Should I stand here before you or should I go back to my children? And then I thought, what would Alexei do in my place? And I am sure that he would have been standing here on this stage.”

Just beneath that clip of Navalny’s heroic wife I come across another. This is one of Tucker Carlson praising a Moscow grocery store, where he is mesmerized by the cart system that disincentivizes shoppers from “taking the carts back to their homeless encampments” and by the low prices. Then there is another of him inside the Moscow subway system, praising its order and cleanliness and set to soaring music.

I am reminded of a passage from one of Sharansky’s fellow dissidents and Navalny’s political ancestors: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his 1976 book Warning to the West, he wrote this: “Human nature is full of riddles. One of those riddles is: How is it that the people who have been crushed by the sheer weight of slavery and cast to the bottom of the pit can nevertheless find strength in themselves to rise up and free themselves first in spirit and then in body, while those who soar unhampered over the peaks of freedom suddenly lose the taste for it, lose the will to defend it, and, hopelessly confused and lost, almost begin to crave slavery?” 

Navalny was in the darkest pit. And yet he remained free. May his example live for all time. God knows we need it in ours.

Last month in Israel I was honored to interview Natan Sharansky live in Tel Aviv. Watch our conversation here:

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