Alexei Navalny, a thorn in Vladimir Putin's side, died. What does it mean for Russia?

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Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who survived a poisoning and spent months in isolation, died in an Arctic Circle maximum-security prison, his spokesperson confirmed Saturday.

Kira Yarmysh said Navalny was "murdered" on Feb. 16 at 2:17 p.m. local time. She demanded that his body be handed over to his family amid reports it was "picked up" by investigators.

Navalny's death deprives Russia of one of its most effective −and fearless − political rivals to Putin, who has long silenced his critics. It robs Navalny's many followers and admirers of a charismatic talisman willing to stand up to Putin and has shocked world leaders and human rights groups. But it is unlikely, Russia experts say, to transform or weaken Putin's authoritarian grip on his country.

Already, Russia's security services have moved quickly to stamp out any signs of mass gatherings or demonstrations. About 100 people across eight cities were detained by Russian police as they tried to lay flowers and attend various vigils related to Navalny's death, according to OVD-Info, a Moscow-based independent human rights group and information service that focuses on political persecution in Russia.

Blaming Putin for Navalny's death

Navalny's death was first reported Friday by Russia's state media. The Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, where he was being held, said Navalny, 47, "felt unwell" after he went on a walk and "almost immediately lost consciousness."

No cause of death was detailed. The prison service said it tried to resuscitate him without success. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no information about how Navalny died.

As word of Navalny's death spread, his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, blamed the Kremlin and called for justice. “We cannot believe Putin and his government,” Navalnaya said, addressing an audience at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. “They are lying constantly."

"But if it’s true, I would like Putin and all his staff, everybody around him, his government, his friends, I want them to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family and with my husband," she said. "They will be brought to justice, and this day will come soon.”

Navalny: Young Russians mourn death of charismatic opposition leader

World leaders were quick to blame the Russian president. "Make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny's death," President Joe Biden said at White House. "What has happened is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality. No one should be fooled. Not in Russia, not at home, not anywhere in the world.”

And some Russia observers went even further, saying the Russian president was more than simply ''responsible'' for his death.

"Putin killed Navalny," Igor Eidman, a Russian political dissident and political commentator, told USA TODAY. Putin had him "poisoned, imprisoned, rolled into the Arctic Circle, rotted in a punishment cell. But it wasn’t enough for him.''

More: President Biden says 'Putin is responsible for Navalny's death'

Who was Alexei Navalny?

He was a lawyer, an anti-corruption activist and a political prisoner.

Navalny had been a thorn in Putin's side for more than a decade, leading multiple investigations into the wealth of Russia's leader and his inner circle. He attempted to run for president in 2018 but was barred from that vote.

Two years later, he was poisoned by a nerve agent while on a trip to Siberia. After he was treated in Germany he returned home to continue his work. Just before taking off from a Berlin airport, he posted a video to Instagram of his wife quoting a line from a popular Russian crime movie: "Bring us some vodka, boy. We're flying home."

Instead, he was immediately arrested.

A demonstrator in Warsaw, Poland, carries a placard with a picture of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as people gather to attend a rally in front of the Russian Embassy there on Feb. 16, 2024.
A demonstrator in Warsaw, Poland, carries a placard with a picture of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as people gather to attend a rally in front of the Russian Embassy there on Feb. 16, 2024.

More: What to know about Alexei Navalny, Putin's top critic who died in prison.

"Navalny," a film about his poisoning and imprisonment, won an Oscar for best documentary in 2023.

The dissident was being held in jail on extremism and fraud charges that were widely viewed as retribution for his years at the forefront of the anti-Kremlin opposition. Navalny had been imprisoned since 2021, most recently about 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle in a penal colony nicknamed "Polar Wolf."

It is one of Russia's toughest jails.

He would periodically appear by video link from prison looking gaunt, with his head shaved. Yet he also projected optimism and good spirits. In one video, published in January, he joked that he had not yet received any mail for Christmas. A month earlier, he said, "I'm a special-regime Santa Claus," a reference to his Arctic location.

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Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, 47, died in a Russian prison.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, 47, died in a Russian prison.

What changes in Russia with Alexei Navalny's death?

Erin Baumann, a Russia expert at Boston College, said that Navalny's death was unlikely to lead to mass protests and wouldn't have any impact on Russia's presidential election in March. That vote is seen as a foregone conclusion that will return Putin to power because he has marginalized any effective opposition. Many Russian activists who oppose his government have either fled the country or are themselves imprisoned.

For years, Putin's foes have tended to die in mysterious ways including poisonings, by falling out of windows and even in a plane crash, such as happened to Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

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However, Baumann said that Navalny did put Putin under pressure, especially because he was able to continue some aspects of his activism from behind bars through his vast network inside and outside Russia.

"Navalny undermined Putin," she said.

"He created just enough instability to keep the Putin administration on its back foot."

After Navaly was arrested in 2021, he released a two-hour video investigation on YouTube detailing a luxury mansion on Russia's southern Black Sea coast reportedly belonging to Putin.

The video alleges the mansion sits on a private estate 39 times the size of Monaco, is the largest private home in Russia, and was paid for with "the largest bribe in history." The property has a theater, a casino, a church, a hockey rink, an "aquatic" disco and a hookah lounge with a pole-dancing stage.

Putin denied owning the opulent palace.

A port city, a steel cage, a palace: The steps that made Putin 'the richest man in the world'

"Navalny's message was 'I'm not necessarily right for Russia. I can promise you he (Putin) isn't,'" said Baumann.

Konstantin Sonin, a Russian political economist who knew Navalny personally, said that his death "guarantees" the absence of any real opposition threat to Putin and means "he will never step down peacefully."

Navalny: A source of US-Russia tension

Navalny's fate has also long been one of the many flashpoints between Moscow and Washington. These tensions extend to Moscow's support for rogue states, its alleged cyberattacks and election meddling, and human rights.

"Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights," Biden said in Geneva in 2021 when he last had a face-to-face meeting with Putin.

Biden said he made it clear to Putin the "consequences" of Navalny's death would be "devastating" for Russia.

He did not elaborate.

On Friday, European politicians expressed sorrow and outrage over Navalny's death, pointed out his courage in the face of his imprisonment and said they would ultimately seek to hold Russia accountable.

"Navalny paid with his life for his resistance to a system of oppression. His death in a penal colony reminds us of the reality of Vladimir Putin's regime," said French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné on X, formerly Twitter.

"(He) didn't die in prison, he was killed by the Kremlin's brutality and its aim to silence the opposition. Russia's regime must face consequences. It must be brought to justice," said Lithuania's President Gitanas Nausėda.

Alexei Navalny's legacy

"Navalny was Putin's number one domestic enemy," said Eidman, an exiled Russian political commentator.

"He was a symbol of hope for change, for Russia to become a normal democratic state. He combined the qualities of an effective tough politician and a fiery idealist."

Eidman said Putin was not content to leave Navalny "rotting in a punishment cell."

Sonin, who teaches at the University of Chicago, said that before he was jailed Navalny "was the only person in Russia who could say 'I'm organizing a protest' and thousands of people would show up."

He said there is nobody to replace him.

This is true for Navalnaya, Navalny's wife, too.

"I am asking everyone who is here to unite and help punish the Russian regime," she said.

Contributing: Dan Morrison

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alexei Navalny, Putin critic and opposition figure, dies in prison