‘I Have to Say Goodbye. But I Don’t Want to Go to Jail.’

‘I Have to Say Goodbye. But I Don’t Want to Go to Jail.’

Alexei Navalny didn’t want to be a martyr. What he wanted, according to Yevgenia Albats, one of his closest friends, was to lead his country. And the timing of his death in prison, she says, just weeks before Vladmir Putin faces reelection, is no accident.

Albats, a journalist, political scientist and activist, helped mentor the Russian opposition leader from his earliest days in Moscow politics. Eventually, he grew into Putin’s most prominent critic, one whose searing investigations of Putin’s finances shook the Kremlin and tarnished Putin’s reputation both at home and abroad.

Albats called Navalny’s death a “murder,” and said that even from his prison cell, Navalny posed a real, political threat to Putin, whose animosity to Navalny was very personal.

“Putin hated him,” she told me in an interview a few hours after hearing the news. “He was everything which Putin was not.”

Albats was forced to flee Russia in August 2022 after she was accused of criticizing the Russian military, a new crime imposed by Putin’s regime to help crush dissent after he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. She’s now a media and democracy fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

When we spoke, Albats frequently referred to Navalny as “Alyosha,” the diminutive of his first name, just as he similarly called her “Zhenya.” She also frequently switched between talking about him in the present and past tenses, still processing the news of his death, which his family has not yet confirmed.

Albats told me that Navalny was repeatedly warned to stop his public statements, to stay off of social media. But he continued to try to organize anti-Putin protests from prison. And that may have contributed to his death.

“For Putin, I think he got obsessed with this desire to break Navalny,” Albats said. “So if you look from that perspective, I think it’s not a coincidence that they killed Navalny during the so-called election campaign, because they are afraid of the collective action that Navalny already was calling people to do.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was the first thought that went through your head when you heard the news that Navalny had died?

The first thought was, “They finally got to him.” And then I asked myself, “How can I trust these people?” I know that Putin and his people lie nonstop about everything. This office of the penitentiary system, they reported that Navany died from a thrombosis. And everyone knows that you cannot come up with such a diagnosis unless there is an autopsy. So we don’t really know what happened.

His mom and dad saw him on February the 12th, and he was perfectly fine.

Do you think the timing of his death, which is just one month before Russia’s presidential election, is accidental or deliberate?

I’m always afraid to come up with any conspiracy theories, and this sounds very conspiratorial. However, it is hard not to acknowledge that this timing is perfect for Putin. They tried to silence Navalny for months. One of the reasons why they sent him to this penal colony 61 kilometers from the Arctic Circle was precisely to make it almost impossible to communicate with him.

We communicated with him via the official “Zonatelecom” system. It’s an official internet system by which you write a letter on the internet-based website called Zonatelecom.ru. You write the letter, you also submit blank pages so he will be able to write a response, and then it goes to all the censors. Now with this penal colony No. 3 in the Arctic Circle, they don’t have this internet system. When I sent a letter to this penal colony, at Zonatelecom they printed it out, put it in an envelope, and then sent it using the Russian postal system. Alyosha wrote to me just three days ago that [that system] takes approximately 20 to 22 days, one way.

So they tried to cut him off. Part of the reason why they did it was precisely because of the upcoming election “procedures.” I refuse to call what we have “elections” because there are no elections. “Election” presupposes that you’re choosing between different candidates but that’s not the case; there is just really one candidate. Everybody else already announced that they’re not going to debate or say something against Putin.

Navalny was constantly writing posts on X and also simultaneously on Instagram and Facebook, in which he was telling people what to do. Basically he was organizing collective action out of prison. And for Putin, it was an awful humiliation, that even though he created these intolerable conditions — he was put in this solitary punishment cell 27 times. In just this past year he spent 308 days in this solitary punishment cell, which deprives him of extra food, warm water, only one book a week, only 15 minutes of writing a day. It’s torturous conditions.

He was unable to break him. For Putin, I think he got obsessed with this desire to break Navalny. So if you look from that perspective, I think it’s not a coincidence that they killed Navalny during the so-called election campaign, because they are afraid of the collective action that Navalny already was calling people to do, to come at noon on the day of the elections to express protest.

It was bound to happen. Listen, I was talking to many people here in the United States and I flew specially to Paris last June to meet with Angela Merkel. And I kept saying that, “We have to get him out,” that he’s going to get killed, unless we get him out. Putin made it clear in his latest interview with Tucker Carlson that he was ready to do exchanges. He was talking about [Wall Street Journal reporter Evan] Gershkovich, but we know that the same request was made with respect to everybody else.

But it’s also true that we had very little window of opportunity to get Navalny out. I personally failed. And you know, my friends failed. And unfortunately, that was what Americans really could do. Time and again, I cited [President Joe] Biden’s words to Navalny’s mother. I used to speak with her every week. I said, Biden said that there will be “devastating” consequences for the Kremlin, for Putin, if Navalny gets killed in prison. Navalny got killed in prison. And nothing, of course happened.

So you think the United States did not do enough?

No, the United States didn’t realize the importance. On the one hand, there were people like David Hoffman in the Washington Post and others who were writing that Navalny is the future of Russia. He is the only one who is a real opponent to Putin, the only one who is capable to unite and to lead the opposition against Putin. He was the one who people were listening to, a guy of immense courage. So everybody understood that Navalny was essential for the transformation of Russia’s dictatorial state to something more human.

Now, Vladimir Kara-Murza [another prominent political prisoner]. He’s in a very, very bad condition in a maximum security prison in Siberia. He will drop dead. He will drop dead in months. Putin is a murderer. Putin is an evil man. And everything he sees that’s happening in Washington, all this chit-chat about helping Ukraine, voting or not voting for the aid package in the U.S. Congress, all these statements that have recently been made by Donald Trump. It all showed the Kremlin that the West is in disarray.

You’ve been watching Putin for a very long time. Do you see Navalny’s death as a sign that Putin is strong and consolidating power? Or is it a sign that he’s weak and trying to eradicate the opposition?

I think that it’s neither/nor. Putin has always been afraid of Navalny precisely because Navalny was always everything that Putin was not — young, handsome, tall, with a beautiful wife, the first time we’ve seen a real first lady, with lovely kids, smart, who educated himself. He taught himself English. He spent the year when he was under house arrest studying political science. Putin is a bad speaker. Navalny is a brilliant speaker.

I had a group of young politicians, and Navalny joined us in 2004, and one day he had to run one of our rallies. And I remember I was thinking, God, such a handsome man, but totally unable to lead, totally unable to speak. He learned how to do this. He became a brilliant speaker.

He was everything which Putin was not. Putin never had a normal family, he was on and off between different women, he finally divorced his wife, he failed to marry the woman of his two or three kids. Navalny gave Russians this image for the first time probably, in a couple of hundred years. Here’s an image of a leader who can be smart, handsome, well educated, articulate and extremely courageous. So, Putin hated him, and people around Putin hated him. On top of the fact that Navalny managed to expose their graft, the awful corruption showed that they are small people with their desires to have billion-dollar palaces with stripper poles, hockey rinks, an oyster farm — nothing about libraries, nothing about books. Russians all of a sudden they saw that, it’s not that we’re Russians, we’re so bad. With Navalny, we got a leader who has it all. So Putin really hated him. Alyosha was amazing.

Where does his death leave the Russian opposition?

I would say his “murder,” regardless of whether he was killed now or he was killed as a result of torture that he experienced for more than the 1,118 days that he was in jail.

And when I say that he was tortured, it’s not just words. Just think about this. In the solitary punishment cell during the summertime, there was one small window at the very top, near the ceiling. So it was suffocating hot during the summertime. And it was freezing cold during the autumn and winter time. He never had hot water in the cell. They allowed him to have three cups of hot water a day — one cup in the morning so he can make himself a coffee out of the instant coffee, one cup so he can make himself soup out of a package, and then one cup in the evening. When he was in the solitary punishment cell, he was not allowed to buy any extra food in the commissary. He was constantly hungry, constantly hungry. What they were doing was, they would put the food that he ordered on a tray, they would bring it to his cell, show it to him, and then they dumped it out. In his previous jail, they put a crazy guy in the cell next to Navalny. He was just a madman, a sick man, and he was yelling and crying nonstop. At some point, they put in his cell another guy who didn’t wash himself and used his bed as a toilet. And the reason they were doing this was because they were trying to get Navalny to beat him. At some point Navalny wrote to me that he forced the guy to clean his teeth and to stop defecating in bed.

The last time Navalny saw his wife was in May of 2022. He was allowed to have a food parcel once every six months. I mean, I can keep going. I know that the American penitentiary system is quite bad compared to Northern Europe. But [on a visit to a maximum security prison in New York], when I was telling your guys the conditions in which Navalny was put, they didn’t believe me.

And that all was done on purpose. And that was slow killing. They knew that he was sick. They knew that after he was poisoned in 2020 that he had neuropathy. He had a tremor in his hands. Even though he did a lot of sports while recovering from poisoning in Germany, he didn’t have sports while in jail. They didn’t allow him to go to the gym. The only place where he was allowed to walk was a room like this one but with a metal grate instead of a ceiling. That’s how he was allowed to walk to get some fresh air.

Do you think that he thought he would get out one day? Or do you think he was prepared to be a martyr?

No, no, no, that’s not Navalny. Navalny is about life. He inspired optimism in all of us. He believed that he was capable of overcoming all this. Absolutely. He didn’t see himself as a martyr.

When he returned back from Germany to Moscow, his lawyer told him that he was going to jail 100 percent. He knew that. He wrote to me from his first prison, “Did you really believe that I thought that Putin was going to let me go free?” And then, when he got his first sentence, in one of his letters, he wrote, “I’m not surprised at all, I expected that they were going to give me all these awful sentences.” His last sentence was 19 years. And he kept telling his mom and dad and everybody, “Guys, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to be in jail as long as Putin is alive.” He knew that. And at the same time, it didn’t stop him from writing his posts. He was joking, he was smiling. Time and again, [Putin’s] henchmen were telling him, all you have to do is just stop doing this. Stop going public. And he refused, because he’s a politician, he’s a real political animal.

So he thought he could outlive Putin, and would someday return to politics?

We never spoke about that, to be honest with you. But I think that he was behaving as somebody who was going to be our next leader.

At some point, last spring, he wrote to me, “Zhenya, I’m asking 10 people to advise me on books that I should read.” He had already biographies of American Democrats, then he decided to study conservatives. He read the Cheney book, the younger George Bush’s book, and he loved it, by the way. There was this whole system that his friends, his colleagues, organized to get books to him. When he was in his previous penal colony, he was subscribed to the Guardian, he was subscribed to the London Times, he was subscribed to the Economist.

So anyway, he was preparing. And I absolutely believed that Navalny would be our next leader, whether president or [something else]. He had this idea to conduct political reforms so that Russia would turn into a parliamentary republic. But anyway, he was open-eyed about that. He looked at his jail time as a time to educate himself like it happened to Russian revolutionaries, during the Tsarist time, who spent time in jail educating themselves.

How do you think Navalny will be remembered inside Russia?

I don’t know. I think we had a chance. He was our chance. There are a lot of nice and smart and talented people in Russia, but there are few who are capable of leading — who have balls and courage and talents with people, who are capable the way Navalny was capable of speaking equally to people on the streets, and to people on YouTube, and to elderly people.

He loved to walk. And so we walked around a lot. He used to come to the Echo of Moscow [radio station] after my show, then we walked someplace to get dinner or just to walk around and talk. And he was constantly stopped by people who wanted to have a selfie with him or wanted to have his autograph. I would be mad. And Navalny, he would say, “Of course.” And he always was smiling this great smile. And at the same time, you know, he was capable of speaking to people in the West.

Russians sooner or later, they will create some myth about him. I don’t know. Navalny was one of a kind.

Putin is going to have his reelection in four weeks, the war in Ukraine is still going on, and Navalny is gone. Where does Russia go from here? What happens to Russia in the next five years?

In the next five years, hopefully, Putin will be dead and I will be able to return back.

I think that in the next six months to a year, there will be repressions, Russia will sink into an even more dictatorial state. I don’t know how long this will last because, as opposed to the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia doesn’t have ideology, and doesn’t have any idea to sell, neither to people inside Russia or to people outside Russia, even though they’re trying very hard to inspire the so-called Global South. But they don’t have any ideas to sell. They can sell corruption, they export corruption, but that’s it.

Putin just seems to want a Greater Russia or a Russian Empire.

Unless he is stopped in Ukraine, Poland will be next. In his interview with Tucker Carlson, he mentioned Poland about 20 times. So Poland, Finland, the Baltic nations. That’s why he has to be stopped in Ukraine. And I’m surprised that people in Washington, D.C., at least on the Republican side in the U.S. Congress, don’t understand that.

I think that there is a lot of dissatisfaction among Russian rich and powerful, even among “Chekists” [the FSB and other security services]. Putin promised them a lot of benefits out of this war in Ukraine and failed to deliver any. He promised them Kyiv and Odesa and ports and steel mills and fertile Ukrainian land. Ports are extremely important for trade. And he failed to deliver and at the same time, they are under sanctions, they lost the ability to spend their money anywhere but in Dubai and in Sochi. And they had to withdraw their kids from the best American universities and boarding schools in Great Britain and Switzerland. So Russian elites are extremely dissatisfied with what’s going on. So hopefully, sooner or later, somebody will get the courage to slit his throat. That’s what I hope for.

I cannot be hopeful today at all. Because all my friends are in jail. Each and every one.

I’m glad you’re not. 

I’m sitting here thinking there will be Alyosha’s burial. How can I not go and bury him? And I also understand that they will arrest me at the border. So I’m sitting here and thinking, what am I going to do? I have to say goodbye. But I don’t want to go to jail.

I don’t think he would want you to go to jail. 

He was the one who pushed me out. In August 2022, he wrote to me, “Zhenya, it’s time for you to go.” Already I was accused, I was pronounced guilty in four cases of spreading disinformation about the Russian army and then they pronounced me a foreign agent working on behalf of Ukraine. So he wrote to me from prison, “Zhenya, it’s time to go.”

He was such an essential part of the Russian opposition, of which I am a part, that I just don’t understand [what’s next]. I also know that there even people in the Kremlin circles, they were talking about Alyosha that, in case the “khozyain” [the master] is dead, then Navalny is the only one who had legitimacy in Russia. And now, even if Putin drops dead tomorrow. I don’t know who’s capable to lead.

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