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Alexei Navalny is the latest Putin critic to die in suspicious circumstances

Protesters light candles on Friday in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after the announcement that the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, had died in an Arctic prison.
Milan Kammermayer
/
AFP via Getty Images
Protesters light candles on Friday in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after the announcement that the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, had died in an Arctic prison.

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a penal colony in Russia's Arctic north was shocking, but hardly surprising.

For years, critics and opponents of Russian leader Vladimir Putin have fallen victim to shootings, poisoning with radioactive or nerve agents, or have plunged to their deaths from open windows.

Navalny was only 47 and had appeared in court the day before his death in the penal colony known as "Polar Wolf," where he was serving a lengthy sentence.

Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of another jailed opposition leader, said on X, formerly Twitter, that he "looked well and was, as always, in good spirits."

Navalny was seen smiling in a video from the court hearing and even managed to send Valentine's Day greetings to his own wife. Less than 24 hours later, prison authorities said he had died.

Before being sent to Russian jail in 2021, Navalny survived a poisoning attempt that nearly took his life during a flight from Siberia to Moscow. He sought emergency treatment in Berlin, where doctors said he had been poisoned with a nerve agent called Novichok. Once recovered, he returned to Russia, despite knowing the risk such a move posed.

Navalny joins a long list of opposition figures, critics and journalists who have died under suspicious circumstances — or in some cases, survived poisonings — from London to Moscow.

Boris Nemtsov

One of the most prominent of those deaths was his own predecessor as the head of Russia's opposition to Putin's two-decade tenure in power, Boris Nemtsov.

An outspoken critic of Putin, Nemtsov served as a deputy prime minister under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge close to the Kremlin in 2015, at age 55, as he was walking home at night with his girlfriend.

Alexander Litvinenko

Perhaps the most striking demise was of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in a central London hotel in 2006 with the highly radioactive substance polonium. Litvinenko, a former agent of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, fell ill and died after meeting with two Russian agents for tea in a London hotel. He was 44.

He had accused Putin of complicity in the 1999 bombing of a Russian apartment block that killed hundreds of people and provided Putin with an excuse to launch the Second Chechen War.

Sergei Skripal

Another famous poisoning was the case of Sergei Skripal, 66, a retired military intelligence colonel who fell ill, together with daughter Yulia, during a visit to the English cathedral city of Salisbury in 2018. Skripal had earlier served 13 years in a Russian jail for working with the British spy agency MI6 to identify Russian spies in Europe.

Skripal and his daughter survived the poisoning, which British doctors said was caused by the nerve agent Novichok — the same substance used against Navalny.

Anna Politkovskaya

Such suspicious incidents date back to the early days of Putin's leadership. In October 2006, the journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lobby of her apartment building. She was 48.

Politkovskaya came into conflict with the Kremlin over her critical reporting on Russia's war in Chechnya. She was intimidated by Russian forces in Chechnya, survived a poisoning and was subjected to a mock execution.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

And as recently as last summer, Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" before rising to lead the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, died when the plane he was flying in exploded in midair. He was 62.

The unexplained blast came two months after Prigozhin's mercenary army had marched on Moscow in protest over what he called a lack of support from Russia's military leadership as the Wagner Group spearheaded some of the deadliest battles in Ukraine. Putin and Prigozhin later brokered a deal that ended the rebellion in exchange for the rebels' amnesty and exile in neighboring Belarus.

Ravil Maganov

Just the year before, Ravil Maganov, head of Russia's second-largest oil producer, Lukoil, died after apparently falling out of a sixth-floor window at a Moscow hospital at age 67. He had called for an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, launched by Putin earlier in 2022.

Sergei Magnitsky

And Navalny was far from the first critic of Putin to die inside Russia's prison system. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky — who had accused Russian officials of massive corruption, before being jailed in Russia on charges of tax evasion — died in a prison cell at age 37.

Human rights groups, including the Kremlin's human rights commission, concluded he had been beaten and denied medical care. The case became a cause célèbre, spurring the U.S. Congress to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which barred Russian human rights abusers from entering the U.S. In return, Russia banned American citizens from adopting Russian orphans.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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James Hider
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.