Kremlin Seeks to Suppress Navalny’s Influence, in Death as in Life


When Aleksei A. Navalny was alive, the Kremlin sought to portray him as an inconsequential figure unworthy of attention, even as the Russian authorities vilified and attacked him with a viciousness that suggested the opposite.

In death, little appears to have changed.

President Vladimir V. Putin has not said a word in public about Mr. Navalny in the two weeks since the opposition campaigner’s death at age 47 in an Arctic prison.

Russian state television has been almost equally silent. Coverage has been limited to a short statement by the prison authorities the day of Mr. Navalny’s death, plus a few fleeting television commentaries by state propagandists to deflect blame and tarnish his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who has announced that she will carry on her husband’s work.

And on Friday, as thousands gathered in the Russian capital for Mr. Navalny’s funeral, cheering his name, official Moscow acted as if the remembrance was a nonevent. State news ignored it altogether. When asked that morning if the Kremlin could comment on Mr. Navalny as a political figure, Mr. Putin’s spokesman responded, “It cannot.”

Referring to Mr. Navalny, Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, said, “Part of the approach from the Kremlin was to not give him any more oxygen than absolutely necessary, or if it was possible, to give him no oxygen at all.”

Mr. Putin for years refused to say Mr. Navalny’s name. State television almost never mentioned him. The authorities barred him from running for president in the 2018 election and largely thwarted him from engaging in the Western-style democratic retail politics he wanted to see in Russia.

Greg Yudin, a Russian sociologist who is now a research fellow at Princeton University, called the Kremlin’s strategy one of “strategic omission.”

By removing Mr. Navalny from official public life, the Kremlin signaled that he was not a legitimate alternative politician, but rather an extremist, a terrorist or an enemy of the state, operating outside the bounds of the nation’s orchestrated politics, Mr. Yudin said.

“The way they create a perception of politics in Russia is that whatever is absent from official discourse is irrelevant, because it has no chance to materialize anyway,” Mr. Yudin said. “If you aren’t talked about on TV, you don’t exist.”

At the same time, Russia’s coercive apparatus went after Mr. Navalny with an increasing ferocity, poisoning him with a nerve agent in 2020, imprisoning him in inhumane conditions and ultimately sending him to a remote former gulag facility above the Arctic Circle. Along the way, he was maligned in a film, attacked with green dye and subjected to a multitude of criminal cases, all while being demonized as Western puppet.

“There was simply nothing to be gained by the Kremlin from having him mentioned on television, but that doesn’t mean that Navalny couldn’t smolder in the underbrush,” Professor Greene said. “And what they were concerned about was this fire spreading.”

Even without the power of television, Mr. Navalny managed to make a name for himself in Russia using the internet — and that continued to be the way millions of Russians followed news of his death and funeral.

Mr. Navalny’s online presence undermined the Kremlin’s suggestions about his irrelevance. In 2021, he amassed more than 100 million viewers for his exposé of a secret palace built for Mr. Putin on the Black Sea, leaving little doubt about the opposition leader’s latent power.

Mr. Navalny maintained his stature as the face of the opposition even from prison, communicating through written messages that his team published as social media posts and through courtroom speeches that his team turned into YouTube videos.

Mr. Yudin, the Princeton sociologist, said, “Russian politics had narrowed down a long time ago to a kind of standoff between two men, between Putin and Navalny.”

“That was absolutely clear to any honest observer of Russian politics,” he added.

But not according to Russian television.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of the Stalin-era foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, briefly announced Mr. Navalny’s death on Russia’s flagship station, Channel One.

Mr. Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin member of the Russian Parliament, interrupted his political talk show to read the statement by the prison authorities and to say that the cause of death, according to preliminary medical information, was a detached blood clot.

He quickly returned to praising the Russian military’s progress in Ukraine, quoting a famous war cry by his grandfather before handing the broadcast over to the news. There, Mr. Navalny’s death was buried as story No. 8 — after a segment about one of the state war correspondents personally delivering drones to Russian soldiers at the front.

Over the subsequent hours and days, Russian state channels gave attention to Mr. Navalny’s death only in a few quick commentaries, while spawning a few bizarre conspiracy theories.

Margarita Simonyan, head of the state news network RT, said on one talk show that the timing of the death raised “big questions” because Mr. Navalny’s wife was attending the annual Munich Security Conference at the time and made a statement “without her mascara even running.”

“It shows me that at a minimum this woman didn’t love her husband that much but very much loves power and everything it entails,” Ms. Simonyan said.

She and other propagandists suggested that the West had organized Mr. Navalny’s death to overshadow the impact of Mr. Putin’s recent interview with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. They did not explain how the West could arrange for Mr. Navalny’s death while he was in Russian custody.

They argued that Mr. Navalny’s death was the last thing the Kremlin would want, given that it provided another impetus for the West to pressure Russia.

“What could be better for whipping up accusatory pathos than the sudden death of the main critic of the Kremlin, as the deceased was called in the European press?” the state news commentator Dmitry Kiselyov asked on his show.

After the initial news cycle, state television channels went silent, keeping Mr. Navalny’s death and the unanswered questions about it largely under the radar, even as his face stared out from the covers of newspapers and magazines around the world.

In a poll by the independent Levada Center released on Friday, 21 percent of Russians said that they had not heard about Mr. Navalny’s death, and another 54 percent said that they had heard something, but only in vague terms.

Separately, Kremlin-aligned online trolls sprang into action to amplify criticism of Ms. Navalnaya after she announced that she would take up her husband’s mantle.

Research by Antibot4Navalny, a group of anonymous volunteers who monitor Russian troll activity, and by the London-based nonprofit Reset, which focuses on democracy and technology, described a coordinated campaign to smear her online, including by promoting doctored photographs and making spurious allegations about “boyfriends.”

That approach by the Russian authorities continued during Mr. Navalny’s funeral on Friday.

State television almost entirely ignored the event, while Kremlin-friendly online outlets and social media accounts engaged in countermessaging aimed at Russian-speaking audiences.

The pro-government Telegram channel Readovka tried to raise doubts about the size of the crowd. It suggested that Mr. Navalny was being used by the West, because “jokes in English” were being made by mourners.

While Mr. Putin refuses to say Mr. Navalny’s name to avoid giving him status, “the trolls have no status” and thus cannot bestow an elevated profile by mentioning him, said Abbas Gallyamov, a Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant. He dismissed Moscow’s attempts to trivialize Mr. Navalny.

“He was a threat, of course,” said Mr. Gallyamov, who is now living in Israel. “Navalny was the only opposition politician who was able to bring people out into the streets.”



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