Penn Today: Alexei Navalny’s death and legacy featuring Kimberly St. Julian Varnon

Author: Kristen de Groot
Article at Penn Today


Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, died last week in an Arctic circle penal colony. Navalny had been serving multiple sentences for charges his supporters say were fabricated in an effort to silence him. His death comes three and a half years after he survived a poisoning attempt. No cause of death has been released.

Penn Today reached out to three University experts on Russian politics for their perspectives on what Navalny’s death means for the opposition movement, for Putin’s grip on power, and for Russia going forward.


William Burke-Whiteprofessor of Law at Penn Carey Law and a leading expert on U.S. foreign policy, multilateral institutions, and international law

Last week, Vladimir Putin snuffed out the last remaining flicker of hope for democratic change in Russia with Alexei Navalny’s death at a prison camp in Siberia. That is not to say, of course, that Navalny, or anyone else for that matter, could have defeated Putin in the forthcoming March “elections.” But Navalny represented—both for those of us looking at Russia from the outside and for the many Russians who still quietly resist Putin’s despotic rule—the hope of a very different Russia, the hope for a country committed to the basic norms of rights and democracy. That was the Russia Navalny envisioned in the early 2000s and that he championed when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013. With his death, those hopes dim even further as Putin’s lock on power and despotic rule continue.

While the exact circumstances of Navalny’s death may never be known, Putin is undoubtedly responsible. Even in a Siberian gulag, the country’s most famous political prisoner does not simply drop dead. Over the past decade, every potential threat to Putin has been neutralized, whether shot in Red Square, poisoned in an airport, mysteriously pushed off a balcony, or killed in an airplane crash. This is the modus operandi of a dictator too afraid to let voices of dissent be heard and to allow true democracy to determine the country’s political future.

Navalny was an imperfect hero and an at-times-troubling symbol of that hope for democracy. His views on immigrants, for example, were aligned with Russian nationalists and earlier in his political career he at times veered toward extremism. But, even if imperfect, Navalny showed the fierce bravery that will be needed for any change in Russia. He stood up to Putin, knowing it would likely cost him his life. Even after being poisoned by the Kremlin, he returned to Russia ready and willing to face imprisonment and even death. He did so because he believed change had to come from within the country; because he knew the political value of courage; because he believed in a better Russia; and because he understood that standing up to Putin required making the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Let us hope that the Russian people—and the American Congress—see the value of that sacrifice and the fortitude needed to contain Putin in the months and years ahead.


Rudra Sil, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and an expert on Russian post-communist studies and U.S. and Russian relations

Alexei Anatolyevich Navalny was perhaps the most courageous and inventive political actor in Russia during the 21st century. For over a decade, he represented the face of dissent in a regime that was becoming increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism. Navalny’s protest tactics were creative, and his blog posts and exposés drew the attention of millions throughout Russia. There was a time when the Kremlin responded by simply not mentioning him; but this was not a man who could be easily ignored. 

Even as we mourn Navalny’s passing, however, I suspect that his following in Russia never reached its full potential. Certainly, part of the reason for this may well have been political repression, but that is not the whole story. While Navalny’s actions clearly struck a chord with those born after the breakup of the Soviet Union, his rhetoric resonated far less with those who had lived through the “terrible ’90s” as adults. That first decade of post-Soviet transition, when Russia undertook market reforms but also experienced an economic contraction, not unlike that during the U.S. Great Depression, brought much anxiety, uncertainty, and economic dislocation for millions. For them, Vladimir Putin’s regime, whatever its flaws, represented a return to stability and predictability in everyday life, not to mention an economy that quadrupled in size between 2000 and 2020. 

To boost his support among this older population, perhaps Navalny needed to do more than expose corruption and criticize the regime; he needed to develop a coherent, positive message of change, while reassuring all that this would not be at the expense of stability and growth. Opposition to the regime won Navalny many admirers and followers; yet more was needed to fuel a political movement capable of representing a bona fide alternative. It remains to be seen if Yulia Borisovna Navalnaya, who has vowed to carry the mantle of her late husband, proves more successful in this regard.


Kimberly St. Julian-Varnonhistory Ph.D. candidate, Penn Presidential Ph.D. Fellow, and expert on policy in the post-Soviet space

Alexei Navalny’s death, the events surrounding the official causes of death, and the Russian state’s refusal to release his body to his family are a significant blow to the Russian opposition. Though there is no “Russian opposition” as an organized group or set of institutions, Navalny’s work exposing corruption throughout Putin’s administration helped to transform oppositional politics in the Russian Federation. He built and leveraged a media operation driven by the internet that showcased Putin’s hypocrisy and, occasionally, the mundane idiocy of authoritarianism to Russian and Western audiences. 

Yet, despite Western sentiments that his death is a marker of Putin’s weakness, I argue it is a show of strength. Since the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022, Putin has been able to continue his military onslaught, further imprison political enemies and American citizens, and, in the cases of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Alexei Navalny, kill detractors with impunity. Putin has fully embraced his and Russia’s status as Western pariah while strengthening political and economic ties with India, South Africa, and China. 

How opposition forces in Russia will regroup remains to be seen. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, is determined to carry on her husband’s work. Still, the question remains: How successful has that work been in changing the political landscape within Russia? Unfortunately, Navalny’s death is a reminder of how personalized political power and influence remain in Russia, in the opposition, and for Putin. Opposition groups still need to forge broad coalitions and institutions to counter Putin’s authoritarianism, and the Russian state has done everything it can to limit opportunities to do so. Navalny’s death could be a turning point for unifying opposition forces against the Kremlin despite the considerable obstacles they face.