From leading protests against the rigged parliamentary elections of 2011 to investigating the corruption of Russia’s elites to seeking to unseat Presdient Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny was relentless in his nearly two-decade-long campaign against corruption in and around the Kremlin. Putin responded as any Russian despot would.

Back in 2013, when Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was facing bogus criminal charges, I recalled when my great-grandfather, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, compared Russia to a tub full of dough. "You put your hand down in it, down to the bottom," and "when you first pull out your hand, a little hole remains." But then, "before your very eyes," the dough returns to its original state - a "spongy, puffy mass." Navalny's death in a remote Arctic penal colony more than a decade later proves that little has changed.

The prison where Navalny died is a particularly brutal one. Nicknamed "Polar Wolf," it is a freezing cold gulag for violent criminals. But Navalny - an anti-corruption lawyer and blogger - was not known for violence. In 2013, he was fending off trumped-up embezzlement charges, and the convictions that got him sent to Polar Wolf in 2021 were for parole violations, fraud, and contempt of court. While in prison, he accumulated more convictions on fabricated charges, including supporting extremism.

Navalny's real crime, of course, was challenging President Vladimir Putin. From leading protests against the rigged parliamentary elections of 2011 to investigating the corruption of Russia's elites to seeking to unseat Putin (in a presidential election from which the authorities excluded him), he was relentless in his nearly two-decade-long campaign against Putin and his circle. The many legal proceedings were Stalin-style show trials - intended to give the illusion of justice, while getting a high-profile critic off of ballots and television screens. But whereas the Stalin-era trials made liberal use of the death penalty (as well as gulags), no case against Navalny, no matter how trumped up, warranted it - at least not officially.

The Russian prison service claims that Navalny lost consciousness after a walk and could not be resuscitated, despite the best efforts of emergency medical workers. But Navalny did not seem "unwell" the previous day, when he took part in online court proceedings, or the day before that, when his lawyer visited him. This is not to say that Navalny's death was definitely a direct hit, ordered by Putin himself; life at Polar Wolf would destroy anyone's health. But, directly or indirectly, it was Putin who killed Navalny.

And this was not even the first attempt. In the summer of 2020, Navalny was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok - a Soviet creation - and was airlifted to Berlin to recover. He knew that returning to Russia would mean more politically motivated prosecutions, like those of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and punk-rock agitators Pussy Riot. He even knew that he could end up being killed, like Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, and countless others. But he chose to return to Russia to continue confronting Putin.

Navalny was arrested immediately upon landing in Moscow. The protests that ensued, with tens of thousands of Russians taking to the streets to demand his release, only reinforced the Kremlin's view of him as a threat that had to be neutralized. In the show trials that followed, no government authority dared even to use his name, referring to him instead as the "German patient." It was like living in the Harry Potter universe, where the feared Lord Voldemort is called "he who must not be named."

When I wrote about the Navalny show trials in 2013, I suggested that Russia might have been evolving, albeit slowly. Little did I know that this period would later be remembered as "vegetarian times," when independent media were suppressed but not banned, public protest was punished but not with long prison sentences, and a high-profile enemy of the Kremlin like Navalny could keep running an anti-corruption foundation and speaking out against injustice. But since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin has become carnivorous.

Since the invasion, almost 300 cases have been initiated just for "discrediting the Russian armed forces." Nowadays, all it takes to get your own show trial in Russia is to recite an anti-war poem. The tragedy of the despot is that the fight never ends. The more show trials a regime holds, the more it must hold to keep people in check. The more repression people endure, the more repression is needed to avoid a backlash. The more blood is spilled, the more blood has to be spilled.

There is no end point - no finish line - for an authoritarian like Putin. He must hold onto power today, and then do it again tomorrow. It is reasonable to assume, then, that in the run-up to Russia's next sham presidential election next month, Putin's tolerance for dissent is at an all-time low.

Yes, the election is expected to run smoothly, and Navalny's death arguably has attracted more attention than his statements from prison ever did; it remains possible that the murder was indirect. But that same logic would have applied to the poisonings of Russian-British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia two weeks before the 2018 presidential election. Neither victim posed an imminent threat to Putin, and their deaths attracted a lot of negative international attention. But Putin needed to send a message: enemies beware.

And the dough refills the tub.

From Project Syndicate

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