Remembering Alexei Navalny, Russia's Unwavering Opposition Leader

Remembering Alexei Navalny, Russia's Unwavering Opposition Leader

Scholars from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies share their memories and perspectives of Navalny, who died while incarcerated in a Russian penal colony.
Alexei Navalny Alexei Navalny was a staunch and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who worked tirelessly to expose corruption and criminal activity in the Kremlin regime. Mitya Aleshkovsky, Wikimedia Commons

On February 16, the world was shocked by the news that Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s most outspoken and well-known critics, had died while in detention in a remote prison in Siberia. He was 47.

Navalny came into the global spotlight largely after an infamous poisoning attempt by a Kremlin-sanctioned hit team while Navalny was traveling from a rally in Tomsk, Siberia to Moscow. His dramatic evacuation to Germany — secured largely through the fierce perseverance of his wife, Yulia Navalnaya — and against-all-odds recovery from the effects of Novichok poisoning would have been inspiring in their own right, but Navalny awed the world further first by successfully and publicly identifying his would-be assassins with the help of Bellingcat investigators, and then by returning to Russia of his own accord on January 17, 2021. He was arrested immediately upon landing, and remained in custody and imprisoned in increasingly hostile, inhumane conditions until his death in 2024. 

Many came to know Navalny and his David and Goliath story through Daniel Roher’s Oscar-winning documentary, Navalny, released in 2022. But for scholars of Russia and democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), Navalny was more than a news headline or silver screen hero; he was a friend.

Here, Michael McFaul, the director of FSI and professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences; Kathryn Stoner, the Mosbacher director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law; and Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at FSI, share their memories and personal impressions of Navlany, his life, and the legacy he has left behind.

A Fighter, Friend, and Father

Michael McFaul | Originally posted in The Washington Post

"The Alexei I knew was extremely charming. I remember our first meeting at the White House in 2009 when I worked at the National Security Council. My boss at the time, Barack Obama, was known for his charisma. Navalny had Obama-caliber presence. I understood that day why Putin feared him. In a free and fair election, Navalny would have destroyed Putin.

The Alexei I knew was a fierce family man. Well before he decided to go back to Russia, it seemed to me his deepest anxiety was not about enduring torture in Putin’s gulag or even facing death, but about being an absentee father and husband. By doing what he thought was right for his country, he knew that he was asking his family to sacrifice a lot, too.

The Alexei I knew — and that the world knew — was incredibly brave and firmly committed to his values: fighting Putin’s corruption and trying to liberate his country from totalitarian dictatorship. As a scholar of democratization and a sometimes activist for democracy, I have studied or had the privilege of meeting some of the most courageous freedom fighters in the world. Navalny was one of them — the Mandela of Putin’s Russia. Nelson Mandela survived his three decades of captivity. Navalny tragically did not.

Navalny dreamed of a free Russia. Barbaric dictators such as Putin can kill men, but they cannot kill ideas. I do not know when, but I am confident that Navalny’s ideas of freedom will outlive Putin’s ideas of tyranny."

Michael McFaul

Michael McFaul

Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute
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Problematic to Putin in Life, Dangerous to the Regime in Death

Kathryn Stoner | Originally published in the Journal of Democracy

"Courageous, funny, brave, brilliant, creative, tenacious, charismatic — these are all the things that Alexei Navalny was in life, and what made him such a dangerous foe for a paranoid authoritarian ruler like Vladimir Putin . . . Even in handcuffs, Navalny knew how to strike at the crookedness of Putin's regime . . . Whatever his circumstances, he never gave up. 

He was one of the few Russian opposition leaders who could gather thousands of people on the streets of Russia’s largest cities to protest corruption (his signature issue) or stolen elections. He later built an organization spanning Russia’s eleven time zones, encouraging voters in creative and entertaining social-media posts to vote for any candidate most likely to defeat Putin’s United Russia, regardless of party.

Alexei Navalny was and remains an inspiration to millions of people within Russia’s borders and beyond, which is why — even in death — he remains dangerous to the stability of the corrupt autocracy that Vladimir Putin has built. Building the free and prosperous future for Russia Navalny envisioned will require sacrifices — not just from him, but from all who wanted something different, something better."

Kathryn Stoner

Kathryn Stoner

Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law
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Honoring Navalny's Legacy

Francis Fukuyama | Originally published in American Purpose

"While [Navalny's] situation may have looked hopeless, Putin over the long term is more vulnerable than he seems, and the regime could come crashing down at any moment. Were that to happen, Navalny would emerge as the unquestioned leader of a more democratic Russia, just as Nelson Mandela went from prison on Robben Island to the South African presidency in the blink of an eye. I suspect it was fear of this scenario that led Putin to have Navalny killed.

I’ve been honored to serve on the external board of the Navalny Foundation for the past few years, and will continue to do what I can to support those Russians who hope for a very different and more democratic Russian future. But as an American, the most effective thing I can do is to support aid to Ukraine, and work to keep these Republican hypocrites as far away from power as possible. Trump himself does not even bother to be hypocritical, being openly supportive of Putin and saying not a critical word about Russia or Navalny’s murder. Some of the most important decisions affecting Alexei Navalny’s legacy in Russia and Europe as a whole will be made this year here in America."


Francis Fukuyama

Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute
Francis Fukuyama Full Profile

Readers with a current SUNet ID can access the full version of Navalny, Daniel Roher’s Oscar-winning documentary, through Stanford Libraries.

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