Widow promises to continue Navalny’s Russian mission

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left, walks with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. European Union foreign ministers on Monday will discuss, among other issues, the situation in the Middle East and Russian aggression against Ukraine. (Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP)
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left, walks with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. European Union foreign ministers on Monday will discuss, among other issues, the situation in the Middle East and Russian aggression against Ukraine. (Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP)


RIGA, Latvia -- Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin's most formidable opponent, vowed Monday to carry on her husband's crusade against the Russian regime, striving to build "a free, peaceful, happy Russia, a beautiful Russia of the future, which my husband dreamed of so much."

Navalnaya, 47, made her announcement in a video statement on YouTube, in which she accused Russian authorities of fatally poisoning Navalny in the Arctic prison where he died Friday at age 47.

"Putin did not only murder the person, Alexei Navalny," she said, clad in black and her voice occasionally trembling during the dramatic video address. "He wanted, along with him, to kill our hope, our freedom, our future."

Navalnaya also accused Russian authorities of refusing to hand over Navalny's body to his 69-year-old mother so they could cover up the cause of death.

"They lie pathetically and wait for the traces of another Putin's Novichok to disappear there," said Navalnaya, referring to the class of nerve agent that international investigators said Russian security agents used in an August 2020 attempt to assassinate her husband.

"My husband could not be broken, and that's exactly why Putin killed him, in the most cowardly way," she continued. "He did not have the courage to look him in the eye or even say his name. And now they are also cowardly, hiding his body, not showing him to his mother, not giving it to her."

Three days after Navalny's death Friday, the location of his body was still unclear, and his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, was again rebuffed by morgue officials in the Arctic town of Salekhard, 33 miles from the prison colony where he died, Navalny's press secretary said.

Navalny's grieving family and political team have demanded the return of his remains since Saturday but have faced an extended, almost surreal, struggle to recover his body or even to establish its location -- with Russian officials seemingly determined to obstruct any independent investigation into the cause of death.

Navalnaya was in Brussels on Monday to address European Union foreign ministers who invited her in a show of solidarity and as a follow-up to her emotional appearance at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, shortly after the news broke of her husband's death.

At the meeting in Brussels, she sat next to the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, surrounded by diplomats and officials, looking exhausted but determined.

"Vladimir Putin & his regime will be held accountable for the death of Alexei," Borrell posted on X, formerly Twitter. "As Yulia said, Putin is not Russia. Russia is not Putin."

A European diplomat said Navalnaya called on the European Union to sanction 500 Russian oligarchs supporting Putin's reelection to prevent sanctions evasion by Russia's elite, and she urged efforts to map the financial flows from Putin's inner circle. Navalnaya also met with European Council President Charles Michel.

Across Russia on Monday, initial crackdowns on mourners displaying their grief in public appeared to ease. By 7:15 p.m., 32 people had been detained in 16 cities and towns, according to a watchdog group, OVD-Info, which tracks arrests. In all, about 400 people have been detained since Friday, the group said.

In Moscow on Monday night, a steady trickle of mourners continued to pay respects to Navalny by laying flowers at the Solovetsky stone, a memorial for victims of the Soviet gulags, under the watchful eye of a dozen or so police officers. Heaps of red roses and carnations covered the monument, framing portraits of Navalny.


"Navalny was a very important person to us," said Tanya, 37, who works at a publishing company and arrived at the memorial with her 2-year-old daughter and a friend. "Everyone believed that nothing bad would happen, that he would break through all obstacles. In today's Russia, we just don't know what more we can do -- some people are giving up."

"Coming here to lay flowers makes me feel like I'm not alone," added Tanya, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of fear of repercussions.

In her video statement, Navalnaya vowed that she and her husband's team would find out those directly responsible for her husband's death and expose exactly how it was done. "We'll name names and show faces. But the main thing we can do for Alexei and for ourselves is to keep fighting," she said.

"I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny," Navalnaya proclaimed.

She also directly addressed one of the resonant questions in the West about her husband: Why did he return to Russia in 2021, risking arrest and death, when he could have lived peacefully in exile?

"He could not," she said, fighting back tears. "Alexei loved Russia more than anything else in the world, loved our country, loved you. He believed in us, in our strength, in our future and in the fact that we deserve the best."

On Friday after news of her husband's death emerged, Navalnaya met with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is also the wife of a jailed opposition politician.

Tikhanovskaya took the place of her husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky, as a presidential candidate in August 2020 after he was arrested that May -- two days after he announced his plan to run in the elections against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Tikhanovsky remains in prison and Tikhanovskaya lives in exile in Lithuania.

Eleven days later, on Aug. 20, 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent. He later teamed up with Bellingcat, the investigative news group, and managed to prove that a team of agents from Russia's Federal Security Service was responsible for tracking and poisoning him.

Navalny's mother has not been allowed to see his body. She traveled Saturday to the Polar Wolf prison just above the Arctic Circle in the Yamalo-Nenets region where he died and to the local morgue. Prison officials gave her a paper showing a time of death -- 2:17 p.m. -- but morgue officials denied that they had the body.

After the Russian newspaper-in-exile Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that Navalny's body was indeed at the morgue in Salekhard, the regional capital, Lyudmila Navalnaya and Navalny's lawyers went there early Monday morning and were again denied access, Navalny's press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who lives outside Russia, posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"They were not allowed to go in. One of the lawyers was literally pushed out," Yarmysh wrote. "When the staff was asked if Alexei's body was there, they did not answer."

Members of Navalny's team have also called his death a "murder," while many world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, have said Putin bears responsibility for his death.

Amid fears that the real cause of Navalny's death may never be known, Yarmysh accused officials from Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, of stalling.

"They lie, buy time for themselves and do not even hide it," Yarmysh said Monday morning.

Later Monday, she said Russia's Investigative Committee had refused requests from the mother and lawyer to surrender the body and told them it would be retained for at least two more weeks. Investigators claimed that the body would undergo "some sort of 'chemical examination' for another 14 days," Yarmysh posted on X.

On Saturday, Lyudmila Navalnaya was initially told by prison officials that her son died of "sudden death syndrome," but Investigative Committee officials later offered contradictory accounts, stating that the cause was unknown.

Putin, who has long made a point of never uttering Navalny's name, has not commented abut his death.

Navalny was barred from running in the 2018 Russian presidential election against Putin after his unexpectedly strong showing in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race. Navalny faced numerous criminal charges, which he and many independent analysts said were trumped up for political retribution.

Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday that Putin had made no reaction to Navalny's death and that the Kremlin was "not engaged" in the matter of the return of his body to his family. Asked whether the Kremlin was concerned about ensuring a thorough investigation, Peskov replied: "Those actions that are stipulated by Russian legislation are being carried out.

"The investigation into Navalny's death is underway," he said, but the results have not yet been made public. It is not known about them."

Peskov also criticized world leaders who said the Russian president was responsible for Navalny's death, calling it "absolutely unacceptable to make such blatantly boorish statements."

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik analytical group based in France, said Yulia Navalnaya would face difficulties in trying to fill her husband's shoes and become a major political figure with resonance inside Russia.

"Despite possible recognition and respect from the international community, lacking substantial support within Russia could significantly curtail her effectiveness as a political figure," she said, adding that Tikhanovskaya struggled to be relevant within Belarus, even as she was feted by Western leaders.

"Her success will hinge on her capacity to develop a unique political style, articulate her vision and assemble a professional team that does not put off potential supporters," Stanovaya said.

A pro-Kremlin blogger, Sergei Markov, claimed without any evidence that Navalny had been an agent of British intelligence and the CIA and warned that Yulia Navalnaya could share his fate.

"She should be more careful," Markov wrote on Telegram. "The U.S. and British intelligence services are now very cruel. Our advice to her is to escape somewhere quiet."

Tens of thousands of Russians have signed appeals for Navalny's body to be returned to his family and for them to be granted access to video camera and body camera footage from the prison and its staff.

More than 56,000 signed a petition organized by OVD-Info to the Investigative Committee demanding the return of Navalny's body to the family, and more than 21,000 people signed a petition mounted by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, demanding that the family be granted access to the prison surveillance footage.

Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona published video Sunday of a convoy of two police cars and a prison van traveling Friday night from the Polar Wolf prison toward Salekhard, possibly carrying Navalny's body.

Novaya Gazeta Europe, quoting a paramedic, reported that Navalny's body was initially taken to a district hospital in Salekhard instead of directly to the morgue as is customary in the case of prison deaths. The body was later transferred to the morgue, according to the paramedic.

Information for this article was contributed by Natalia Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina of The Washington Post.


Upcoming Events