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Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, dies in prison. He was 47

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, has died in prison. He was 47. The news came first in a statement from a regional office of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service. Later, the Kremlin spokesperson told reporters that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been informed of Navalny's death. Navalny's supporters say they have not yet confirmed his death independently. We're joined now for more on this from Moscow by NPR's Charles Maynes. Charles, good morning here. Good afternoon there. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: So what do we know at this moment?

MAYNES: Well, we know Navalny was in a penal colony in Russia's far northwest. This is above the Arctic Circle, where he'd been transferred late last year. There were some concerns about his health at the time. He was serving out a 19-year sentence for a slew of charges, all widely seen as politically motivated. But the regional prison authorities, as you note, said Navalny collapsed after a walk in a prison yard. Doctors were unable to revive him. He'd been in declining health for years after his imprisonment due to a past poisoning attack. So there always were these questions about Navalny surviving in these harsh circumstances. You know, and essentially, he was in a very isolated and very lonely place at the end of his life.

MARTIN: Would you just remind us of who Alexei Navalny was and why he was such an important figure? I'm thinking he might be the only opposition leader a lot of Americans know. So just tell us about his significance, and especially in Russia.

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, he was a longtime critic of President Vladimir Putin and Russia's authoritarian government. And of course, his imprisonment, as I noted, was widely seen as payback for his political ambitions. You know, he wanted to be the next president of Russia, and he didn't hide it. Now, he emerged as a breakout political star during anti-government protests over a decade ago and really made enemies in the Kremlin with anti-corruption campaigns that exposed graft in the government's inner circles, including with President Vladimir Putin. And this had consequences for Navalny's safety. He barely survived a poisoning attack in 2020. He blamed it on the Kremlin.

But I think what Navalny did was really cleave at sort of generational differences in Russia. You know, Putin has always tapped into older Russians, or if you'd like, the Soviet generations, you know, grievances over the end of the Soviet Union, over the end of the USSR. In turn, Navalny, he channeled this younger generation's hope that, you know, Russia could break free from this sort of repressive past and become more of what he called a normal country, a European country.

MARTIN: Where does this leave the opposition in Russia?

MAYNES: Well, in tatters. You know, most are either in prison or exile. And Navalny was the leader, and he's now dead. You know, he'd been urging supporters to campaign against the invasion of Ukraine. I mean, even as he was behind bars, he remained, like, an active participant in Russian politics, and he had the moral weight from it because he stayed in Russia. You know, many who are abroad really can't sort of claim to tell Russians to risk their own safety as they protest the war or protest against Vladimir Putin's continued rule. So, for example, Navalny had been urging Russians to vote against for any other candidate other than President Putin in the upcoming March elections. And it's why - for one reason, why he was in the Arctic Circle, to try and silence him.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.