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As the world mourns Navalny, leaders and supporters point at Russia's government

A man holds a poster with a portrait of opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Friday. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony, Russia's prison agency said.
Markus Schreiber
/
AP
A man holds a poster with a portrait of opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Friday. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony, Russia's prison agency said.

Updated February 16, 2024 at 5:46 PM ET

The international reaction to the death of prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was swift. World leaders and senior officials, exiled Russians and Kremlin watchers praised his activism and, in many cases, laid blame squarely on the Russian government's shoulders.

Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service said Navalny, who was 47, lost consciousness after taking a walk in a remote Arctic prison where he was serving a lengthy sentence for multiple charges. Navalny's supporters see the charges as stemming from Navalny's criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, said if the news is true, she holds Putin, his friends and government responsible for all the "awful things" committed in Russia.

She called for the world to "unite and fight this evil ... the horrific regime in Russia."

Speaking at the White House, President Biden said he was "both not surprised and outraged" by the news of Navalny's death.

Biden called Navalny a powerful voice for the truth, and praised him for his courage in standing up to the Kremlin.

"We don't know exactly what happened but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was the consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did," Biden said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the conference in Munich, Germany, that Navalny's "death in a Russian prison and the fixation and fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built."

The United Nations Human Rights Office spokesperson, Liz Throssell, issued a sharp statement as well, saying the office is "appalled at the news."

She said the U.N. high commissioner for human rights had previously noted Navalny's sentence "raised questions about judicial harassment and instrumentalization of the court system for political purposes in Russia."

She added, "If someone dies in the custody of the State, the presumption is that the State is responsible," and urged for the need of "a credible investigation by an independent body."

There were also strong reactions throughout Europe.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, writing on X, formerly Twitter, said Navalny stood up for democracy and freedom in Russia — and apparently paid for his courage with his life. "This terrible news shows once again how Russia has changed and what kind of regime is in power in Moscow," he said.

In 2020, Germany temporarily took in Navalny and provided medical care after he was poisoned.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, "It is obvious that he was killed by Putin." He said the Russian president doesn't care who dies so long as his position as head of state is secure.

The European Union also holds the Kremlin responsible. EU Council President Charles Michel said on X that Navalny made the ultimate sacrifice for his ideals and that the EU "holds the Russian regime for sole responsible for this tragic death."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news reminds the world what a "monster" Putin is.

"It really shows the extent to which Putin has [or] will crack down on anyone who is fighting for freedom for the Russian people," Trudeau told Canadian public broadcaster CBC. "And it's something that has the entire world being reminded of exactly what a monster Putin is."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he was "deeply saddened" by the news, but he urged patience until all the facts are clear and that Russia can answer all the circumstances of Navalny's death.

Some were skeptical of the news from Moscow.

Kira Yarmysh, a spokesperson for the opposition leader, said she had no confirmation, and that Navalny's lawyer was flying to the prison to get more information.

Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said she didn't want any condolences yet. She saw her son in a meeting at the prison on Monday and he was "alive, healthy and happy," she wrote on Facebook, according to news reports.

Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of jailed Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence in prison over his criticism of the war in Ukraine, said she believes the chances are slim Navalny is still alive. If he has died, she knows who to blame.

"If that indeed happens, if the worst happened, the person responsible for Alexei's death is, of course, sitting in the Kremlin, and that is this despicable atrocity of a man by the name of Vladimir Putin," she told NPR's All Things Considered.

Still, many across Europe have mourned the death of the Russian opposition leader, as informal memorials, vigils and demonstrations sprang up in various cities.

Chanting "Freedom to Russia" and "Navalny will live on," a few hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin.

"Navalny was like the person who really gave hope that Russia could transform into a democratic country," one of the protesters, Lucas Latz, an environmental organization employee, told NPR. "It's not dead this hope" but Navalny's death has dimmed it, he said, which could empower Putin more.

In London, a couple hundred people gathered across the street from the Russian Embassy as well. Many had tears in their eyes, holding signs in Russian and English saying "Putin is a murderer" and chanting "Russia will be free!"


NPR correspondents Rob Schmitz contributed reporting from Berlin, Lauren Frayer contributed from London and Franco Ordoñez contributed from Washington, D.C. All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly also contributed from Washington.

Jackie Northam and Alex Leff are based in Washington.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Alex Leff is a digital editor on NPR's International Desk, helping oversee coverage from journalists around the world for its growing Internet audience. He was previously a senior editor at GlobalPost and PRI, where he wrote stories and edited the work of international correspondents.