By Gwynne Dyer

Vladimir Putin’s regime had been assassinating Chechen warlords, defectors from the Russian intelligence services and sundry wayward oligarchs for years, but its first political murder was the hit on high-profile journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment in 2006 — and so it has been ever since. 

The murders are sometimes public and brazen. The leader of the opposition to Putin’s dictatorship, Boris Nemtsov, was killed in 2014 as he crossed the bridge from Red Square to the south bank. Four bullets in Nemtsov’s back and all the security cameras in the area turned off ‘for maintenance’: it was a clear message to all protesters. 

Which bring us to the latest death, that of Alexei Navalny last Friday. Putin’s henchmen had already tried to kill Navalny once in 2020, smearing his underwear with the novichok nerve agent. He was evacuated to Germany and made at least a partial recovery, but as de facto leader of the democratic opposition in Russia he felt obliged to go back. 

It was a mistake, although a very brave one. As soon as he got off the plane back in Moscow in 2021 he was arrested, and the regime set about dismantling the modest political network that he had managed to create. 

Navalny himself disappeared into the gulag, surfacing in various prisons from time to time. As he said himself, he would be in jail until he died or the regime ended. 

Well, it was the former, and there is no reason to doubt that he was killed on Putin’s orders. Nothing as important as that happens in Russia without Putin’s say-so. 

It doesn’t matter whether Navalny died from poisoning, from the after-effects of a beating, or from malnutrition and exposure. If Putin had not wanted him dead, he would still be alive. QED. 

The Russian internet is already filling with speculations about why Putin killed him when he was already neutralised. Navalny posed no serious threat to the Russian strongman any more (if he ever did), and one would have thought that Putin didn’t need any more negative publicity. But that ignores the role of Putin’s injured vanity. 

Strongmen hate to be mocked, and Navalny’s specialty was slick, sarcastic videos portraying the Great Leader and his cronies as massively corrupt and incompetent nobodies who had stumbled on great power almost accidentally but were determined to keep it. 

Putin was so obsessed with Navalny that he could never bring himself to mention the man’s name in public, but he was no longer a threat. The repression in Russia in the past few years has been so harsh that almost everybody is keeping their heads down now. The revolution has been postponed indefinitely, and Navalny died in vain. 

This begs Lenin’s famous question: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”, but nobody wants to answer it right now. There’s a war on: most people close ranks, and those who know better keep their mouths shut. 

This doesn’t mean that Putin will be in power forever, or that Russia can never be a modern democratic society. Of course it can. It might have made it the first time, in the 1990s, if Boris Yeltsin had not been a venal drunk and the United States had not ensured his ‘re-election’ to the presidency in 1996. 

There will be another chance for Russia sooner or later, and another after that if they mess it up again. And one day there will be statues of Alexei Navalny in Moscow.