ALEXEI the Great

ALEXEI the Great

Though Navalny's heart has stopped, his death cannot erase the impact he made. Alexei was the future and hope of Russia, but what he embodied is eternal. Someday, the dictatorship will die, but Alexei will always live on.
Alexei Navalny on a march in 2020. Alexei Navalny on a march in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in Russia. Michał Siergiejevicz via Wikimedia Commons, cc-by-2.0.

His heart has stopped beating. The world mourns.

On February 16, I was scheduled to speak on a broadcast with a person associated with the team of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Waking early that morning, I found a disconcerting message: “Broadcast canceled.” Soon after, news of Alexei’s death flooded in, accompanied by photos of him—a memorable one showed him smiling and standing in front of a stop sign and a protester’s placard that read “Send murderers and corrupted bastards to jail, not the people and protesters.”

I posted my initial reaction on X: “Navalny has been murdered. A grim reminder of what brutal kleptocrats can do. It happened to Navalny, to Russia, to freedom. Putin fears his people. He wages wars for distraction. The naive hope ends here."

Sadness seems to have no limits. Navalny was an icon who overcame his fears. A person who understood what to fight against and what to fight for. He exemplified a feeling that descends upon those who see their purpose as larger than a single life. Motherland, people, freedom. These values are greater than any individual human being. Rarely can they fit entirely into a heart and soul—but to embody them was Alexei’s rare gift.

He was a beacon of hope for countless numbers of people. He had a “larger-than-life” personality. He was the sole figure in Russian politics you could talk about positively. Only Kremlin-entrenched thugs and their circle had a deathly fear of him. He loved to tease these thugs, revealing everything they hid from the public: their lies, their thefts, their true faces. Alexei, simply put, was the biggest threat to the Putin regime. Bigger than any country or block combined.

His enemy poisoned him. Tried to kill him several other times, too. After the poisoning, Navalny made a miraculous recovery from almost certain death. Navalny later even tricked his would-be assassins into a public confession. That was a masterclass in courage. With his life under such threats, Alexei became the fearless face of openness and bravery. He used every available tool to light the darkest corners of frozen Russia. He was truly Alexei the Great.

Navalny was not as perfect as everyone would like him to be. Perfection is unattainable, and the pursuit of it leads to disappointment—but perfection isn’t the point. Open societies or democracies are not perfect either. They have their flaws and weaknesses. Just like human beings. Even a beautiful flower has its thorns.

Navalny risked everything. He chose to return to Russia, knowing the risks, preferring duty over comfort. Upon arrival, he was imprisoned, sacrificing his freedom for public trust. But long before he was snatched, he was unfree. When a person no longer belongs to himself alone, he loses his freedom. Gaining more public trust means losing more of your independence. That's a tough reality of politics.

Sometimes life seems like a candle. Navalny was the brightest light in Russia. But he was fragile. He became much more fragile being Putin’s “personal prisoner” in the Artic jail. But, as Mongols say, even mountain lions can get caught by ants. When Alexei was sentenced, he became like a candle on the nightstand beside the dictator's bed. If the candle burns too bright the master will die. So the candle went out. That was the only way: the little man pinched the candle, the tyrant remains in the dark.

Putin subjected Navalny to years of torment before his murder. But Navalny's love for freedom, his family, and his people were and remain a source of limitless joy. The desire for freedom is the most powerful force. But – like Alexei himself – freedom is fragile. Sometimes it takes just a pinch from the enemy to extinguish it.

Though Navalny's heart has stopped, his legacy will forever haunt those who murdered him. His death cannot erase the impact he made. In fact, he left undefeated. And in death, he’s revealed an extraordinary power: he will continue to scare the oppressors. They will be deathly afraid of him and those like him until the end.

In mourning Alexei, we realize every heartbeat is a call for freedom. Alexei was the future and hope of Russia, but what he embodied is eternal. Someday, the dictatorship will die, but Alexei will always live on.

Elbegdorj Tsakhia was the president of Mongolia from 2009 to 2017. A long-time proponent of democracy, Elbgdorj was a key leader in the 1990 Mongolian democratic revolution that ended 70 years of communist rule in the country. His presidency focused on environmental protections, women's rights, judicial reform, civic engagement, economic liberalization and privatization, property rights, and the abolition of the death penalty. He is currently a Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at Stanford University.

Elbegdorj Tsakhia

Elbegdorj Tsakhia

Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at FSI
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