Everything about the death of Alexei Navalny is strange. The circumstances. The fable of an accident while walking, when we know that there was no walking in the Polar Wolf penal colony in Kharp. The laughing and luminous eye that, even if perhaps it was, upon reflection, a shade too blue the night before his death, was still that of a grand vivant. The body hidden, reappearing, stolen again, invisible still as I write.

The hypotheses, galloping apace, are contradictory and never quite convincing: Poison, like in 2020? Slow-burning or immediate? An unknown assassin who infiltrated the prison? A professional, with a dagger, or a strangling without a trace? Were the bruises from an attack or an attempted resuscitation? Were the CCTV cameras turned off by FSB visitors in the hours before his death? How did a distant prison have a professional press release ready to go only several minutes after the purported time of his demise?

And of course, the crazy conspiratorial conjectures: not dead … or, at least, not necessarily … a purer Prigozhin, buried in the snow, water, and ashes of the Arctic Circle, which have become now in our imaginations a last frozen circle of Dante’s hell …


And then there’s the decision to kill Navalny. No one doubts that Putin, if he didn’t do it himself, at least allowed his most formidable opponent to be killed. Nor is there any doubt that this public execution is a message to those who, in the West and no less in the Russian Federation, might be tempted to defy his power, which remains, at heart, so vulnerable. But, if so, why?

Or, more exactly, why there, as opposed to somewhere else, why today and not yesterday? Why did Putin kill Navalny now, at this moment in history, when he had his opponent at his mercy for the last three years? Something to do with Ukraine? On the day that Zelensky spectacularly reestablishes his European diplomatic ties? Or as a bloody codicil to the madness emerging from a Moscow agitating, for the first time, for a terrifying war in space? I, Vladimir Putin, am speaking …

Or, rather, I say nothing. I kill and unleash terror on the world … The death, then, of one of the great opposition figures comes as a fiery salvo, a storm, a tornado, a tempest … Unless it is even simpler than that: the coming elections where, like all those who have pulled off a coup d’état in the style of Curzio Malaparte, the former KGB agent holds all the cards—and the “Vote at Noon” movement against Putin, which Navalny and some others called for, encouraging Russians to arrive to the polls all at once, on March 17, to vote for an ass, a horse, a straw man, anyone but him …


But the biggest enigma remains Navalny himself. Let us set aside his dark side, his ambiguities before the war against Ukraine. I do not tire, since the announcement of his death, of reading and rereading everything being said about his last moments, the last days of his short life. I imagine the cell. The solitary hole. The plank on the floor. The endless nights. The buzzing that one hears after a week of isolation. The blackness like a shroud. The cold like a coffin. The taste of poison hidden in bad soup, the potato gruel, the hardboiled egg bought for 19 rubles, crumbled into badly cooked rice. Putin’s speeches, playing loudly, a form of torture, morning and night, within the four walls of the disciplinary wing. Closing his eyes during body cavity searches. Opening them to find the expressionless face of the guard, who is also serving a life sentence.

And then again, the still more mysterious question asked ever since his voluntary return to Moscow, three years ago, barely recovered from his first poisoning with the neurotoxin Novichok: Why? How? What could he have been thinking when, instead of taking care of himself in Berlin, and then running the opposition from New York or Paris, he decided to throw himself back into the wolf’s den and return to Russia like a dead man walking?

There are cases like this in Dostoyevsky. There is the engineer Kirilov and his superior suicide, the proof of supreme liberty, who made such a mark on Gide and Alexandre Kojève. There are characters like this, half-saint half-demon, who, like Christ to whom they said: “if you are the Son of God, save yourself,” answer: “if I save my life, I will lose yours; it’s to save your life that I sacrifice my own.”

There is Plutarch. There is du Guesclin, the Spartans of Leonidas, Jean Moulin. There are the Plyushches, the Sharanskys, the Danylo Shumuks, survivors of the Gulag who, in the 1980s, showed me that nothing, not even death, is worse than becoming a martyr without testifying. And there are today’s Ukrainian heroes who also showed me that dying is nothing, no more than a cigarette puff, a blood stain slightly more black that grows, the sky the color of smoke—and then you become an example, an imperishable memory, a figure more alive dead than living.

Navalny was of that stripe. He was one of these man-mountains, who, without exaltation, with wisdom, rise up and become much more than their selves. The Acropolis, said our Plutarch, André Malraux, is it the only place in the world haunted both by spirit and courage?

Well, no. There is also, from now on, Kharp.

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