The reported death of Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison was deeply tragic and inevitable—the latter because global fame is no inoculation against Vladimir Putin’s dissident-hunting toadies, and neither does a failed assassination attempt deter the Putin regime from trying again.

This is not always the case with autocrats. A failed assassination has a way of carrying a certain shame, but that is something of which Putin is incapable. And there are times when one might be led to believe one’s renown has garnered a level of protection that would limit the regime’s harassment to catch-and-release arrests. Indeed it seemed at times as if Navalny might have achieved this, since Russian police would arrest him at key moments simply to keep him quiet during a protest or an election.

Alas, it was not to be. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service announced Friday that Navalny had mysteriously fallen ill and lost consciousness after taking a walk. Authorities surely tried their damnedest to revive him.

Navalny took a highly unusual—and creative—route to dissidence. In 2007 Navalny, who had a finance degree and was running a modest law firm, bought shares in some of Russia’s state-owned energy companies and banks. He noticed inconsistencies and used his status as a shareholder to fish for information. It is hard to overstate the level of corruption embedded in the Russian political economy, but even Navalny was shocked at the extent of it. He then set up a crowd-sharing website for Russians to inspect documents that the government had made public and put up at an online clearinghouse.

Navalny’s anti-corruption passion was genuine, but so was his innate chutzpah. “I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing, but I think they’ll arrest him,” an official at a company being investigated by Navalny told the New Yorker in 2011. “He’s taunting really big people and he’s doing it in an open way and showing them that he’s not afraid. In this country, people like that get crushed.”

Indeed, from Kremlin critic Sergei Magnitsky to the fierce independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya to opposition figure and would-be whistleblower Boris Nemtsov, over the years the bees in Putin’s bonnet have gotten snuffed out one by one. Just this week, the Washington Post carried an op-ed column by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British writer and opposition figure in Russia. It was datelined “SPECIAL REGIME PRISON COLONY No. 7, OMSK, Russia”—the remote Siberian prison where Kara-Murza has lately been held for his “treasonous” criticism of the war in Ukraine. Kara-Murza’s opposition activism includes his work at Open Russia, a foundation started by another dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

A few months after Nemtsov’s murder, Kara-Murza came down with a severe illness that had all the hallmarks of a poisoning, though he was treated in Russia and the cause was never revealed. He recovered.

So, at one time, did Navalny, who was poisoned in 2020 by Russian internal security thugs who admitted the operation in a recorded call. Recently, Putin was still denying it: “If we’d wanted him dead, the case would have been concluded.”

And so now it has. But Navalny’s work can’t be erased. The decade or so he has spent revealing the details of Russia’s corruption removed whatever legitimacy Putin’s regime still had. He didn’t just make Moscow look bad; he made it look ridiculous, cartoonish, foolish. He embarrassed Putin. The mechanics of that corruption were exposed for all to see, a radical forced transparency that shocked Moscow into fearing its critics more than it had at any time since the days of the Soviet Union.

Putin had tried to pretend to make a deal with Russians: Ignore politics and you’ll be fine. But everything is political in an authoritarian security state in which all economic levers can only be pulled by the politically connected and the information sphere is tightly controlled.

The difference between the dictators who survived the Arab Spring and those pressured out of office was brutality. Bashar al-Assad in Syria displayed the brutality that proved he was willing to do literally anything—very much including repeatedly murdering children with poison gas—to hold on to power. The authoritarian leaders who still possessed a glimmer of humanity faltered. Vladimir Putin takes the brutal approach to governing Russia. Unlike some other places, in Russia your fame can’t ever reach a level high enough that it protects you from the state, even if you’re on foreign soil. And failed assassinations are followed through.

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