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With Prison Certain and Death Likely, Why Did Navalny Return?

WorldWith Prison Certain and Death Likely, Why Did Navalny Return?

There was one question that Russians repeatedly asked the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who died in a remote Arctic penal colony on Friday, and he confessed that he found it a little annoying.

Why, after surviving a fatal poisoning attempt widely blamed on the Kremlin, had he returned to Russia from his extended convalescence abroad to face certain imprisonment and possible death? Even his prison guards, turning off their recording devices, asked him why he had come back, he said.

“I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs,” Mr. Navalny wrote in a Jan. 17 Facebook post to mark the third anniversary of his return and arrest in 2021. “I cannot betray either the first or the second. If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.”

That was the direct answer, but for many Russians, both those who knew him and those who did not, the issue was more complex. Some of them considered it almost a classical Greek tragedy: The hero, knowing that he is doomed, returns home anyway because, well, if he didn’t, he would not be the hero.

Mr. Navalny’s motto was that there was no reason to fear the authoritarian government of President Vladimir V. Putin. He wanted to put that into practice, Russian commentators said, and as an activist who thrived on agitation, he feared sinking into irrelevancy in exile. The decision won him new respect and followers as he continued to lambast the Kremlin from his prison cell, but it also cost him his life.

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