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The deadly fates of Putin critics

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

A spokeswoman for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has confirmed his death in an Arctic penal colony Friday. Many allies of the activist, world leaders and Kremlin watchers are blaming the Russian government for his death. A Kremlin spokesman vehemently denied those accusations. Still, Navalny is far from the only Kremlin critic to die in suspicious circumstances. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is here to talk to us about the fate of others who dared cross Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: First of all, why do many think there's something suspicious about Navalny's death?

NORTHAM: Well, he appeared in court Thursday, the day before he died, and by all accounts, appeared healthy and in good spirits. And Navalny even managed to send a Valentine's wish to his wife. Less than 24 hours later, he collapses and dies. And the thing is, Navalny had been poisoned before while on a flight from Siberia to Moscow a few years ago with a nerve agent called Novichok. He survived. But, you know, clearly Navalny was a target of the Russian government. He was a fierce and outspoken critic of Putin. And other people who have challenged the Russian president over the years have paid for it, you know, whether it being shot or poisoned or dying in a suspicious plane crash or even falling to their death out of a window.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And Navalny certainly would have seen what happened with those other Putin critics over the years. Can you tell us more about them?

NORTHAM: You know, there are some incidents straight out of a spy novel. For example, Sergei Skripal. He was an ex-Russian spy who was convicted of working for British intelligence. And he and his daughter were found collapsed on a bench in the U.K. after being injected with Novichok. Another spy who ran afoul of Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, died from a radioactive substance called polonium, and that was after having tea with two Russian agents in London. Boris Nemtsov, an opposition figure, he was shot, as well as investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

An oil tycoon named Ravil Maganov, who called for the end to the invasion of Ukraine, he fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of a Moscow hospital. And then last year, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was the head of the Wagner mercenary group. He died when the plane he was flying in exploded in mid-air after it left Moscow. You know, that was shortly after Prigozhin spearheaded an uprising challenging Putin's handling of the Ukraine war. And, Camila, the list goes on and on.

DOMONOSKE: Has the Russian government ever admitted to being behind these killings or even investigated them?

NORTHAM: You know, I spoke with Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, and she's the executive vice president of Freedom House, which tracks the Kremlin and these types of incidents. And she said the Kremlin always blames these things on random accidents or something similar, and that there's never really been a serious investigation. You know, Sedaca says these types of killings are getting more brazen, and that they highlight two things about Putin. Here she is here.

NICOLE BIBBINS SEDACA: One, that he is desperate to keep silent anyone who is going to challenge his power or unveil the corruption and the brutality that has characterized his regime. Second is just the brutality. You know, he has absolutely no limits to the extent that he will go to kill people. And I do believe he thinks that he will be unaccountable.

NORTHAM: And, Camila, Sedaca says now may be the opportunity for the world to hold Putin and his regime accountable, but it's hard to say if that will happen. She also said Putin will likely hope Navalny's death will help silence any other critics, but that, you know, the Russian human rights community is extraordinarily courageous. And there could be others to step in to fill the void left by Navalny.

DOMONOSKE: That's NPR's international affairs correspondent, Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.