MOSCOW—Vladimir Putin’s nemesis, corruption fighter Aleksey Navalny, is fighting for his life in a Siberian hospital after allegedly being poisoned at an airport while travelling to Moscow.
Navalny’s closest aide, Kira Yarmysh, said Navalny was poisoned after drinking a cup of tea at Tomsk airport early Thursday morning. He then boarded a flight to the Russian capital but fell violently ill en route. Taken from the aircraft on a stretcher after it was diverted to the city of Omsk, the opposition leader is in intensive care, relying on a respirator to breathe.
A Russian DJ who was on the same flight recorded a video that showed medical help arriving after the plane landed in Omsk. Navalny’s screams could be heard in the background.
Yarmysh said she knew immediately what had happened to her colleague: “A year ago, when Aleksey was in a detention center, he was poisoned. Obviously, now they’ve done the same thing to him again,” she wrote on Twitter.
Navalny’s friend, former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov is convinced this was yet another assassination attempt on an opponent of Putin. “Ever since Boris Nemtsov was murdered by the wall of the Kremlin, all of us knew who was going to be their next target—but Aleksey and I avoided talking about that,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast.
There is a long list of assassinations of Putin’s critics, some poisoned, some shot, others apparently falling from buildings. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned on the plane to Beslan during the terrorist hostage crises; she survived that attack but was gunned down soon afterwards in the elevator of her apartment building in downtown Moscow.
“They’ve wanted to wipe Navalny out for a long time. No bodyguards could ever protect Aleksey,” Gudkov said.
Navalny is now fighting for his life in a nightmarish situation with police officers and agents from the FSB, the modern incarnation of the KGB, surrounding the hospital. Doctors whispered with uniformed officials in a side room, so that Yarmysh, who was waiting in the hallway, could not hear their conversation.
“The Kremlin is capable of doing anything to get rid of Aleksey and all of us,” Yarmysh told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.
A photograph taken at the Vienna Cafe in Tomsk airport, deep in Siberia, showed Navalny drinking from a red cup before boarding the flight. MediaZona, an independent website covering political repression, reported that the photographer was Pavel Lebedev, a DJ who lives in Tomsk. He posted the image on Instagram with the caption “Good morning Aleksey.”
Lebedev then caught the same flight to Moscow, where his encounter with the celebrated dissident took a dark turn. His next update on Instagram said Navalny “felt terribly sick” and he described moans of anguish coming from the plane’s toilet: “He is still screaming in pain.” He also posted a video, which captured his cries, before taking the Instagram story down.
Ilya Yashin, a Moscow municipal deputy and close friend of Navalny was heartbroken by the news. “I am praying that Aleksey survives,” he told The Daily Beast.
Medics at the hospital said it was too soon to determine what had happened to Navalny. “Doctors are busy saving his life,” a spokesman said.
Gudkov told The Daily Beast that he believes the ongoing anti-Putin protests in Russia’s Far East and the revolutionary chaos in Belarus could have been the latest motivation to shut Navalny up. “Last night Navalny was coming back from Tomsk, where he supported his candidates at local elections; they know he is unstoppable and hugely popular.”
Yarmish recounted the events of Wednesday night and early Thursday morning on Twitter. She wrote: “This morning Navalny was returning to Moscow from Tomsk. On the flight he started feeling ill. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk. Aleksey has been poisoned with a toxin. Right now we’re in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
“We assume that Aleksey was poisoned with something mixed into his tea. That was the only thing he drank this morning. The doctors say that the toxin was absorbed more quickly because of the hot liquid. Right now Aleksey is unconscious,” she added.
“A year ago, when Aleksey was in a detention center, he was poisoned. Obviously, now they’ve done the same thing to him again.”
Last July, during one of Navalny’s stints in prison, he fell ill—raising questions about whether he had been poisoned.
A jail staffer told the opposition leader’s wife, who had arrived for a visit, that an ambulance had rushed him to the hospital with “some kind of strong allergic reaction” that caused his eyes and face to turn red and swell up.
“We are extremely worried about Aleksey, it could be some chemical agent sprayed in his cell or on his bed,” Yarmish told The Daily Beast at the time.
In October, the Kremlin designated the nonprofit group founded by Navalny, the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, as a foreign agent—a move seen as an effort to hinder its activities. That was just weeks after police special forces raided the group’s offices and seized computers and other items.
Navalny, who had been jailed dozens of times over the previous decade, filmed video of his lawyers coolly playing soccer in the office, cementing his nerves-of-steel reputation.
“We are fearless and unstoppable, no matter how harsh the pressure is from Putin’s thuggish government,” Navalny had told The Daily Beast earlier in the year.
The alleged poisoning comes just weeks after Navalny leveled corruption accusations against Svetlana Radionova, a Kremlin environmental inspector, citing documents that tied her to luxurious real estate in Moscow and Nice. “Such wealth cannot be explained. It is so outrageous,” Navalny said in a report on YouTube, which was viewed by more than three million people.
Poisoning has long been a technique favored by Putin. In 2008, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London by agents who laced his tea with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. Opposition campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza survived two poisonings, and former Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko suffered permanent facial scarring after exposure to a contaminant found in Agent Orange.
Navalny’s condition was reminiscent of another recent suspected poisoning. Two years ago, Pussy Riot’s Pyotr Verzilov, who had stormed the World Cup final in a police uniform, ended up in an intensive care unit, in a coma, soon after he visited Basmanny court in Moscow.
“I was exactly in the same condition, as Aleksey, on a breathing machine; it took me a month to recover,” Verzilov told Rain TV. Doctors were never able to trace the substance that made the performance artist and activist suddenly ill.
Thousands of Russians posted supportive messages for Navalny and his family on social media, while pro-Kremlin experts speculated about a “staged” attack. “It is important that Navalny recovers. Otherwise, this is a catastrophe, not only for tons of his supporters but for the country, too. Because Russia should not be a scary place to live,” RTVi broadcaster Katerina Kotrikadze wrote on Twitter.