MOSCOW—As Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, lay in a coma on Friday after a suspected poisoning, a fierce tug-of-war raged between his family and authorities over whether he could be flown to Germany for additional medical treatment.
Finally, on Friday night, Russian doctors relented and allowed Navalny to leave the country “on his wife’s responsibility.”
All day, while a German air ambulance waited at the airport in the Siberian city of Omsk, Russian doctors at the hospital where Navalny was being treated and law enforcement agencies had refused to allow him out of Russia. Navalny’s wife appealed to President Vladimir Putin in a letter to allow her husband’s medical evacuation, but still the negotiations dragged on. (The Kremlin did not ban Navalny from traveling abroad after a previous attack. Somebody doused him with brilliant green antiseptic, damaging his eye, outside of his Anti-Corruption Fund, or FBK, in 2017. Shortly after the attack, Navalny underwent an eye surgery in Madrid.)
Now, Navalny’s family will get the chance to seek treatment for him in Berlin.
In the meantime, pro-Kremlin publications, some quoting anonymous sources, downplayed the possibility of poison and unspooled a long list of possible reasons why a healthy 44-year-old could have suddenly collapsed in a coma. Alternative causes and diagnoses for Navalny’s coma proliferated on state media: He “ate or took something the evening before” was one idea, or “he drank moonshine.” Other reports, which suggested the stricken opposition leader is a drug addict, angered even his critics.
Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite who ran as a token candidate in the last presidential election from which real opposition figures were excluded, often disagreed with Navalny in political debates. But she defended her rival on Friday: “I have no doubts that this is a political reprisal, and reading about him getting ‘drunk on moonshine in the village’ is simply disgusting,” Sobchak wrote on social media. “Alexei was never seen drunk and there was no question of drugs at all. I am still horrified by the video of his voice on the plane: it’s just awful. There are no words to describe the feelings of horror and helplessness in front of such a despicable reprisal.”
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, initially said that Navalny would not leave Russia as the doctors treating him in Siberia thought the flight could be “a threat to life,” so long as there is no clarity about what caused Navalny’s sickness. Navalny’s friends and supporters insisted that what actually threatened his life was poison in the tea he drank at a café in the airport before boarding his flight on Wednesday night. The politician lost consciousness on the plane early in the morning on Thursday. Video shot by another passenger showed him moaning in pain.
The director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, told journalists that he and his colleagues were in the head doctor’s office when a representative of the local transport police entered the room with a cell phone in her hand and said, “Here is the substance they found in him.” Zhdanov asked the name of the substance. “She told us it was classified information but that the substance was deadly dangerous for life, threatening not just Alexei’s life but also everybody around him, everybody should be wearing protective costumes.” The intensive care unit treating Navalny has been flooded by police, according to Zhdanov.
The head doctor at the hospital, Alexander Murakhovsky, admitted to reporters that some chemicals had been discovered on the opposition leader’s nails and on his clothes. But he said that the chemicals, which he did not name, had nothing to do with Navalny’s coma. He later said “metabolic disorders” had caused the coma. The chief editor of Russia Today, a pro-Kremlin outlet, Margarita Simonyan, immediately posted: “They should have given him a spoon of sugar on the plane, nothing would have happened.”
The Siberian doctors insisted that the conditions and doctors at their hospital were “not any worse” than at the Charité hospital, where Germany was going to provide medical treatment for Navalny. Charité is a leading university hospital in Berlin, treating 152,693 inpatient cases a year. In contrast, photographs of the Omsk hospital, posted by Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, showed toilets covered in corrosion, holes in the walls, and missing paint and tiles. By evening, after a day of standoffs over the evacuation, the situation sounded completely bizarre: Navalny’s family and supporters said they felt as if they were trying to organize his escape from prison and not transportation from one hospital to another.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, spoke to journalists outside the hospital. She was breathing heavily: “I tried to see doctors in the intensive care unit but some people wearing overcoats inside forced me out in a brutal way,” she said. Doctors had stopped talking with her four hours before. “They hide the German doctors from us, this is an outrageous situation. It is obvious that something is being kept secret from us. We demand they give us Alexei immediately, so we could take him to doctors who we trust.”
Navalny’s personal doctor denied he had diabetes. After seeing the video of Navalny screaming in pain on the plane, Russian doctors both in Moscow and St. Petersburg expressed their doubts about low blood sugar being the cause of Navalny’s coma. “As a rule, a fairly healthy person does not have hypoglycemia unless they starve for two days and work out.” Navalny did not starve himself in Siberia. He met with local opposition politicians, and continued his corruption investigation of Tomsk governor Sergei Zhvachkin; he had tea in Tomsk’s airport.