Alexey Navalny, The New Yorker Interview by Masha Gessen

Alexey Navalny Has the Proof of His Poisoning

The Russian anti-corruption activist, who nearly died in August, talks about his recovery and his future.

October 18, 2020

Alexey Navalny is the biggest thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side. A decade ago, Navalny, as a young lawyer in Moscow, started piecing together publicly available information to document corruption and abuse of power in the Russian government. At first, he used his blog to document inflated prices in government contracts, suggesting kickbacks; he moved on to documenting real-estate holdings, luxury cars, and cash reserves that government officials had registered in the names of relatives. Navalny’s one-man project grew into the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a multimedia production company with dozens of investigators whose tools have ranged from data mining to sending drones to film the estates of highly placed bureaucrats. One of Navalny’s biggest hits is a series of films about the then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s sneaker-collecting habits and estate, which included three helopads, a ski slope, cascading swimming pools, a hotel-style dormitory for staff, and a little lake house for ducks, which became an Internet meme. Russian authorities have been fighting to have the films removed from YouTube, where one of them has been viewed more than thirty-six million times.

Navalny was one of the leaders of the mass protests against rigged elections that erupted in Russia in 2011 and 2012. Many of his fellow-members of the protest coördinating council are either living in exile, like the chess champion Garry Kasparov or the prisoners’-rights activist Olga Romanova, or dead, like the politician Boris Nemtsov. The Kremlin has tried to shut down Navalny and his organization through a series of court cases and arrests. But when Navalny was jailed in 2013, sentenced to five years on flagrantly trumped-up embezzlement charges, thousands of Muscovites protested and secured his release. When he was sentenced to house arrest, Navalny refused to comply, because the Russian penal code does not allow for such a punishment; after a few months, the authorities gave up, although his brother, Oleg, remained behind bars for years on spurious charges.

Navalny’s activism and reach kept expanding—he even attempted to run for President—and for a few years he seemed invincible. (In a piece for this magazine in 2016, I wrote, “The strangest thing about Alexey Navalny is that he is walking around Moscow, still.”) But, on August 20th, Navalny fell ill when returning to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. He was in a coma for twenty-six days, most of them in a hospital in Berlin. Analysis performed by multiple European labs shows that he was poisoned with a previously unknown version of Novichok, a deadly Russian-developed chemical agent. Navalny regained his ability to speak, write, and make jokes within ten days of coming out of the coma, but he has continued to experience significant physical effects owing to the poisoning. He spoke with me, over Zoom, from an apartment in Berlin, on October 8th; through the screen, it was obvious that Navalny had lost a great deal of weight, but otherwise he looked and sounded as I’d always remembered him. Our conversation has been translated from Russian and condensed.

How did you know what had happened to you?

This is the hardest part. The moment I knew that I’d been poisoned was the moment I realized my life was ending. What I was experiencing up until then was a kind of incomprehension. We can understand a heart attack or a stroke, but we cannot understand the effects of cholinesterase inhibitors—evolution does not prepare us for this. You are in this strange state of losing focus, and the strangeness keeps growing. I’ve compared it to being touched by a Dementor in a Harry Potter novel—you feel that life is leaving you. Let’s say I touch my own hand with my finger. My brain can perceive that signal and then cancel it out. But Novichok makes it not get cancelled out, so it feels like I’m touching my own hand a million times a second, and every cell in my body goes berserk, and the brain understands that this is the end.

Let’s go back a second. You have boarded a plane from Tomsk to Moscow. You’ve opened up your laptop and started watching “Rick and Morty,” as is your habit. And then—

I started losing focus. Say, right now, I see you on the screen. I understand that Kira is here in the room. [Kira Yarmysh, who is Navalny’s spokeswoman, was present during our interview; she was also seated next to him on the Tomsk-Moscow flight.] I understand this, but I cannot see it and focus on it. I have the strength to point at the screen. I see the cat who has entered the frame. But I can’t grasp the concept of “cat,” and if someone asked me to point at the cat on screen, I’d have a very hard time. On the airplane, I went to the bathroom and I realized that I would not be able to leave the bathroom on my own, and this was when I knew I’d been poisoned. It was so difficult to open the door. I could see the door, I could understand everything, and I was plenty physically strong enough—I would have been able to do pushups, if only, at that moment, I had been able to grasp the concept of pushups. I guess if I’d had sudden heart pain or abdominal pain, I would have realized even faster that I was dying, because this physical experience would have been familiar to me. But this was worse than pain.

I’m trying to understand what you are describing, using my own experience. Have you ever been sedated with opiates?

Sure, I had my appendix removed. And last month, too, I had the experience of coming out of sedation. This was nothing like it. Some people have compared it to a panic attack. But I think I understand what a panic attack feels like: a sense of growing anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling you can ultimately comprehend.

I came out of the bathroom. I could still stand upright. I saw my seat and realized I would probably never make it that far. I thought I should probably ask for help, but I also thought that, by this point, it would be useless. So I informed the flight attendant that I was about to die, right there on their plane, and I lay down.

On the floor. And then they tried to keep you awake, right?

They were saying, “Sir, stay with us, please don’t lose consciousness. . . .” But I did.

Did you have a sense of the passage of time?

I just felt indifference. It was clear that this was the end. I imagine that a person, when they are dying, thinks about important things, like, This is what I haven’t completed, or, What will happen to my children, or, What will my wife say? But I was finding it so difficult to think at all.

So those awful screams that someone recorded—

I don’t remember those. I might have been hallucinating.

And the next thing you remember was nearly a month later?

For a while, I was convinced that I was in the hospital and I’d lost my legs and was waiting for new legs to be made for me. And my wife, Yulia, and Leonid Volkov [Navalny’s closest associate in his political work] and the doctors kept telling me that I’d been in an accident and they’d make me new legs, and I shouldn’t worry. Obviously, there were no such conversations. Gradually, I started making contact with reality, in which there was Yulia and I waited for her to come every day and adjust my pillow. But I was still missing legs. And I had these awful hallucinations that really got to me, like I’m in a jail cell and the cops won’t let me sleep, and they keep asking me to recite the rules for being in jail, interspersed with lyrics by the [Russian rap group] Krovostok.

Yulia and Volkov told me that there was a prolonged period when they would sit me up, and I would just stare, and they couldn’t tell whether I recognized them. As I recall, I was having mind-blowing conversations with them in my imagination. Yulia hung up a small flip chart and marked every day I spent in the hospital with a heart in magic marker. I reacted to that flip chart and looked at it, but I don’t remember any of that. I do remember the horrible feeling when you can’t speak or write.

What do you mean?

The doctor says, “Do you understand that you are Alexey Navalny?” I do. “Do you remember your age?” I do. “Do you understand that you are currently in Berlin?” I knew this, though I wasn’t particularly interested in why I was here. “Can you say a word?” I know I have a tongue, and I have lots of words floating around in my head. But that part of the brain where a word takes shape and you pronounce it—that wasn’t processing. I couldn’t say a word. This was torture. I probably looked like the cat in that scene in “Shrek,” with intelligent eyes but speechless. I can’t say anything and I can’t even get angry, because I can’t remember how emotions work, either. But this didn’t last long—about a week. I don’t remember this, either, but Yulia and Volkov have told me that when I did start talking, I addressed everyone in English.

Then I discovered that I couldn’t write. They’d give me a piece of paper, and I realized that I couldn’t place letters in a line in the correct order. Say, “Masha.” I remember what the word looks like. I know that the first letter is “M,” followed by an “A.” I start writing—the first letter that comes out is “S.” Then I place the second letter below it—I’m writing in a column. I can see that this is totally wrong. I cross it out. I start over, and the same thing happens. This scared me, so I kept practicing, and I didn’t calm down until I was sure that I could put letters in a line and that I could write out the word I’m asked to write. I don’t remember being unable to read—they would sometimes turn on the TV to keep me entertained, and I understood the subtitles.

What was the first word you tried to write?

I wanted to ask for water, but I couldn’t come up with the word. I asked my doctor later—after all, many people have been in a coma—did they have the same experiences? He said that, first of all, my coma was unusually long. Also, it was overlaid with the poisoning by Novichok, and there is nothing to compare that to. They say the same thing about my rehabilitation: they can’t tell me anything, because, as far as we know, there are barely any known cases of people who survived Novichok. [They include the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were poisoned in England two years ago.] Plus, I was poisoned with a different kind of Novichok.


Even the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons classifies its reports, because no one wants to publish the formula. This is a thing from hell. Chemical weapons are rightly banned. Conventional weapons can be used to kill people, but also to protect them; these substances are intended solely for making people die a painful death.

How would you describe your condition now?

I’m like a little old man. I was in the I.C.U. for twenty-six days, so I figured I’d be back to normal after twenty-six more. It hasn’t been that long yet, but I notice strange things. For example, I’ve lost all flexibility. I’m like the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” I’m doing a lot of physical therapy. My first physical-therapy sessions involved two glasses of water. I had to use a tablespoon to scoop up water from one glass and pour it into the other. It was so fucking difficult. It was unbearable torment. The first time they threw a ball at me, there was no way I could have caught it. I couldn’t walk across a room. My hands were shaking. In my mind, I felt like I did before, but then I’d try to get into a car with my hands and feet shaking.

I can take long walks, up to three hours. I’m sitting as I talk to you, and it’s all right. It’s hard to concentrate for a long time, and it can get tiring to keep track of the questions and think about my answers. But that’s all right. Now, pulling a T-shirt off—that’s truly difficult. Strength is coming back faster than coördination and balance. I can now use the phone again, despite shaky hands.

By the time you came to, all the information was there, right?

The labs—one in Sweden and one in France—had already determined that it was Novichok. They’d done the testing while I was still in a coma, with Yulia’s permission. The only thing that’s happened since is the Russian authorities making crazy claims about me being a C.I.A. agent and all that.

Who was the person who gave you the information that you had been poisoned with Novichok?

Yulia. I had to be told multiple times; it took me a while to grasp. It still sounds bizarre. But the lab results—you can’t argue with those. Of course, this completely changes our understanding of how the Russian authorities work. We used to think we knew that Putin divides people up into different categories. There are the secret agents and former secret agents, and they can kill one another, poison one another, spray one another with polonium or Novichok, because they have their own rules. Then there are the politicians and other civilians. The instruments they use against politicians are arrests, fabricated criminal charges, defamation campaigns.

But to kill so blatantly, using Novichok—that sends a very strong message. A mysterious death, especially of a relatively young person, scares people. Their plan was that no medical examiner, not even the most conscientious one, would be able to find traces of Novichok. There are, maybe, only seventeen laboratories in the world that can find it. You need a super-powerful mass spectrometer. They made sure to wait forty-eight hours [before Navalny was allowed to be evacuated to Germany], and after that, they were convinced that no one would be able to find anything on me. It would have been recorded as a suspicious death. That is a stunningly effective intimidation method: “He didn’t know his place, he exposed corrupt officials, he called Putin a thief—and what do you know, he is dead at forty-four. Could be his heart gave out. Could be something else.”

You say that you thought they reserved poison for secret agents, but we know that Pyotr Verzilov, a Pussy Riot activist, was poisoned, and so was the journalist and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was poisoned twice—

That’s true. It was obvious to me that they were both poisoned. They were both very healthy, and Kara-Murza, like me, turned into an old man who had to use a cane. But still—and this is the tricky thing—even though I knew both of them, and I had no doubt that they were poisoned, there is always this little voice, this bit of doubt. Like, really, did they poison them? But why didn’t they die? Maybe they really did take too much medicine? My wife went through the same thing. On the one hand, it was obvious that I’d been poisoned. On the other hand, there were all these doctors, at the hospital in Omsk, wearing their white coats, saying, “Of course, he wasn’t poisoned, of course, it’s a case of pancreatitis.” It’s hard to argue with that. They are doctors! And we are not. And Yulia and Volkov both told me that even as they were making arrangements to have me airlifted to Germany, they were thinking, What if it is pancreatitis and tomorrow he comes to in Germany, furious? When Kira was with me in the ambulance, the medics told her I had clearly O.D.’d. “Tomorrow he’ll be walking around and talking,” they said.

Novichok was apparently on something I touched. They say that if you inhale it, you die very quickly. If you ingest it with food, you are dead within an hour. If you touch it, it takes about three hours. But no one knows where it was. No one knows how this new version of Novichok acts. This scares people very effectively. You can decide not to fear being arrested or being shot. But when you are just walking around, and the next thing you know, your lifeless body is lying in the street, and a normal pathologist will never find anything?

My case is unusual because, thanks to a series of happy accidents—the pilot who decided to make an emergency landing, the ambulance staff who acted on the assumption I’d overdosed and tried to revive me, and the fact that some traces of Novichok remained even after forty-eight hours—they actually found Novichok. We got evidence. And the thing about Novichok is you can’t just go and use it. If I give you some Novichok and tell you to go kill someone with it, you are going to kill yourself and the people around you and probably not the person you are targeting. You have to be trained to use it. This definitively changes our picture of what happens inside the Kremlin, and now we have proof.

Every interviewer used to ask you, “Why haven’t you been killed yet?” So you have this understanding that you should have been killed by now, and you have people you know who nearly died from being poisoned, and yet somehow your mind tells you, This won’t happen to me, because—why?

Because you think rationally. There are a million ways to isolate someone or kill them, but this is like some trashy thriller. I find myself living inside of a James Bond movie. If you told me that they planned to kill me using Novichok and administer it in such a way that I would die on an airplane, I would say that’s a crazy plan, because there are so many ways for it to fail. It’s like if someone asked me if I believe that I’m at risk for being beheaded with a lightsabre. I’d say no, even if I saw that someone I know is missing an arm and it looks to have been lasered off.


Did you have any personal safety protocols? I know that when Garry Kasparov was still living in Russia, he never drank water except from his own supply, he didn’t eat in restaurants—

I remember the first time he was in jail [sentenced to five days in 2007 for an unsanctioned protest] he didn’t eat a thing because he was afraid that they’d poison him. And we all laughed at him! We thought he was paranoid. He is the only person I know who took any security measures. But what can you do? The poison wasn’t in my food. A person can leave their apartment, open the car door, and be a goner—the door handle can serve as the contact surface. You can eat only the food you cooked yourself and drink only water you poured yourself, and still there is nothing that can keep you safe from surface contact.

Let’s summarize what preceded this poisoning, just to make sure the reader understands how you were being silenced by a thousand cuts. Give me the highlights, perhaps starting with the first case against you and ending with all your bank accounts being frozen.

Back in 2009 and 2010, my anti-corruption activities started getting people’s attention. I was filing court claims against giants like [the state-backed gas monopoly] Gazprom, and I even won a couple of times—the courts ordered them to release certain reports. In 2010, I was a World Fellow at Yale, and just when I was supposed to come back, there was a news item that I could be facing criminal charges. This was meant to keep me from coming back to Russia. I returned anyway, and they just started escalating, first by planting news stories about me, then there was the first trumped-up case against me [in 2011]. They made a mistake that I think they regret, when they let me run for mayor of Moscow. I would have won in the runoff if they hadn’t rigged the vote. So this was when they got scared enough to conjure another criminal prosecution against me, and that’s when they arrested my brother, taking him hostage.

In the last two years, the pressure has really ramped up. Our offices have been raided by law enforcement repeatedly. There have been a number of criminal prosecutions. They tried to crush our nationwide structure, which they perceive as the biggest threat to their power. We are the victims of our own success. They saw that the organization can’t be beaten down, so they decided to seek a final solution. They imagined that if they removed me from the organization, the organization would break. They were wrong.

The last two years is when you’ve promoted a strategy you call “intelligent voting.” Can you explain it?

It’s tactical voting. It’s when we convince voters to back the No. 2 candidate—we may not like him, but he has a chance to knock out the representative of the ruling party. Usually all the candidates outside of United Russia get more than fifty per cent of the vote taken together, but it’s dispersed, so United Russia always wins. We used to think we’d never convince liberal voters to back a Communist, often even a Stalinist, or vice versa—convince Communists to back a liberal candidate—but we’ve succeeded in doing that to various extents in different places. Of course, Putin and the rest of them see this as a major threat. For Putin, United Russia is a foundational political structure. Yes, he controls the courts and dominates all the other parties, but in any autocratic regime, the ruling party is the key structure. This was true in the U.S.S.R. and East Germany, and is now true in Belarus, in Russia, and in Syria. There is always a ruling political party, and its ability to reliably take elections is what gives the regime its stability.

Where has your approach worked?

In Tomsk, United Russia no longer has a majority in the city legislature, for the first time in twenty years. In Moscow, we didn’t manage to do that, but we got a bunch of very active people into the city legislature. Same in Novosibirsk.

All these years you’ve been fighting corruption. Do you think this is Putin’s most important quality—that he is corrupt?

He is obsessed with power as a way of amassing wealth. He is obsessed with money. He is personally involved in apportioning money—he decides how much he gets, how much each of his people get. Gradually, of course, power became more important. Now he is, without a doubt, the most powerful man on the planet, because nothing keeps him in check. Sure, the U.S. President leads a stronger country, but he is constrained by the courts, by Congress, by the media, by the opposing party. Putin leads a country that’s not particularly strong, but there are no constraints on him at all. He could be using this power in different ways, but to him it’s just a giant money pump. He wants more: more palaces, more money, more billions. So I have been fighting corruption, because corruption is the political foundation of this regime.

So you think that “Putin is corrupt” is a more important or precise statement than “Putin is a murderer”?

Yes. Because he murders in order to be able to perpetuate the corruption. He is different from someone like Lukashenka, for example—Lukashenka is very corrupt as well, but he doesn’t have this bottomless thirst for goatskin sofas, gold handguns, and giant palaces.

What are the palaces for? Putin can’t live in them while he is President, and he won’t be able to live with them if he ever stops being President, because if he ever loses power, he’ll end up in prison or in exile.

Why do people collect stamps or baseball cards? They die, and their descendants sell them off. Why do you accumulate as much gold as you can in a computer game? That’s how people work—they always want more. And he wants to take all the money in part so that other people don’t have it and can’t influence him.

I understand you are going back to Russia after you recover?

Of course I’m going back. If I don’t, that will be the ideal outcome for them. They’d love to have me as just another political émigré.

You have given one interview so far to a Russian journalist, the very popular YouTube talk show host Yury Dud. I found it hard to watch, because he says you are wrong to think that you were poisoned and accuses you of having delusions of grandeur. And this is a journalist who supports you politically! Yet he refuses to believe that it’s all so simple, so crude, and so cruel. What was that like for you?

I don’t mind. The news sounds so crazy that it’s hard to believe. I can afford to be O.K. with it, because the facts speak for themselves. It’s not me people are arguing with but chemistry and independent labs. Anyway, my entire political life consists of having arguments with people who believe in nothing or believe in conspiracies, or who are just dumb. So having to argue my case is nothing new. I like doing it. I’m not going to be able to persuade everyone, but I will persuade some people, simply because I stand on the facts and the truth.