The Media Today

The journalism of Alexei Navalny

February 19, 2024
Flowers and portrait are left opposite the Russian embassy, to commemorate the death of Alexei Navalny in London, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against Russian corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

A week ago, the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who had recently been in Russia interviewing (if that’s the right word) President Vladimir Putin, touring around Moscow, and gushing over its quality of life and revolutionary coin-operated shopping cartsshowed up onstage at a conference in Dubai. After raving some more about Moscow, Carlson was asked why he hadn’t pushed Putin on aspects of his authoritarian rule, including restrictions on speech, political assassinations, and the incarceration of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader. Carlson replied that these topics are amply covered by other US outlets, and added that, after interviewing various world leaders, he had come to the conclusion that “leadership requires killing people. Sorry. That’s why I wouldn’t want to be a leader.”

A few days later, prison officials in Russia said that Navalny had died in the Arctic prison camp where he had recently been held. The officials claimed that Navalny lost consciousness after taking a walk, but their account was (unsurprisingly) murky, and riddled with apparent contradictions. At first, some outside observers suggested that Navalny might not be dead at all; others suspected murder, in the immediate, active sense of the term. Mediazona, an independent Russian news site, found footage online that appeared to show a convoy of official vehicles transporting Navalny’s body along an ice road to a nearby morgue, though the morgue claimed that the body wasn’t there. This morning, Navalny’s mother and lawyers tried to visit the facility but were turned away; meanwhile, officials reportedly told them that Navalny’s death is still being investigated. Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza, another independent news site, that they didn’t believe Navalny was killed “purposefully,” but as a result of harsh conditions in the Arctic camp. One of the sources asked, “Did you expect anything else?”

Meduza’s sources said that they expected the story of Navalny’s death to quickly “peter out” inside Russia, pointing out that many of his most vocal supporters are now in exile and that state media would massage the narrative of his death. After the news broke on Friday, some mourners did take to the streets to protest, or merely to lay flowers; a number of people were arrested, including at least three journalists. According to Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Russia editor, some Russian newspapers this morning didn’t mention Navalny at all. One that did relegated the story to a slot beneath items about bananas from Ecuador and Carlson’s Moscow shopping trip.

Across the West, by contrast, Navalny’s death was huge news, and the reaction one of outrage (as Meduza’s sources had also predicted). In the hours after it was announced, Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, addressed a major international security conference in Munich; she said that she didn’t yet know whether to believe the news, but that if it were true, “I want Putin and everyone around him, his friends and his government, to know that they will be held responsible for what they have done to our country, to my family, and to my husband”—and that “the day of reckoning will come very soon.” In a video message from the White House, President Biden declared that whatever specifically had happened to Navalny, “Putin and his thugs” were doubtless to blame. In the press, tributes poured in, including from journalists who knew Navalny. On MSNBC, an emotional Mikhail Zygar, a journalist who had corresponded with Navalny in prison, called him a “democratic superhero,” one who always believed in “human rights, free speech, and the possibility of fair justice” despite the cynicism of modern-day Russia and Putin’s rule.

Some of those paying tribute also showed how, in addition to being an opposition leader and Putin critic, Navalny was a journalist of sorts—even if they (like Navalny himself while he was alive) didn’t say so explicitly. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen wrote that, having once espoused an ethno-nationalist politics, Navalny “found his agenda and his political voice in documenting corruption”—establishing his own online media out of frustration “that journalists weren’t following his leads or undertaking investigations of their own,” and in the process spawning “an entire generation of independent Russian investigative media, many of which continue working in exile.” For The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, Navalny’s “extraordinary gift” was that “he could take the dry facts of kleptocracy—the numbers and statistics that usually bog down even the best financial journalists—and make them entertaining.” In part, Putin killed him “because of his ability to reach people with the truth, and because of his talent for breaking through the fog of propaganda that now blinds his countrymen, and some of ours as well.”

I first wrote about Navalny’s journalism back in 2020, after he was poisoned. In the years prior to that, his Anti-Corruption Foundation had published compelling investigations exposing the shady financial maneuvers of figures tied to Putin, including an explosive story about Dmitry Medvedev, then the prime minister, that revolved around his purchase of a garish pair of Nike sneakers. Following his poisoning, Navalny and his foundation worked with journalists from the open-source investigative site Bellingcat and other outlets to expose the poisoners, culminating in an extraordinary phone call in which a Russian state agent blurted out details of the plot to Navalny, who was posing as a bureaucrat. The dramatic scene was captured on camera and later aired in Navalny, a documentary that further raised his international profile and went on to win an Oscar. Daniel Roher, the Canadian filmmaker who made the documentary, told the Wall Street Journal that when it came to the movie-worthy moment, Navalny “knew exactly what he was doing.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In January 2021, Navalny, apparently fearing irrelevance in exile, returned to Russia, where he was immediately arrested. Days later, his foundation published a bombshell video investigation mapping out a luxurious Black Sea palace—with an on-site hookah lounge and adjacent oyster farm—that, Navalny and his team reported, was secretly built for Putin himself. The investigation helped catalyze significant protests against Putin’s rule (during which some demonstrators memorably hurled snowballs at police) and was quickly viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube; according to polling conducted a few weeks later by the independent Levada Center, a quarter of Russians claimed to have watched it. Putin apparently felt compelled to respond, telling a student at a Q&A that he hadn’t had time to watch the whole thing and issuing a denial (that wasn’t technically a denial). Later, state TV attempted to retaliate with a supposed exposé of its own on the German villa where Navalny convalesced after his poisoning.

As I wrote at the time, Navalny’s palace story and various aspects of the reaction to it suggested that Putin’s control over Russia’s information environment might be weakening. (Even the student who asked Putin about the palace told him that young people these days get their news from the internet, not state TV.) Since then, of course, Putin has redoubled his efforts to clamp down on free speech and media. Navalny and his foundation have been among the victims. Later in 2021, officials declared the foundation an extremist group and moved to ban it; in 2022, the foundation was reconstituted as an international endeavor, which Russian authorities quickly branded as a “foreign agent,” then as “undesirable” (designations also applied to various journalists and media companies). The foundation continued to produce investigations from its headquarters in exile while Navalny remained behind bars inside Russia and the charges against him racked up. He continued to post on social media by handing notes to his lawyers, as well as using his appearances in court to get his political message across. Until Friday. 

The message will live on, as, it seems likely, will the investigations. This morning, Yulia Navalnaya addressed the world in a video posted to her husband’s YouTube channel and vowed to continue his work. “We know exactly why Putin killed Alexei three days ago. We’ll tell you about it soon,” she said. And she vowed that she and Navalny’s team would find out “exactly who committed this crime and how,” pledging to make their identities public.

Categorizing Navalny as a journalist is not without its complications. As I noted in 2020, his relationship with Russia’s corps of independent journalists could be tense, even vituperative: they would sometimes accuse him of fast-and-loose reporting; he would sometimes accuse them of going soft on the Kremlin. Navalny’s allies have stated explicitly that their investigative work is a means to political ends; as Roman Anin, the founder of the independent investigative site iStories, told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s Ilya Lozovsky back in 2020, Navalny’s investigators, while highly effective, “don’t follow journalistic standards and never try to listen to the other side.” Many of Navalny’s political stances, in particular his past ethno-nationalism, themselves demanded journalistic scrutiny. In an age when the lines between politics, advocacy, and journalism appear increasingly blurred, it’s tempting to police them ever tighter—especially given the cultural ascendancy of the Tucker Carlsons of the world.

These lines, however, have always been blurry. If Navalny was never primarily a journalist, he undoubtedly committed important acts of journalism. Ultimately—and particularly in a country whose rulers have waged a deadly, all-out assault on the truth—getting the truth out matters more than categorizing the truth-tellers. In 2020, Lozovsky wrote that while Navalny was best known outside Russia as an opposition leader, his journalism might be his “most enduring legacy,” whether or not he ever held office. We now know for sure that he won’t ever hold office; talk of his legacy has—suddenly, tragically—become finalistic, even if its historical shape hasn’t crystallized yet. When it does, the distinction between Navalny’s political career and his journalism may look like no distinction at all, but complementary parts of a broader fight. 

As Semafor’s Ben Smith put it overnight, Navalny “embodied the contemporary convergence of politics and media” in that he was a “fearless, optimistic patriot using digital media to expose grotesque corruption.” Populists in the US media cosplay such roles, Smith added. But while they are “building fandoms and speaking to Gulf investors,” Navalny “is dead in a prison colony.”

Carlson was flying away from Dubai when Navalny’s death was announced. In a statement to the Mail, Carlson claimed that his comments on leaders’ need to kill people had had nothing to do with Navalny, and that he wasn’t excusing murder. “It’s horrifying what happened to Navalny,” Carlson said. “The whole thing is barbaric and awful. No decent person would defend it.”

Other notable stories:

  • Semafor’s Max Tani reports that pro-Israel groups in the US “have been working in public and behind-the-scenes to discredit specific journalists seen as biased against Israel.” Per Tani, one such group has singled out Louisa Loveluck, a correspondent at the Post, for particular criticism, compiling a dossier complaining about everything from her current reporting to her past tweets and participation in college activism against tuition fees in the UK in an effort to get her taken off the story of Israel’s war with Hamas.
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer interviewed Margot Susca, an academic and author of the new book Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy. Susca said, of her book’s thesis, that she ultimately reveals “an industry rocked less by external forces like lost ad revenue and more by ownership and management obsessed with profit and beholden to private fund interests that feel no responsibility toward journalism or the public it is meant to serve.”
  • James Poniewozik, the TV critic at the Times, explored how Donald Trump has turned his recent legal travails into a “political reality show”—even though the court proceedings themselves have rarely been televised. In the dock, Trump “is a courtroom sketch, rendered in two shaky dimensions, with hooded eyes and a glum look,” Poniewozik writes. “But outside the court, he recasts himself as the defiant fighter. Appearing on camera at his own properties, arrayed in flags, he is in control.”
  • Politico’s Rosie Gray dug into Field Ethos, an outdoorsy lifestyle media brand (with a quarterly magazine) that Trump’s son Don Jr. launched in 2021. Trump Jr. described Field Ethos to Gray as a relatively apolitical passion project, but a deeper dive suggests “that the campaign trail runs right through those journals,” Gray writes. “It’s part of a bigger project that’s been ongoing on the American right of building a conservative parallel economy and bringing the culture wars of politics to consumer habits.”
  • And Jessica Beresford, of the Financial Times, explored the thriving market for vintage fashion magazines as collectors’ items in the UK. “The closure of titles in recent years, and a nostalgic reappraisal of print and the quality and values of yesteryear, have contributed to increased collectability,” Beresford writes. Conor Masterson, the co-owner of a magazine archive called “Elegantly Papered,” described the vintage-magazine market as “an accessible way of collecting great art.”

ICYMI: Can Legislation Save Journalism in California?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.