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Navalny’s death mobilized the Kremlin’s entire propaganda arsenal

The death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has triggered a process of creation of numerous versions of what happened and how it happened, and who is (not) responsible for it.

All of them emphasise the absence of any link whatsoever between the politician’s death and Putin’s regime, while featuring plotlines often verging on conspiracy theory.

These anti-narratives about Navalny bring together all the propaganda theses that the Kremlin uses to discredit not just the image of its political opposition, but the very idea of a democratic opposition in general. Like everything that comes from liberal democracy, the opposition is also morally degraded, “sexually deformed”. To be in opposition to the government means to be a traitor, an enemy of the state writes historian Timothy Snyder in his book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. And if you are a traitor and an enemy, then inevitably you are working with other enemies of Russia — the West, the USA, and the CIA.

Navalny’s death as Western provocation

The news of Navalny’s death arrived during the opening of the Munich Security Conference and, according to the Kremlin, this was no mere coincidence. So, the story goes, the opposition leader died “right on time” — on the eve of the second anniversary of the attack on Ukraine (i.e., the special military operation) and a month before Russia’s presidential elections. This was also after Vladimir Putin’s interview with Tucker Carlson had had a “amazing effect on the world”, according to RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan.

Most state leaders reacted immediately, directly or indirectly pointing to Putin’s regime as responsible for the death of the opposition leader. For Moscow, these reactions are a convenient pretext to declare that the West was “prepared for the news” and that another campaign against Russia was now underway.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov described the leaders’ statements as “hysterical, absolutely inappropriate, and unacceptable”.

“The immediate reaction of NATO leaders is self-explanatory”, wrote Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, on Telegram. Minutes later, in her next post, she further developed her thesis that these reactions were the result of a “premade methodology” and employing the old strategy to “just blame Russia for anything”.

“Our opposition isn’t an opposition; it’s a cult. The tell-tale signs of a totalitarian cult are there (…). All these cult members in Munich were prepared; they even had obituaries ready”, commented on the death of Navalny Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Kremlin’s favorite propagandists, in his show. He added that he didn’t think he was violating Christian values by not speaking well of the deceased.

At the same time, there has also been a campaign to discredit the West. It is suggested that behind the “feigned interest” in Navalny, other goals such as imposing sanctions and seeking political propaganda are evident.

The West is accused of Russophobic prejudices and applying double standards against Russia. The most commonly used “counterpoint to Navalny” is Julian Assange, who is serving a sentence in the UK.

Foreign intelligence operative

The narrative that only the West has an interest in the elimination of Navalny goes hand
in hand with the story of Navalny as a “pawn of the West”, an agent, and a traitor. The Russian activist assumed this “role” as early as 2020, after the unsuccessful attempt to poison him.

An investigation by Bellingcat reveals that his poisoning was carried out by Russian special services. Commenting on these revelations, Putin, laughing, asked: “But why would they want to poison him? Who would it serve?” He described the publication as a “fabrication” that does not represent “any investigation but rather the legitimization of information from American intelligence agencies”. Thus, the narrative that Navalny is connected to foreign intelligence agencies, in this case the CIA, was already an “official” one.

A year later, the Kremlin-funded and EU-sanctioned Russian media RT published a video claiming to show Alexei Navalny meeting with an agent of British intelligence services to seek funding to organize a color revolution in Russia. Regardless of the fact that, according to the Russian media itself, the person in the footage is not Navalny, he was already labeled as an “MI6 agent”.

Another “convenient version” about Navalny’s poisoning is that he either ingested the poison himself or that his doppelgänger was used. This narrative has gained widespread traction in English-language bot accounts under posts by Alexei Navalny and his team.

The Kremlin is not only attempting to discredit its main opponent but also to diminish his value as a political activist. One of the selected tactics of the Russian authorities is to avoid mentioning Alexei Navalny by name. Thus, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has referred to him as the “Berlin patient”, a nickname also used by Putin, which is still being used even after his death. In subsequent statements, Peskov described Alexei Navalny as a “marginal quasi-opposition” player, someone who does not pose a political
threat to the authorities and is not worth paying attention to.

Navalny’s insignificance has also been suggested in Bulgaria — by politicians and in social media posts. The question “Why are you bothering us with Navalny?” has been juxtaposed with “issues important to the Bulgarian agenda”.

Extremist and criminal

In the news release about the death of Alexei Navalny, all official Russian sources have emphasized that he was on the list of terrorists and extremists authored by Rosfinmonitoring.

The narrative of Navalny as a “criminal, extremist, and terrorist” is extremely
characteristic of the Kremlin regime. One of Putin’s most active opponents must be portrayed as a person who cannot be trusted, who does not obey the laws, and is driven by “unclean” political ambitions.

Before his death, the Russian activist had accumulated sentences totaling 30 years in prison on various trumped-up charges aimed at limiting his political influence in Russia. The first cases against him began as early as 2013 and were for embezzlement of state
property and “fraud”. The last six accusations for various “manifestations of extremism” since August 2023 brought him a 19-year sentence, which he served in various prisons under strict conditions.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) founded by him was declared an extremist organization and included in the list of “foreign agents” because “under the guise of liberal slogans”, organizations associated with Navalny were “engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the socio-political situation”. Many of his associates were also convicted on charges of extremism.

“The Merry Widow”

Posts on social media have further discredited Navalny’s image by accusing his wife of indecent behaviour.

The narrative of the “laughing”, “made-up”, “unconcerned” widow Yulia Navalnaya serves two purposes simultaneously. It suggests that beneath her behavior not only lies disrespect toward her deceased husband (disregard for traditional values) but also a reason for his murder (a criminal motive).

On the very day of her husband’s death, photos of Yulia Navalnaya that were either manipulated or taken out of context began circulating on social media. In one of them, she is wearing beach shorts alongside an unfamiliar man. The implication is that the photo was taken on the day of her husband’s death and suggests romantic involvement. AFP’s investigation has already established that the image is from 2021 and was taken from the Instagram account of businessman Evgeny Chichvarkin, a close friend of Navalny and his main sponsor. In another photo, using Photoshop, Alexei Navalny has been replaced with the businessman. The original shows Yulia Navalnaya embracing her husband in court.

Another photo, which her husband was cropped out of, and falsified documents link Navalnaya to Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev. It has been claimed that the materials were disseminated by a former employee of FBK on Instagram. Factcheck.bg found that her profile no longer exists but discovered the same information on the website IntelDrop. Factcheck.bg has repeatedly written about the disinformation spread by it.

The documents shown are invoices from Booking.com, supposedly “proving” that Grozev and Navalnaya spent vacations together in Nice and Chamonix. According to Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, the document shown corresponds to a canceled reservation for April 2024.

After Yulia Navalnaya announced that she would continue her husband’s work, her name appeared in a new fabricated story. It has been claimed that the mother of the deceased politician — Lyudmila — sent an audio message to the widow in which she forbade her from tarnishing her son’s name and accused her of appearing “shamelessly and publicly in society with other men”, claiming Yulia had assumed all of Alexei’s property but had not actually been married to her son since 2021.

According to Ilya Ber, editor-in-chief of the Russian website Provereno Media, the voice of Lyudmila Navalnaya was falsified; older statements she made were used for this purpose. The recording was published on the Telegram channel Signal, which, according to the journalist, is linked to the “propaganda network of Kristina Potupchik, financed through the administration of the Russian president”. The photo accompanying the “statement”, also spread in the Bulgarian online space, was taken from a recent video of Navalny’s mother,in which she called for her son’s body to be handed over to her immediately, Factcheck.bg’s verification showed.

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Източници

Sources:
Timothy Snyder, “Vladimir Putin’s Politics of Eternity”, The Guardian (March 16, 2018):
https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/16/vladimir-putin-russia-politics-of-
eternity-timothy-snyder.
“Navalny’s death: Reactions from around the world”, Le Monde with AFP (February 16,
2024): https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2024/02/16/navalny-s-death-
reactions-from-around-the-world_6530624_4.html.

“FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok
Poisoning”, Bellingcat: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/14/fsb-
team-of-chemical-weapon-experts-implicated-in-alexey-navalny-novichok-poisoning/.
Coverage of Putin’s 2020 press conference [in Bulgarian]:
https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/31006028.html#player-start-time=88.876186.
Alieva, I., Moffitt, J. D., and Carley, K. M. “How disinformation operations against
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny influence the international audience on
Twitter”, Social Network Analysis and Mining (July 14, 2022) 12(1): 80. doi:
10.1007/s13278-022-00908-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9281276/.
Dmitry Peskov on the “Berlin patient”: https://meduza.io/feature/2020/09/03/nikakie-
obvineniya-my-ne-sklonny-vosprinimat-kreml-ob-otravlenii-berlinskogo-patsienta-
alekseya-navalnogo.
Dmitry Peskov on the opposition: https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2020-10/kreml-
alexej-nawalny-cia-vorwurf-russland.
AFP Fact Check [in Bulgarian]: https://proveri.afp.com/doc.afp.com.34JV3NT.
Fact Check by Ilya Ber on the falsified voice of Lyudmila Navalnaya [in Russian]:
https://meduza.io/news/2024/02/23/v-seti-poyavilas-feykovaya-audiozapis-
obrascheniya-materi-navalnogo-k-ego-zhene.
Shelton, J., “Merkel says Navalny poisoning was attempted murder”, Deutsche Welle
(February 9, 2020): https://www.dw.com/en/navalny-novichok-germany-russia/a-
54794283.

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The responsibility for the content lies entirely with Factcheck.bg.

Публикацията е създадена с подкрепата на Европейския съюз. Отговорността за съдържанието е изцяло на Factcheck.bg.

Elena Furnadzhieva
Elena Furnadzhieva
Elena Furnadzhieva is a journalist with over 25 years of professional experience. She graduated in Slavic Philology, majoring in Czech Philology at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski ”. Her professional career began at Darik Radio when the radio was found. She was working as a judicial and political reporter and was among the journalists covering the protests against Videnov's cabinet in the winter of 1996-1997. In 2001 she joined the BTV team as a producer, and was the Editor-in-Chief of the News and Current Affairs Department. Elena became one of the founders of BiT's Bulgarian office in 2015, where she worked as Chief Executive Producer. She currently lives with her family in Florence, Italy. She speaks English, Italian, Czech, Slovak and Russian.

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