A street sign as been replaced with a hand-painted with a sign reading "Navalny St" as part of a memorial outside the Consulate-General of Russia, New York City, on February 18, 2024.

Navalny memorial outside the Consulate-General of Russia, New York City, on February 18, 2024. Credit: Anastasia Shteinert

For me, as well as for thousands of my compatriots, Alexei Navalny represented the hope that Russia might become a better country. His voice echoed around the world even from the confines of “Polar Wolf,” a brutal penal colony in the Arctic. In such extraordinarily dark times for Russia and the world, Navalny remained one of the few political figures who inspired faith in change and the triumph of justice.

Navalny mainly focused on investigating the criminal schemes of Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin himself. By the early 2010s, he had become the leader of the Russian opposition, with the capacity to rally thousands of citizens to stand against Putin. In August 2020, he was poisoned with Novichok, the nerve agent, on a flight to Moscow. After an emergency landing, he was airlifted to Germany, where he was able to recover. Then when he returned to Russia in January 2021, he was immediately arrested.

Many wondered why Navalny returned to Russia after the assassination attempt. Navalny explained himself as follows: “I have my country and my convictions. I don’t want to give it up or ever betray it.” For his deeply held convictions, the politician paid the highest price.

Navalny played an especially key role for my generation, young Russians defending a free and open civil society. The youth supported Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation; they became volunteers, organized and participated in opposition rallies, disseminated anti-corruption investigations on social media, and even initiated their own political campaigns. Navalny inspired hope even in remote regions of Russia, where dissent is particularly dangerous.

Before moving to New York in February 2022, I worked as a journalist in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. I began my career reporting on opposition protests organized by Navalny’s team.

One of the first rallies I covered as a journalist was the “voters’ strike” in January 2018 in Saint Petersburg. Navalny declared the strike when he was barred from participating in the presidential elections due to his criminal record. Navalny’s courage often inspired me to continue my journalism work in a high-risk environment.

At mass protests, as a press representative, I was under protection, insofar as such protection is reliable in an authoritarian police state. I carried a press card and papers showing my editorial assignment. This helped me avoid detention and fines several times. I always admired people who took to the streets, not as media employees but as citizens of their country. They risked much more and often fell victim to the brutality of enforcement officers. In front of me, peaceful protesters were beaten with batons and shot with stun guns.

The last rallies I covered as a correspondent in Saint Petersburg happened on February 2–3, 2021. In those days, people in many cities across Russia protested the court’s decision to sentence Navalny to a prison term. The police were particularly violent during those rallies.

After the judge announced the verdict, Navalny whispered to his wife, Yulia, “Don’t be sad, everything will be fine.” This quote spread widely in the Russian media and became a rallying cry against despair.

At the time, few could have predicted that just a year later, on February 24, 2022, Putin would attack Ukraine. Two years after that, he would have Alexei Navalny killed.

There is no doubt that Navalny’s death is a political assassination on the eve of the so-called presidential elections, which will take place in March of this year. After these elections, in the absence of real political opponents and, most likely, with mass falsifications, Putin will extend his presidential term for another six years. It will make a total of 31 years of Putin in power.

Navalny remembered. Credit: Anastasia Shteinert

In an interview for the film Navalny (Daniel Roher, 2022), Navalny was asked: “If you are arrested and thrown in prison or the unthinkable happens and you’re killed, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?” He replied: “My message for the situation when I am killed is very simple—not [to] give up.”

In the days after his death, I’ve been thinking about Navalny’s words for hours—and I’m not alone. On Friday, February 16, at a memorial event for Navalny near the Russian consulate in New York, I met several people with signs saying “Alexei, we won’t give up.” Similar calls not to give up are now being shared by many Russians on social media and at memorial events around the world.

It is hard to deny that at this current historical juncture, Putin has won. But on Monday, February 19, Yulia Navalnaya said that she would continue her husband’s work to challenge Putin’s rule. The best way to honor Alexei Navalny’s memory is “to fight more desperately and furiously than before,” Navalnaya believes. How can we continue the struggle for an alternative future for Russia? Each of us should find the answer in ourselves. In circumstances where any civil or political activity in Russia is severely punished, with a huge portion of the opposition in forced exile, every action, no matter how small, is valuable.

For those abroad, it is easier to support human rights organizations and spread information about the crimes of the Putin regime. The people responsible for numerous atrocities, including the murder of Navalny, must face justice. It is crucial to remember and speak up about Russian political prisoners: Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ivan Safronov, and many others. Now they are in even greater danger.

It is important, above all, to continue working, to educate ourselves, and to stand up for each other. When the time comes, the new Russia will need people who will participate in the revival of civil society and the construction of a new political system. That moment may not be far off, and we should prepare for it as best as we can.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” Navalny once said. By killing his most prominent opponent, Putin hopes to sow despair. Abandoning our struggle in despair will be the biggest favor to Putin and his regime. Alexei Navalny refused Putin such a favor—and paid for it with his life. We must not give up.

Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter. She holds an MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism from The New School for Social Research.