OPINION: We should honor Navalny by standing strong against Putin

In recent days, as brave Russian citizens risk arrest to lay flowers at makeshift memorials honoring the latest slain dissident, Alexei Navalny, I experienced a déjà vu moment from nearly a decade ago.

In late February 2015, another popular and perceived threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin was walking with his girlfriend just below St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. The 55-year-old Boris Nemtsov was hit four times and died almost instantly.

Mourners across Russia honored Nemtsov’s memory with flowers and photos. I happened to be in Moscow about a month after Nemtsov’s death and was grateful I was able to pay my respects on the Moskvoretsky Bridge where he was murdered.

For me, Nemtsov’s death was personal. In 1993, during the height of post-Cold War positive relations between Russia and the West, I volunteered as a media advisor in Nemtsov’s office when he was the reformist governor of Nizhny Novgorod, a large industrial city about 100 miles east of Moscow.

Over the next two decades, the charismatic physicist rose in Russian national politics, helping push the nation toward a free market democracy and becoming deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. But after Putin was appointed president in late 1999, Nemtsov grew increasingly critical of the former KGB officer’s dictatorship until he was killed just like Navalny. The methods may be different but the purpose is the same: eliminate any opposition to Putin’s iron fist.

Navalny’s courageous popularity may have been considered an even greater threat to Putin. A social media wizard, Navalny dug up outrageous corruption in the Kremlin, shared it across the world, and attracted broad support in his 2013 run for Moscow mayor. Putin ensured Navalny would never face him directly, arresting him repeatedly and banning him from the ballot.

In 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent and nearly died before he was medevacked to Germany. He surprised many in the West with his return to Russia to continue his opposition to Putin’s repression. He believed he couldn’t ask Russians to stand against their government if he was unwilling to do so on Russian soil.


In an early communication from his gulag cell, Navalny wrote: “It is not honest people who frighten the authorities but those who are not afraid or, to be more precise, those who may be afraid but overcome their fear.”

Russia today is a far more dangerous place to both Russians and the rest of the world. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has cost thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives. Some 1,300 Russians have been prosecuted for opposing it, often as innocently as merely speaking up. The number of political prisoners has increased 15-fold since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, with many banished to brutal Siberian gulags like Navalny.

I remain especially worried about another leading Russian human rights activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza. A former journalist and close aide to Nemtsov, I met him several times when working for U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in Washington, D.C. Kara-Murza happily contributed a cover blurb to my 2017 book on Alaska-Russia relations, “Melting the Ice Curtain.”

After surviving two poisonings, he was recently sentenced to 25 years on treason charges for speaking out against the Ukraine invasion. There are scores more like Kara-Murza languishing in Russian prisons.

Once an advocate of improving relations with Russia, I am exasperated with what it has become under Putin. Here are a few modest suggestions for fighting back:

• Western sanctions largely as a result of the Ukraine invasion are effective in limiting Russia’s war-making efforts, but should be even tougher. We must hold federal officials’ feet to the fire, from President Joe Biden on down.

Two of Alaska’s members of Congress — Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola — are strongly committed to continuing aid to Ukraine. Sen. Dan Sullivan wants to have it both ways, voting against a Ukraine aid package that included U.S. border security but later in favor of military assistance to Ukraine and Israel.

• Donate to independent charities such as United24 which can direct aid where it’s needed most in Ukraine. Follow informed experts such as Yale University historian Timothy Snyder.

• Stop interaction with Russia. Fortunately, the dozen Alaska communities that established sister-city relations with Russian counterparts have suspended activities. Much previous cooperation with Russia, such as through the international Arctic Council or scientific exchanges, is mothballed or should be.

Putin hopes his March 15-17 re-election bid is a ringing endorsement of his rule and war on Ukraine. We should do everything possible to deny him that.

David Ramseur was active in Alaska-Russia exchanges and is the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain.”

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David Ramseur

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich, and the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”