With Navalny's demise, has Putin 'poked the lion'?

On Jan. 1, 1973, former high-ranking KGB officer Sergei Kourdakov, who had defected to the U.S. and then traveled around the country to condemn communism, was found dead in a motel room in California with a single gunshot wound to his head.

While his death was ruled an accident, he had forewarned friends if he were ever found dead, it would be no accident. It was for this reason he carried with him a gun – the one used to kill him – when he traveled. Something found in the room suggested Kourdakov did not die accidentally but was murdered. In a typewriter was an unfinished letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond requesting permanent residency in the United States. Interestingly too, Kourdakov died just prior to a scheduled appearance before Congress.

Just like Israel became well-known for tracking down and assassinating Nazis and terrorists responsible for taking the lives of Jews, the Soviet KGB was well-known for taking the lives of their own agents who had turned against them.

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Old habits never die. And, as a former KGB agent, Russian President Vladimir Putin most likely is one who feels very comfortable in resorting to the KGB’s old playbook, especially when someone has sought to undermine his authority. One such person well-known by the world community for courageously doing so was Alexi Navalny.

As an extremely successful businessman, Navalny became very vocal about Putin’s transitioning Russia from a young struggling democracy to the days of the old Soviet dictatorship of Cold War fame. As a lawyer, he advocated reforms against corruption, accusing Putin’s party of being one “of crooks and thieves” – a phrase other Putin opponents embraced.

In 2013 and 2014, Navalny was falsely accused of embezzlement and, perhaps to scare him, twice received suspended sentences. It did not work as he continued his anti-Putin crusade, running a losing campaign for mayor of Moscow in 2013. He planned to run for president in 2018 but was banned due to his embezzlement convictions.

In 2020, Navalny was hospitalized after mysteriously falling ill from what was later determined to be a nerve agent. Evacuated to Berlin, he spent a month hospitalized. Agents from the agency that replaced the KGB – the Federal Security Service – were implicated. Fearless, however, Navalny returned to Russia where he was immediately detained for allegedly violating his parole in having gone to Germany. Despite mass protests, he received a sentence of two and a half years.

Navalny was again victimized by Putin as another trial for embezzlement was held, tacking on an additional nine-year sentence, followed by a 19-year sentence in August 2023 on charges of extremism. It became very clear that as long as Putin was in power, Navalny would be in prison.

In December 2023, Navalny went temporarily missing. It was discovered he had been transferred to an Arctic Circle punitive colony. Then, on Feb. 16, 2024, the 47-year-old activist was discovered dead in his cell, like Kourdakov had been found 51 years earlier. Russian authorities said he died of “sudden death syndrome.” While this is an umbrella term used by the medical community to describe a range of heart related issues, undoubtedly it is also one used by the KGB to impose its own “health related issues.”

Exiled Russian human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin suggests Navalny may have been killed using an old KGB signature assassination technique – via a single lethal blow to the heart – consistent with the nature of the injuries he sustained. Interestingly, a Russian prison official who may have played a role in Navalny’s torture and demise was promoted three days later.

One theory as to why Putin would want Navalny killed now is very plausible. Negotiations were ongoing with Germany for a prisoner swap in which Navalny would be traded for a convicted Russian security service hitman who assassinated a Chechen separatist.

The allies of Alexei Navalny have blamed Vladimir Putin for his death since they learned of it. They believe that Putin had him killed in order to throw off the means of the prisoner swap in which Navalny would be traded for Vadim Krasikov, the Russian hitman. Krasikov is serving a life sentence for his crime.

One would think that with Putin’s nemesis now dead, he would have nothing to fear from Navalny – but not so. In the aftermath of his death, 400 Russians were detained for protesting it. Although Russian officials claimed he died a natural death, they initially denied Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, 69, the right to bury her own son and, perhaps, to have an autopsy done to determine the real cause of death. They simply gave her a three-hour ultimatum to decide whether she would hold a private burial or else he would be interred in the penal colony where he died. However, Lyudmila wanted a public burial to allow anyone interested to pay their respects.

Allowed to view her son’s body, Lyudmila noticed unexplainable bruises. Although Putin has yet to mention the death, the Kremlin says its circumstances are being investigated. Meanwhile, Lyudmila’s lawyer has filed a legal complaint alleging “violation of the body of a deceased person.”

The outrageous treatment of a grieving mother over the sudden death of her son by the Russian government is infuriating those both inside and outside Russia. Calls have been made to allow Lyudmila to honor her son as she sees fit. The wife of another anti-Putin activist whose husband received a 25-year prison sentence in Siberia for treason said, “If you still have any trace of humanity, stop taunting his mother and return the body of her son to her.”

It was only the outpouring of public support for Lyudmila that finally prompted the government to give her custody of her son’s body.

Putin ignores Russian history and by doing so may well have “poked the lion.” After all, it was irate women – the mothers and wives of Russian soldiers dying in World War I – who helped trigger the Russian Revolution toppling the tzar. Having infuriated Lyudmila and with Navalny’s wife, Yulia, committed to taking over her dead husband’s opposition battle, Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The KGB was officially dissolved on Dec. 3, 1991. Sadly, Putin demonstrates to the world more than three decades later its mindset has not been lost on him.

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