Alexey Navalny Has the Proof of His Poisoning

Alexey Navalny is the biggest thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side. A decade ago, Navalny, as a young lawyer in Moscow, started piecing together publicly available information to document corruption and abuse of power in the Russian government. At first, he used his blog to document inflated prices in government contracts, suggesting kickbacks; he moved on to documenting real-estate holdings, luxury cars, and cash reserves that government officials had registered in the names of relatives. Navalny’s one-man project grew into the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a multimedia production company with dozens of investigators whose tools have ranged from data mining to sending drones to film the estates of highly placed bureaucrats. One of Navalny’s biggest hits is a series of films about the then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s sneaker-collecting habits and estate, which included three helopads, a ski slope, cascading swimming pools, a hotel-style dormitory for staff, and a little lake house for ducks, which became an Internet meme. Russian authorities have been fighting to have the films removed from YouTube, where one of them has been viewed more than thirty-six million times.

Navalny was one of the leaders of the mass protests against rigged elections that erupted in Russia in 2011 and 2012. Many of his fellow-members of the protest coördinating council are either living in exile, like the chess champion Garry Kasparov or the prisoners’-rights activist Olga Romanova, or dead, like the politician Boris Nemtsov. The Kremlin has tried to shut down Navalny and his organization through a series of court cases and arrests. But when Navalny was jailed in 2013, sentenced to five years on flagrantly trumped-up embezzlement charges, thousands of Muscovites protested and secured his release. When he was sentenced to house arrest, Navalny refused to comply, because the Russian penal code does not allow for such a punishment; after a few months, the authorities gave up, although his brother, Oleg, remained behind bars for years on spurious charges.

Navalny’s activism and reach kept expanding—he even attempted to run for President—and for a few years he seemed invincible. (In a piece for this magazine in 2016, I wrote, “The strangest thing about Alexey Navalny is that he is walking around Moscow, still.”) But, on August 20th, Navalny fell ill when returning to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. He was in a coma for twenty-six days, most of them in a hospital in Berlin. Analysis performed by multiple European labs shows that he was poisoned with a previously unknown version of Novichok, a deadly Russian-developed chemical agent. Navalny regained his ability to speak, write, and make jokes within ten days of coming out of the coma, but he has continued to experience significant physical effects owing to the poisoning. He spoke with me, over Zoom, from an apartment in Berlin, on October 8th; through the screen, it was obvious that Navalny had lost a great deal of weight, but otherwise he looked and sounded as I’d always remembered him. Our conversation has been translated from Russian and condensed.

How did you know what had happened to you?

This is the hardest part. The moment I knew that I’d been poisoned was the moment I realized my life was ending. What I was experiencing up until then was a kind of incomprehension. We can understand a heart attack or a stroke, but we cannot understand the effects of cholinesterase inhibitors—evolution does not prepare us for this. You are in this strange state of losing focus, and the strangeness keeps growing. I’ve compared it to being touched by a Dementor in a Harry Potter novel—you feel that life is leaving you. Let’s say I touch my own hand with my finger. My brain can perceive that signal and then cancel it out. But Novichok makes it not get cancelled out, so it feels like I’m touching my own hand a million times a second, and every cell in my body goes berserk, and the brain understands that this is the end.

Let’s go back a second. You have boarded a plane from Tomsk to Moscow. You’ve opened up your laptop and started watching “Rick and Morty,” as is your habit. And then—

I started losing focus. Say, right now, I see you on the screen. I understand that Kira is here in the room. [Kira Yarmysh, who is Navalny’s spokeswoman, was present during our interview; she was also seated next to him on the Tomsk-Moscow flight.] I understand this, but I cannot see it and focus on it. I have the strength to point at the screen. I see the cat who has entered the frame. But I can’t grasp the concept of “cat,” and if someone asked me to point at the cat on screen, I’d have a very hard time. On the airplane, I went to the bathroom and I realized that I would not be able to leave the bathroom on my own, and this was when I knew I’d been poisoned. It was so difficult to open the door. I could see the door, I could understand everything, and I was plenty physically strong enough—I would have been able to do pushups, if only, at that moment, I had been able to grasp the concept of pushups. I guess if I’d had sudden heart pain or abdominal pain, I would have realized even faster that I was dying, because this physical experience would have been familiar to me. But this was worse than pain.

I’m trying to understand what you are describing, using my own experience. Have you ever been sedated with opiates?

Sure, I had my appendix removed. And last month, too, I had the experience of coming out of sedation. This was nothing like it. Some people have compared it to a panic attack. But I think I understand what a panic attack feels like: a sense of growing anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling you can ultimately comprehend.

I came out of the bathroom. I could still stand upright. I saw my seat and realized I would probably never make it that far. I thought I should probably ask for help, but I also thought that, by this point, it would be useless. So I informed the flight attendant that I was about to die, right there on their plane, and I lay down.

On the floor. And then they tried to keep you awake, right?

They were saying, “Sir, stay with us, please don’t lose consciousness. . . .” But I did.

Did you have a sense of the passage of time?

I just felt indifference. It was clear that this was the end. I imagine that a person, when they are dying, thinks about important things, like, This is what I haven’t completed, or, What will happen to my children, or, What will my wife say? But I was finding it so difficult to think at all.

So those awful screams that someone recorded—

I don’t remember those. I might have been hallucinating.

And the next thing you remember was nearly a month later?

For a while, I was convinced that I was in the hospital and I’d lost my legs and was waiting for new legs to be made for me. And my wife, Yulia, and Leonid Volkov [Navalny’s closest associate in his political work] and the doctors kept telling me that I’d been in an accident and they’d make me new legs, and I shouldn’t worry. Obviously, there were no such conversations. Gradually, I started making contact with reality, in which there was Yulia and I waited for her to come every day and adjust my pillow. But I was still missing legs. And I had these awful hallucinations that really got to me, like I’m in a jail cell and the cops won’t let me sleep, and they keep asking me to recite the rules for being in jail, interspersed with lyrics by the [Russian rap group] Krovostok.

Yulia and Volkov told me that there was a prolonged period when they would sit me up, and I would just stare, and they couldn’t tell whether I recognized them. As I recall, I was having mind-blowing conversations with them in my imagination. Yulia hung up a small flip chart and marked every day I spent in the hospital with a heart in magic marker. I reacted to that flip chart and looked at it, but I don’t remember any of that. I do remember the horrible feeling when you can’t speak or write.

What do you mean?

The doctor says, “Do you understand that you are Alexey Navalny?” I do. “Do you remember your age?” I do. “Do you understand that you are currently in Berlin?” I knew this, though I wasn’t particularly interested in why I was here. “Can you say a word?” I know I have a tongue, and I have lots of words floating around in my head. But that part of the brain where a word takes shape and you pronounce it—that wasn’t processing. I couldn’t say a word. This was torture. I probably looked like the cat in that scene in “Shrek,” with intelligent eyes but speechless. I can’t say anything and I can’t even get angry, because I can’t remember how emotions work, either. But this didn’t last long—about a week. I don’t remember this, either, but Yulia and Volkov have told me that when I did start talking, I addressed everyone in English.

Then I discovered that I couldn’t write. They’d give me a piece of paper, and I realized that I couldn’t place letters in a line in the correct order. Say, “Masha.” I remember what the word looks like. I know that the first letter is “M,” followed by an “A.” I start writing—the first letter that comes out is “S.” Then I place the second letter below it—I’m writing in a column. I can see that this is totally wrong. I cross it out. I start over, and the same thing happens. This scared me, so I kept practicing, and I didn’t calm down until I was sure that I could put letters in a line and that I could write out the word I’m asked to write. I don’t remember being unable to read—they would sometimes turn on the TV to keep me entertained, and I understood the subtitles.

What was the first word you tried to write?

I wanted to ask for water, but I couldn’t come up with the word. I asked my doctor later—after all, many people have been in a coma—did they have the same experiences? He said that, first of all, my coma was unusually long. Also, it was overlaid with the poisoning by Novichok, and there is nothing to compare that to. They say the same thing about my rehabilitation: they can’t tell me anything, because, as far as we know, there are barely any known cases of people who survived Novichok. [They include the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were poisoned in England two years ago.] Plus, I was poisoned with a different kind of Novichok.

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