Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny's Health Worsens As Hunger Strike Continues

Apr 9, 2021
Originally published on April 9, 2021 7:37 am
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest foe is on a hunger strike. Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny has not eaten in more than a week. He is protesting the lack of medical attention that he's getting in prison, but the Kremlin and prison authorities insist that he's getting all the care he needs. NPR's Lucian Kim is covering this from Moscow.

Lucian, first off, what do we know about Navalny's condition right now?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, actually, we know quite a lot thanks to his lawyers, who see him almost every day. Last night, one of the lawyers, Vadim Kobzev, talked to Navalny's team on their YouTube channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VADIM KOBZEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: So he's saying that he last saw Navalny on Wednesday. He says Navalny looks tired and worn out and is losing about two pounds a day. The whole reason Navalny is on hunger strike is because he says he's not getting medical attention for back pain and numbness in his legs and now, apparently, also in his hands. Earlier this week, Navalny said he developed a temperature and a cough. And, in addition to that, he's complained that prison guards wake him up every hour at night.

This all comes on top of the poisoning Navalny survived last summer, which European experts determined was caused by a banned Russian chemical weapon. Navalny was treated for that in Germany, and the moment he returned to Russia in January, he was arrested and sent to prison on an old conviction, which he considers politically motivated.

MARTIN: So, I mean, in light of all of that, what do Russians make of Navalny? I mean, do people think he's guilty of something, or do they see him as a martyr?

KIM: Well, a poll released this week by Russia's last independent pollster shows that almost half of respondents believe the court made a fair ruling, and less than a third think it was unfair. This can be explained by a massive media campaign on state television that's targeted Navalny. A camera crew from Russia Today was sent into the prison last week. Navalny sleeps in a military-style barrack with other prisoners, which Russia Today said is much better than any American prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Apart from, well, expected bunk beds, there's also a table for pingpong. The administration has assured us it hasn't been brought here just for show.

KIM: So while state media used to ignore Navalny, now they're busy trying to discredit him and his hunger strike. Fortunately for Navalny, he built a huge social media following over the past decade, and he's been able to get messages out via his team, which then posts them on the Internet.

MARTIN: I mean, given the Kremlin's just open disregard for him, I mean, what's the strategy for Navalny - just trying to get international pressure to change his situation?

KIM: Well, first of all, Navalny is not a risk-averse person, right? He's never shied away from criticizing Russia's leadership. And he returned to Russia even after the Kremlin made clear they'd put him in jail. Navalny has said that he now understands a hunger strike is the only way a prisoner can get attention. And he's certainly getting that even in Russia and, as you mentioned, also internationally.

Just yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and she made it a point, as she always does, to bring up Navalny's condition. So having Navalny sick and in jail is more than just a nuisance for Putin. The Biden administration has said his treatment will determine U.S. policy toward Russia, and it's already led to new U.S. sanctions.

MARTIN: NPR's Lucian Kim, reporting on this from Moscow, thank you so much.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.