Kremlin Critic Navalny Says He Will End Prison Hunger Strike

Apr 23, 2021
Originally published on April 23, 2021 9:23 pm

Updated April 23, 2021 at 9:34 AM ET

Russian jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Friday he is calling off a more than three-week prison hunger strike that doctors say left him near death.

Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who began refusing food on March 31 to demand medical care for leg and back pain, said in an Instagram post that on advice from doctors, he would take 24 days — about the same amount of time as the actual strike — to reverse it gradually.

He thanked the "good people" in Russia and internationally.

"My heart is full of love and gratitude for you," he said, thanking "good, not indifferent people around the world."

Navalny, 44, has been jailed since January when he was taken into custody after returning from Germany, where he received treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was ordered by Putin.

A judge later sent Navalny to prison, saying he broke the terms of an old conviction that many saw as politically motivated. Since his arrest, he has reportedly lost more than 15 kilograms (33 pounds) in prison.

"I am not withdrawing my request to allow the necessary specialist to see me," the opposition leader said. "I'm losing sensation in parts of my arms and legs, and I want to understand what it is and how to treat it."

"But considering the progress made and all the circumstances, I'm beginning to come out of my hunger strike," he added.

He said that public pressure had helped get him examined by civilian doctors twice in recent days, the second time right before nationwide protests of support on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Navalny's doctor said he could die "at any minute" if the hunger strike continued.

Physician Yaroslav Ashikhmin said test results that Navalny's family shared with him revealed the risk of cardiac arrest and damage to the kidneys.

On Monday, Navalny was transferred to an infirmary in a different prison from where he is normally housed to undergo what prison authorities described as "vitamin therapy."

Navalny's condition has been met with concern by world leaders, including President Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In the August poisoning of Navlany, toxicology tests in Germany identified the substance used as the Soviet-era Novichok, a nerve agent that most experts agree could only be obtained through a state actor. It is the same poison used in an attack on former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal, who was surreptitiously poisoned along with his daughter, Yulia, in the U.K. in 2018.

The Kremlin has denied any role in either the poisoning of Navalny or the Skripals.

Last month, in response to Navalny's poisoning, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, and several key Kremlin officials that the White House says are implicated in the nerve-agent attack.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the administration's actions were aimed at sending "a clear signal that Russia's use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms."

NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, says he's ending a hunger strike after 24 days. He began as a protest at the lack of medical attention he was receiving in prison. He made the announcement of the end of the strike in a social media post published by his supporters. NPR's Lucian Kim has been tracking Navalny story for years and is on the line. Lucian, welcome.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I just want to mention, I mean, about a month is about as far as most people can survive without food. The man must be close to death. What was his reason for ending the strike now?

KIM: Well, in this quite extraordinary Instagram post, he says, thanks to pressure from around the world, huge progress has been made in his case. He said, two months ago, the authorities just smirked at his request for medical attention. A month ago, they laughed when he asked for his diagnosis and some medical records. And now he says he's been examined by civilian doctors twice. He also says doctors he trusts appealed to him yesterday to end this hunger strike. Otherwise, in their words, there wouldn't be anyone left for them to treat, so quite dramatic.

A final factor is that other people in Russia also declared hunger strikes in solidarity with Navalny. He says he doesn't want to be responsible for them. He says all of that fills his heart with, quote, "love and gratitude." He says he's still going to insist on getting outside medical attention for a loss of sensation in his arms and legs.

INSKEEP: Lucian, this is remarkable. And I suppose we, for the most part, have Navalny's version of events here. But he's saying that his conditions have improved, which implies that the Russian government really does feel pressure to take care of him. This is someone who says the Russian government has tried to poison him, kill him in the past. And now they seem to have a need to keep him alive.

KIM: Well, the Russian government actually pretends like they have nothing to do with this. The - President Vladimir Putin's spokesman actually has sort of an allergic reaction whenever any journalists bring this up. He keeps on saying that the Kremlin is not monitoring Navalny's health, and he's just like any other prisoner in the Russian prison system. And he's basically said any questions about Navalny's condition should go to the Russian prison service. So this is really one subject that drives the Kremlin up the wall. And they want to ignore Navalny and just have him go away.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, what does that tell us then? Taking all the facts in, what does that tell us about Navalny's ability to influence events in Vladimir Putin's Russia right now?

KIM: Well, it's amazing, Steve. It shows that he can still set the political agenda, even sitting or lying in a prison hospital outside of Moscow. He keeps on posting to social media. He gets his messages out through his supporters and his followers and reaches millions of people. So domestically, he can mobilize thousands and tens of thousands of protesters in the farthest corners of Russia. We saw that again on Wednesday, when people came out in dozens of cities across the country.

But the most amazing thing is that he's now also setting the international agenda. You know, world leaders keep on bringing him up when they talk to Vladimir Putin. And the Biden administration came out and said Russia would face serious consequences if he dies.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks for the update.

KIM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.