By Tom Balmforth and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A day before Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny collapsed in what his allies say was a case of poisoning on Thursday, he met a group of young supporters in private and took a familiar question: why aren't you dead?
According to one of the supporters, the 44-year-old smiled. His campaigns against the Kremlin and official corruption had made him many enemies and the target of several violent attacks over the years, so the question didn't come as a surprise.
"He even joked that he has to make excuses that he hasn't been killed yet," said Ilya Chumakov, one of two dozen activists who met Navalny on Wednesday in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
Then, according to Chumakov, he grew more serious and added that his death would not help President Vladimir Putin.
"He replied that it wouldn't be beneficial for Putin. That it would lead to him (Navalny) being turned into a hero," Chumakov said.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in alleged attacks on Navalny. It said on Thursday that doctors were doing everything they could to help him and wished him a speedy recovery.
Navalny fell ill as he flew back to Moscow from Siberia, where he met allies who are campaigning at regional elections next month, part of a strategy to galvanise disparate opposition groups into a single front against Putin's United Russia party.
Navalny's supporters believe his tea was poisoned at an airport cafe shortly before he boarded his flight. He became ill on the plane which then made an emergency landing at another Siberian city, Omsk, where he is in a coma in hospital.
Hospital doctors say it is still unclear what caused him to fall ill and tests are continuing.
Navalny has served many stints in jail for organising anti-Kremlin protests and has been physically attacked in the street by pro-government activists. He was twice assaulted in 2017 by assailants who threw a green antiseptic dye at him.
He was also briefly hospitalised in July last year with an acute allergic reaction that he said he thought may have been a poisoning.
(Additional reporting by Rinat Sagdiev and Maria Vasilyeva; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Nick Tattersall)