Opinion: Navalny’s death extinguished the last hope I had for my former home

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Editor’s Note: Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and author of the debut novel “Your Presence is Mandatory,” which spans seven decades leading up to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. She grew up between Ukraine, Russia and the US. The views expressed in this commentary are the writer’s own. Read more opinion at CNN.

The announcement from the Russian prison service that Alexey Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, had died in prison at 47, sent ripples throughout the world and reached me in California when I woke up Friday morning. As someone who grew up between Ukraine and Russia, I used to go back to both countries to visit family every year. When I heard that Navalny had died, I immediately recalled the time I met him during a trip to Moscow in 2012, when I was 29 and some of the biggest anti-Putin protests were rocking Russia.

Sasha Vasilyu - Courtesy Christopher Michel
Sasha Vasilyu - Courtesy Christopher Michel

A journalist friend had taken me to a party hosted by a popular liberal radio station, and we immediately beelined toward a tall, pale man in the center of the room. I’d heard his name by then, but my friend’s rush to greet him made me realize how important he was. As I shook his hand, Navalny struck me as a little awkward, but there was a palpable energy around him. He hadn’t yet gained his full stature as the undisputed leader of the opposition, and looking back on it now, I wonder if he himself still hadn’t decided how far he would be willing to go for his cause. I wonder, too, if he sensed that one day he would become a worldwide symbol of courage.

His death, though unsurprising, is devastating. Even though I didn’t think it was realistic to expect his release, let alone his ascendancy to political leadership in today’s Russia, his protest still mattered. Here was a man who could have stayed in Europe but chose, after surviving a poisoning in 2020, to return to Russia and be arrested. I couldn’t imagine doing anything like that, but it was important to me to know that someone existed who did.

With his death on my mind, I drove my daughter to day care on Friday, avoiding listening to the radio or calling my relatives in Eastern Europe so as not to disturb her with potential tears. But when I dropped her off, I ran into a mom who grew up Russian in Latvia. She asked me if I’d heard about Navalny’s death and said she was heartbroken and had been crying all morning.

That’s the thing about this news: Even for those of us who have watched Russia descend into authoritarianism from afar, Navalny remained an important sign that not all was lost. After drop-off, I called my brother, who left Russia for Europe last year because he felt it was too dangerous for him and his family to stay after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He had gone to many Navalny-led protests over the years. As he put it, “In the minuscule chance that Putin died, political prisoners were freed and there was an opportunity to take Russia into a healthier political direction, Navalny was the only nucleus around whom that would have been possible. Now, that nucleus is gone.”

Demonstrators hold placards reading 'Killers' and 'Russia without Putin' during a rally in front of the Russian embassy in Warsaw on February 16 following the announcement that Alexey Navalny had died. (Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images) - Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators hold placards reading 'Killers' and 'Russia without Putin' during a rally in front of the Russian embassy in Warsaw on February 16 following the announcement that Alexey Navalny had died. (Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images) - Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

My sister-in-law spent Friday at a protest in front of Warsaw’s Russian Embassy, where people chanted “Navalny is a hero! Putin is a coward!” She said demonstrators spoke about hope, about how Navalny said not to give up, about a future when Russia would be free. But listening to them, she felt like “they were out of their mind or have not gotten the memo. Now what we will see in Russia is that nothing will change, his death won’t affect anyone, there will be only apathy, conformism and total darkness.”

When I called my aunt in Ukraine to ask her reaction, she was less emotional. Having lived through violent conflict since 2014, when Russia instigated a war by launching an incursion into the Donbas, she has long given up on hope for the neighboring nation. “This is one more proof of Russia’s moral degradation,” she said. “It’s very sad, but no one will remember Navalny in five years.”

I wanted to disagree, but she reminded me of the many previous instances when journalists were killedwhen political leaders were assassinated, when Russia lawlessly seized Crimea and – finally – launched a full-scale war on Ukraine. Each time, she thought the events would make Russians rise up and change their regime. But they never did.

I myself didn’t expect Russians to finally march out into the streets. But Navalny’s death represents the extinguishing of all hope for Russia’s turnaround. Back when I met him in 2012, some Russians believed in their country’s potential to choose an alternative path to the autocracy offered by Putin. That sense has been gone for a while. And yet, throughout the country Friday, some brave people laid flowers despite the fear of arrest. That speaks of Navalny’s power to inspire small acts of courage, even if they won’t bring any real change in the face of overriding fear.

My childhood friend in Moscow, who uses the pseudonym Sasha Alexeyeva to avoid arrest, said her social media was filled with posts about Navalny Friday. But as she took the Moscow metro home from work, she looked around at other passengers and couldn’t tell whether their sad, sour faces were because of Navalny, or because of Russian life in general.

“I’ve been corresponding with other political prisoners,” she said. “They are all a little bit Navalny, and now I’m very scared for all of them.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com