From the beginning, Alexey Navalny represented a fundamentally different, more dangerous threat to Vladimir Putin’s grasp on power than any of the Russian opposition figures who had come before him.

Though he stood on the shoulders of such pro-democracy heroes as Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova and Boris Nemtsov – all of whom were murdered for their opposition to Mr. Putin’s long and authoritarian rule – Mr. Navalny troubled the Kremlin like no one else.

He was beaten, jailed, poisoned, jailed again and seemingly starved during repeated stints in the notorious isolation ward of a remote Arctic prison. Despite it all, he kept challenging the Kremlin, recently calling on his supporters to make a mockery of next month’s presidential elections – in which Mr. Putin is running effectively unopposed after the Kremlin barred the only genuine opposition candidate – by arriving at polling stations en masse at exactly noon on the day of the vote.

On Friday, the 47-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption activist was declared dead by Russia’s prison service, which said he had died after falling unwell during his daily walk within the confines of the “special regime” prison colony in Yamalo-Nenets, where he was transferred in December. Mr. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said she had no reason to trust anything the Russian government said and that “Putin and everyone around him” must be held to account “for what they did to our country, to my family and my husband.”

Ivan Zhdanov, the exiled director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation that Mr. Navalny founded, was blunter: “Alexey Navalny has been murdered. And he was killed by Vladimir Putin.” Mr. Navalny appeared very thin, but otherwise in good health – even cracking jokes – when he made a court appearance Thursday via video link.

In retrospect, given the long list of those murdered for opposing Mr. Putin, it was surprising that Mr. Navalny survived as long as he did.

He emerged from relative obscurity in the winter of 2011 to lead a series of massive street protests that remain the greatest domestic challenge Mr. Putin has faced during his quarter-century in power. The Kremlin, which until then focused on using television as the main way of spreading its propaganda, paying little attention to online media, seemed stunned that a lawyer with no official political party had gained such a large following via his YouTube videos revealing the curious wealth of Russia’s political elite.

Mr. Navalny was a completely new political force. Unlike most of Mr. Putin’s other critics – who often seemed more interested in earning praise from the West than winning over ordinary Russians – Mr. Navalny was a Russian nationalist and proved eager to embrace any other political force willing to oppose the autocrat in the Kremlin.

Those nationalist roots led to a convoluted position on Ukraine. Mr. Navalny initially regarded the Crimean Peninsula – which Russia illegally seized and annexed in 2014 – the same way Mr. Putin did: as Russian territory that had been lost during the breakup of the Soviet Union. But while many Ukrainians were unable to trust Mr. Navalny because of that stand, he became a fierce critic of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Mr. Putin launched in February, 2022. In a position paper published last year, he clarified that he believed Russia’s postwar borders should be the same as they were at the time of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. – with Crimea back in Ukraine.

The first time I saw Mr. Navalny up close was at the end of a street protest in Moscow in the spring of 2012. Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of Russians had marched through their capital to protest Mr. Putin’s rigged re-election, but by nightfall – as the riot police moved in – only a few hundred people remained, chanting, “Russia without Putin!” until the moment they were thrown into the back of waiting police vehicles. Though most of the other opposition leaders had gone home hours earlier, Mr. Navalny remained – linking arms with his supporters until police pried each of them away.

That bravery, mixed with his laser-like focus on corruption – an issue that inspires far more anger among ordinary Russians than vaguer concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech – made Mr. Navalny a hero far beyond the liberal elites of Moscow and St. Petersburg who frequently demonstrated token resistance to the country’s slide back toward authoritarianism. Among the anti-Putin movement, only Mr. Navalny could boast of a nationwide network of tens of thousands of volunteers.

After the 2015 murder of Mr. Nemtsov, who had become a close ally, Mr. Navalny became the clear leader of the opposition. Speaking shortly after Mr. Nemtsov was shot dead outside the Kremlin walls, Mr. Navalny vowed he would not be intimidated. “There will be no let-up in our efforts, we will give up nothing. This act of terror has not achieved its goal in this sense.”

He never got a chance to test his popularity in a free and fair election. He was barred from running in a 2018 presidential election, shortly after he called Mr. Putin “a bad president” who had “turned our country into a source of personal enrichment” for himself, his family and friends.

Mr. Putin, in turn, despised Mr. Navalny with such passion that he refused to speak his name, referring to him only obliquely as “that person” or something similar, even when asked directly about his nemesis. The Kremlin is widely believed to have been behind a 2020 poisoning attack on Mr. Navalny carried out with a Novichok-class nerve agent, which he survived after being flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment.

Despite his own investigation – which formed the basis of the Oscar-winning documentary Navalny – concluding that the poisoning was an assassination attempt carried out by Russia’s FSB security services, Mr. Navalny returned to Russia in January, 2021, after concluding that he couldn’t effectively oppose Mr. Putin from exile. “This is the best day in the last five months. I’m home,” he said, shortly before he was arrested upon arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. He kissed his wife farewell before he cheerfully allowed the waiting police officers to lead him away.

The Kremlin’s many accusations against Mr. Navalny – ranging from embezzlement to extremism – were viewed among his supporters in Russia and beyond as fabricated to keep him behind bars rather than in the streets challenging Mr. Putin.

Shortly after his airport arrest, Mr. Navalny’s team released a video accusing Mr. Putin of being the real owner of a lavish US$1.35-billion complex – complete with an underground ice rink, a wine-tasting room, a private beach and two helipads – on the Black Sea coast. Mr. Putin has denied any connection to the property, but the video, entitled “Putin’s Palace. History of World’s Largest Bribe,” has been watched 130 million times on YouTube.

Mr. Navalny kept up his attacks on the Kremlin from behind bars by smuggling messages to his team that were then posted to social media. The father of two used the same methods to keep in touch with his family – the last thing posted to his Telegram channel was a Valentine’s Day message to Yulia. “I feel that you are near every second, and I love you more and more,” he wrote.

Last year, after an additional 19 years were added to his prison sentence, Mr. Navalny predicted that he would be kept in prison until either he died or Russia’s authoritarian system collapsed.

Unfortunately for those who dreamt and still dream of a different Russia, Mr. Putin’s regime has outlived yet another of those who dared to fight it.

The Globe and Mail, February 16, 2024