A cup of tea, then cries of agony: how Alexei Navalny fought for his life | Alexei Navalny

For Alexei Navalny it was another routine trip to the regions. Specifically to Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk, and its attractive neighbor, Tomsk. “An excellent city. One of the most beautiful in our country,” Navalny enthused on Instagram, posting a photo of Tomsk with a group of young supporters on Wednesday.

Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition activist. He didn’t hide why he flew to Tomsk, known for its wooden mansions and enlightened university. The aim, he wrote, was to support independent candidates ahead of local elections next month. And, of course, to kick out the “crooks” of Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party.

On Thursday morning, he flew to Bogashevo airport in Tomsk for a flight back to Moscow. Navalny was traveling with his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, and a few assistants. At the airport, he ordered a cup of black tea from the Café de Vienne. He sat down. Navalny may be banned from state television, but he remains a celebrity in Russia nonetheless. Another passenger, local DJ Pavel Lebedev, snapped a picture of Navalny – paper cup in hand, about to sip his drink.

The group boarded flight S7 to Moscow. The plane took off. According to Lebedev, Navalny quickly fell ill. The change in his condition was sudden, violent. He went to the toilet at the back of the plane. He has not reappeared and appears to have collapsed. Video footage shows the crew rushing towards him. There are dark howls of pain.

Alexei Navalny, center, and Kira Yarmysh, left foreground, pose for a selfie inside a bus en route to a plane at an airport outside Tomsk, a city in Siberia, Russia . Photograph: gluchinskiy/AP

“He started to feel really sick. They struggled to bring him back and he was screaming,” Lebedev said. Realizing that Navalny’s condition was serious, the pilot made an emergency landing at Omsk airport. Navalny was taken away on a stretcher. Video from the scene showed a prone, pale and distressed figure. The doctors loaded him into a yellow ambulance. They chased him away.

Alexei Navalny: Footage shows Russian activist stretched out of plane – video

Yarmysh broke the news on Twitter: that his boss was unconscious and critically ill, and that his tea had apparently been poisoned. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything else, she said. Doctors told him that a toxin mixed with a hot drink would be quickly absorbed. An hour later there was an update. Navalny was in intensive care. He was strapped to a ventilator and fighting for his life.

Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Care at Hospital Number One Anatoly Kalinichenko talks to reporters about Navalny's condition.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Hospital Number One Anatoly Kalinichenko speaking to reporters about Navalny’s condition. Photography: Maxim Karlayev/EPA

Over the next few hours, the scenes at Omsk’s Number One Hospital were horribly gruesome. According to Yarmysh, medical staff initially recognized that Navalny was likely poisoned. Soon, however, the police arrived, flooding the hallway outside the patient’s room. After that, the doctors were less communicative. They were apparently terrified to speak.

Anatoly Kalinitchenko, the hospital’s deputy chief physician, told reporters that poisoning was just one scenario among many. Meanwhile, Russian state media launched alternate versions of what might have happened. This suggested that Navalny had drunk too much the previous night and taken medication. It was wrong, said Yarmysh – another fiction in the Kremlin’s long-running anti-Navalny campaign.

There were eerie echoes of another poisoned tea scandal: the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Two Kremlin assassins killed Litvinenko using deadly polonium. Russian officials said Moscow could not be responsible, as the episode damaged the country’s international reputation. On Thursday, pro-Putin TV host Dmitry Kisylov deployed the same distorted logic on Navalny’s condition, implying that the West was to blame.

In the afternoon, Navalny’s wife, Yulia – the mother of their two children – had arrived at the hospital from Moscow. She brought with her Navalny’s personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva. The authorities, however, refused to let them into the room. They demanded proof in the form of a marriage certificate that Yulia was indeed his wife – a cruel and petty gesture. She was finally allowed to enter.

A man and a woman surrounded by people holding banners
Navalny and his wife, Yulia, at a rally in Moscow in March. Photography: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Above these unfortunate scenes floated two questions. What did Putin know about the events at Tomsk airport? And if it was a state plot, similar to the poisoning of Litvinenko, why now? Unlike some Russian opposition figures who went into exile abroad, Navalny was based in Moscow. It would have been easy to poison him months or even years ago.

During his trip to Siberia, Navalny conducted a survey, as well as met local candidates and volunteers, the local news site Tayga.Info reported. There was a certain amount of cloak and dagger to visit. “I can’t reveal all the details,” said Lyubov Sobol, an ally, when asked if he was preparing a briefing. “But Navalny was on a work trip. He was not relaxing in the regions.

But, his friends add, a Siberian governor or mayor is unlikely to poison someone of Navalny’s stature without permission from above. Poisoning, they add, is a favorite method of the Kremlin security services, in the days of the KGB and today. Over the past century, Russian spies have devised ways to administer invisible poisons – sometimes to warn, sometimes to kill.

Navalny recently wrote that the kind of revolution unfolding next door in Belarus would soon happen in Russia, sweeping away Putin and his KGB cronies. The similarities are obvious. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in office for 26 years; over the summer, Putin – in power for already two decades – “won” a constitutional vote, allowing him to run again and extend his rule potentially until 2036.

Whatever Navalny’s fate, we are unlikely to find out the truth. The investigative and judicial system in Russia is by no means independent. Previous deaths of high profile critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya have never been fully investigated. Sometimes a few low-level people are doomed. But the zakazchiks – those who give the orders – are rarely, if ever, found.

* Luke Harding’s latest book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Guardian Faber), is available at Guardian’s Library.

This article was modified on August 25, 2020 because an earlier version incorrectly referred to a reclining figure, when a reclining figure was meant.