Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is still in Germany recovering from his poisoning with a nerve agent. Today Der Spiegel published an interview with Navalny in which he described what he’s been doing since he awoke from a coma (mostly exercising) and his prospects for a full recovery. He also gave a detailed description of what it was like to be poisoned by Novichok, the Russian nerve agent that very nearly killed him.
I guess I’d always assumed that being poisoned with a nerve agent would be excruciatingly painful. In a widely-circulated video taken by a passenger on the plane you could hear him shouting in apparent pain. But he tells Der Spiegel he felt no pain at all, just the growing certainty that he was about to die.
Navalny: It was a wonderful day. I’m on my way home, with a strenuous and successful business trip behind me. We shot videos for the regional election campaign, and everything had gone according to plan. I’m sitting comfortably in my seat and I’m looking forward to a quiet flight during which I can watch a series. Once I get back to Moscow, I am looking forward to recording my weekly YouTube show and then spending the weekend with my family. I feel good, as I did at the airport. And then… it’s hard to describe because there is nothing to compare it with. Organophosphorus compounds attack your nervous system like a DDos attack attacks the computer – it’s an overload that breaks you. You can no longer concentrate. I can feel that something is wrong. I break out in a cold sweat. I ask Kira beside me for a tissue. Then I say to her: Speak to me. I need to hear a voice – something’s wrong with me. She looks at me like I’m crazy and starts talking.
DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?
Navalny: I don’t understand what is happening to me. The stewards come by with the trolley. I first want to ask them for water, but I then say: No, let me by, I’m going to the bathroom. I wash myself with cold water, sit down and wait and then wash myself again. And then I think: If I don’t get out now, I’ll never get out. The most important feeling was: You are feeling no pain, but you know you’re dying. And I mean, right now, yet nothing hurts. I leave the toilet, turn to the steward – and instead of asking for help, I say, to my own surprise: “I’ve been poisoned. I’m dying.” And then I lay down on the ground in front of him to die. He’s the last thing I see – a face that looks at me with slight astonishment and a light smile. He says: “Poisoned?” and by that he probably means I was served bad chicken.
And the last thing I hear, already on the floor is: Do you have heart problems? But my heart doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts. All I know is that I am dying. Then I hear voices growing ever quieter, and a woman calling: “Don’t leave us! Don’t leave us!” Then it’s over. I know I’m dead. Only later would it turn out that I was wrong.
DER SPIEGEL: There’s a video shot by a passenger in which your screams can be heard on the plane. It sounds horrible, almost like the cries of an animal.
Navalny: I’ve watched it – it’s circulating on the internet under the title: “Navalny screaming in pain.” But it wasn’t pain. It was something else, worse. Pain makes you feel like you’re alive. But in this case, you sense: This is the end.
It wasn’t the end for Navalny because of a series of lucky breaks that could have all gone very differently. He became ill on the plane mid-flight and had the plane continued to its intended destination, he would have died. He believes that was likely the plan. His body would have wound up in a morgue in Moscow and no one would have looked too hard for evidence of what killed him.
Instead, the pilot changed course and landed the plane quickly. An ambulance was waiting for him. He made it to the hospital alive and got some treatment. And then there was a change of tone and doctors said he wouldn’t be allowed to leave. But Navalny’s wife and his people pushed the issue and made news demanding he be released. Navalny says this turned the whole spectacle into a kind of reality TV show. If he was allowed to die slowly in Russia he would have become a kind of martyr which isn’t the kind of death his poisoners wanted for him. So, after two days, Russia let him be moved to Germany where doctors identified the poison and saved his life.
As for who is responsible, Navalny has no doubt about that. And his reasons are pretty sound. Ultimately, only one person in Russia could made a decision to utilize Novichok.
Navalny: I assert that Putin was behind the crime, and I have no other explanation for what happened. I’m not saying this out of self-flattery, but based on the facts. The most important fact is Novichok. The order to use or produce it can only come from two men – the head of the FSB or the head of SWR, the foreign intelligence service.
DER SPIEGEL: What about the military intelligence agency GRU, which has been linked to the attack on Sergei Skripal?
Navalny: Probably also the GRU. When Putin claims that I myself produced Novichok and poisoned myself with it, it’s an impossibility. We can assume that only three people can give the order to initiate “active measures” and deploy Novichok. If you’re familiar with the Russian reality, then you also know that FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, SVR head Naryshkin or the head of the GRU cannot make a decision like that without being instructed by Putin. They report to him.
There’s an interesting discussion about Putin’s division of the opposition into two camps: enemies and traitors. In his view, Sergei Skripal and other former agents who fled Russia are traitors. Those are the people Russia uses Novichok to kill. But before this, Navalny would have seemed to be in the other camp, an enemy of Putin but not someone who had fled the country.
Navalny believes that after two years of efforts to crack down on his organization, i.e. frozen bank accounts, raiding offices and taking office equipment, someone realized it wasn’t enough. A decision was made that the normal methods of opposition control weren’t sufficient. At that point, he believes, he received a kind of upgrade from being treated as an enemy to the treatment usually reserved for “traitors.”
Navalny plans to return to Russia and resume his life there but he admits he sometimes worries what could happen to his wife and children. “That’s just how it is: We are fighting again monstrous villains who are prepared to commit the most heinous crimes.”