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What are Russians Saying About the Death of Navalny?

Our goal was to find out first, how the Kremlin was going to present the story, and second, how ordinary Russians would respond. Would the official story dominate? Or would alternate explanations emerge? 
What are Russians Saying About the Death of Navalny?
Photo by Nikita Pishchugin / Unsplash

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was announced on February 16th. He was a lawyer, political candidate, and anti-corruption activist, and at the time of his death he was being held in a remote Arctic prison camp, originally built during the Stalin years.

In the media firestorm that followed, FilterLabs.AI started to track several narratives about Navalny’s death on Russian news and social media channels. Our goal was to find out first, how the Kremlin was going to present the story, and second, how ordinary Russians would respond. Would the official story dominate? Or would alternate explanations emerge? 

Because FilterLabs tracks online discourse from both official media outlets and a wide variety of digital spaces where unofficial conversation takes place (like messenger apps and online forums), we’re able to detect similarities and differences in the patterns of topic, attitude, and discourse volume between the two spheres. Even in a country like Russia, where citizens may not feel free to say exactly what they think online on some subjects, Filter’s diverse range of discursive data and Large Language Model (LLM) AI tools allow us to detect even subtle shifts in narratives or sentiment that can signal a divergence between the “official” and the public view. So in this week’s newsletter we’ll dig into some of what we’re finding in the varied reactions to the death of Navalny.

In the day or two after the announcement of Navalny’s death, the most prevalent narratives about the cause discussed in mainstream press outlets (which are typically Kremlin-influenced or Kremlin-friendly) were:

  • He died due to illness
  • He was killed by the Russian government
  • The West is to blame

Similar narratives appeared on social media and other online discussion:

Let’s take a closer look at these three trending explanations.

I. Navalny Died from Natural Causes

The official line is, of course, that Nalvany died of natural causes—specifically a pulmonary embolism. Immediately after Navalny’s passing, death due to natural causes was the most prevalent narrative in Russian news sources, where it appeared in most articles as at least a possible cause of death. 

In rare cases, articles taking this line hinted at Navalny's having had pre-existing health conditions, or noted that he had spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement. But staunchly pro-Kremlin publications made no mention of his health as a potential factor—presumably because any such admission implicitly evokes his 2020 Novichok poisoning, which they do not acknowledge. 

At first glance it seems that the illness narrative dominated the first day or two of coverage, but then receded while others increased. What daily percentage figures alone don’t show, though, is that the overall number of mentions of his death in our sample dropped dramatically too. So the percentages after Feb. 17th are out of a much smaller volume of discourse.

When we consider both percentages and volume, it looks like the mainstream media made a major push declaring that Navalny had died from illness on the day of the Kremlin’s announcement, then largely moved on from the subject of his death altogether. FilterLabs’ analysis has consistently shown that it is when the official sources move on that an alternative narrative can make its impact felt (patience, we have argued, is just as important as speed in countering Russian propaganda).

While the official narrative was overwhelming in mainstream media outlets, it was less dominant in ordinary Russian citizens’ conversations in local forums, social media, and messenger app groups. Online commentators were also more willing to ask pointed questions about why Navalny was in prison in the first place. Given Navalny’s apparently horrific treatment in the Russian penal system, could a clean line really be drawn between natural causes and a politically motivated murder? 

II. Navalny was Killed by the Kremlin

There was also, of course, the possibility that Navalny had been murdered by the Russian government. 

This possibility is mostly absent from mainstream media coverage in Russia. In fact, with the exception of a few independent anti-Kremlin publications, any media outlet that raised the possibility that the Kremlin was behind Navalny’s death only did so in order to preemptively deny it, or to discuss (and counter) accusations of murder coming from the West. They argued that there was no reason to kill Navalny since he was already in jail, and that Putin had more important matters to attend to. 

On social media, it was a different story. Many commentators said that Navalny had been murdered and implied that the government was to blame. Others went a step further and placed the blame directly on Putin and the Kremlin. They might never know the direct cause of death, but they already knew the reason behind it. 

There were variations on the theme: some commenters saw the alleged murder as one more step toward a nationalist dictatorship, even fascism. Still others warned those who had left at the beginning of the Ukraine war not to return–this could be their fate, too. More defiant voices said that the murder proved that Putin was afraid of Navalny and encouraged readers to lay flowers on his memorial and attend protests.  

Now, it’s important to note that the “Killed/poisoned by the Kremlin” data above includes only comments that made direct mention of Putin or his government or agents. Given the risks, it’s understandable that many Russians might avoid an overt accusation of the government in discussing the matter online. 

But FilterLabs has been able to detect a fair amount about what Russians are saying in these posts as well. When posts calling Navalny’s death a murder without directly stating who’s to blame are counted, they are actually the leading narrative on social platforms:

And when we spot checked a sampling of these comments, the pattern was clear: in nearly all of them, the obvious though unstated implication was that the Kremlin was behind it.

By the end of the week, posts raising the possibility of Navalny’s murder were far more prevalent than posts attributing his death to natural causes. This suggests, at a minimum, that the Kremlin’s preferred narrative did not take hold in many corners of the Russian internet, despite the initial media push. 

III. The West Benefits from Navalny’s Death (and may have caused it)

Some Kremlin-friendly commentators, rather than declaring Navalny’s death a natural occurrence, blamed Western governments, including the United States. This theory first appeared online but then migrated into mainstream outlets. In fact, it actually gained more traction in mainstream outlets than it did in online discussion. By the end of the week, stories about western responsibility had actually overtaken stories attributing Navalny’s death to illness. It appeared that the Kremlin had settled on a new, long-term narrative.

The “blame the west” narrative actually originated on social media. On the platform Telegram, the media personality Anton Krasovky held responsible the U.S. and “those who are losing the war in Ukraine and are interested in destabilizing Russia.” 

Less explicit versions of this narrative said that Western governments were “suspiciously quick” to blame the Kremlin, or claimed that murdering Navalny “wouldn’t make sense right before [the] presidential election.” The idea was that Navalny’s death would destabilize Russia’s political scene, leading to an opportunity for Western-backed forces in Ukraine. 

Krasovky’s accusations actually never became too popular in the discussion online. Toward the end of the week (2/22), the idea that the US was somehow involved was the least prevalent narrative on social media. But in the mainstream Russian press the idea persisted, even as overall discussion of Navalny’s death declined. Again, overall coverage of the subject was down, but among posts mentioning his death this theory was in the lead.  

This might be a good example of a regime finding a friendly narrative in the wild and then elevating it for their own purposes–no matter how outlandish it might be.

And it was outlandish. Navalny’s death has indeed led to a world-wide outcry, but it is quite a stretch to think that Western governments would kill one of Putin’s most famous and charismatic opponents for a few days of negative press. 

The narratives about Navalny’s death can perhaps tell us a few things about the Putin regime and the Russian public.

First, the Russian government still has the power to craft and push a dominant storyline line. The idea that Navalny died of natural causes was reported widely, and echoed on social media. At the same time, the narrative of “natural causes” may have been the most prevalent, but it wasn’t by any means the final word. Both conservatives and liberals in Russia went beyond the question of how Navalny died to the question of why. As is often the case in information warfare and propaganda, the question of what happened is ultimately less important than the question of its significance. 

Second, opposition to Putin exists in Russia, but mostly in social media and other forums for private expression, not in mainstream news channels. For more liberal voices, Navalny’s death confirmed their fears. Putin is willing and able to silence political opponents, and the country is moving ever-further into a dictatorship. While some seemed to despair (telling expats not to return) and others were defiant (telling people to protest), almost all of the critical voices were heard exclusively on social media, messaging apps, and online forums. On the one hand, this means that the Kremlin does not have absolute control of its domestic information environment. On the other, it means that dissent remains marginal, without a mainstream presence.  

Third, when in doubt, the Russian government obfuscates. It’s hard to believe that anyone could buy the narrative of Western responsibility. Why tell a lie when no one will believe it? To change the conversation, most likely. When the facts look bad, the clever propagandist moves into the airier realms of abstraction and political machinations. 

Moreover, the brazenness of accusing the West of being responsible for Navalny’s death should not be so surprising. In his classic study of propaganda, the sociologist Jacque Ellul noted that “The propagandist will not accuse the enemy of just any misdeed; he will accuse him of the very intention that he himself has and of trying to commit the very crime that he himself is about to commit.” 

Navalny famously said that Russia was run by “crooks and thieves.” Based on the reporting and mainstream commentary on his death, he could probably have added liars, too.