Alexei Navalny fearlessly fought against corruption in Russia and was poisoned, imprisoned and now, allegedly murdered by the state. Dr Krish Kandiah asks what we can learn from the life, death and faith of the activist was also an atheist-turned-Christian


Source: Wikimedia

News of the death of Alexei Navalny is terribly shocking, entirely unsurprising and extremely challenging.

The 47-year-old lawyer, activist and opposition leader who posed the greatest political threat to President Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the imminent Russian general election was declared dead on Friday.

The reluctance of the Russian authorities to let his family see his body seems to confirm that his death was not from natural causes.

Navalny saw Jesus’ instruction not just as a future promise but a very present call to action

The outspoken critic had already survived an attempt on his life in 2020 when he was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent. After being treated in Germany, he returned to Russia to continue his work exposing corruption in the Russian government.

He was immediately arrested, charged and sentenced to 19 years in a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle. On 15 February, he was seen in a video joking about his legal and financial situation. The next day he was dead.

A thirst for righteousness

As the world’s attention falls on this man, it has been revealed that he not only spoke openly and courageously about politics, but also about his faith.

During his trial in 2021 he said: “The fact is that I am a Christian…I was once quite a militant atheist myself…But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities…There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation.

“It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying. And so, as I said, it’s easier for me probably than for many others to engage in politics.”

Navalny often quoted verses from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in particular: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). “I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity,” Navalny commented.

Called to action

Since news of his death broke, I have been reflecting on Navalny’s words. He saw Jesus’ instruction not just as a promise to be fulfilled in the future but as a very present call to action. It motivated him not only to speak up for justice, but to speak out against injustice. It gave him the courage to put his own life at risk for the sake of others.

His hunger and thirst for justice was not just spiritual, but literal – sometimes choosing a hunger strike to get the world’s attention, sometimes being starved as a punishment in prison. Either way, he remained dedicated to bringing about change in the political system of his country.

I was once quite a militant atheist but now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot

In my own meagre attempts to speak up for children in care and refugees and to promote integrity in politics, I easily get frustrated and worn down. My challenges are light and momentary in comparison to Navalny’s, yet hearing about his incredible bravery and sacrificial service in face of such intense and cruel opposition have inspired me afresh.

Speaking up

If Navalny can hold onto his faith, continue to pursue justice and challenge others to follow Jesus’ teaching even while he is being imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered, perhaps we should all reconsider how we use the freedoms and opportunities we have.

Perhaps we, too, should be speaking up where there is misuse of public funds, inappropriate influence of the media, hoarding of wealth by the few, or to address the addictions of money, sex and power.

Is there more we could be doing to advocate for the marginalised and to ensure that those in power work for the benefit of those who need it most? How can we advocate for fair elections and call our leaders to account, demanding that those who lead do so with integrity and compassion?

Navalny’s life, death and faith force the question: What can we do, in the name of Jesus, and with the help of the Bible, to pursue righteousness and justice today?