The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin is trying to wipe out the work of his strongest opponent. He won’t succeed.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow on Feb. 20, 2021. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/ap)

Alexei Navalny, the Russian anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader, often said President Vladimir Putin runs a party of “crooks and thieves.” Mr. Putin’s security forces subsequently attempted to assassinate Mr. Navalny with a military-grade chemical weapon; when he survived, the regime unjustly handed him a prison sentence a year ago Wednesday and later outlawed his organization as “extremist.”

Dictatorship has a body language, a way of conveying grievance, grudge and vulnerability. Mr. Putin has once again revealed his acute anxiety about Mr. Navalny and all that he stands for. On Tuesday, the Russian censor, Roskomnadzor, instructed five Russian news media outlets — television, radio and online — to remove articles and broadcasts based on Mr. Navalny’s investigations of Mr. Putin and his inner circle within 24 hours — just in time for the anniversary of his sentencing. The radio station Echo of Moscow was ordered to delete 34 items; television channel TV Rain six items; the news websites Znak, 13 items, Meduza, 17 items and Svobodnye Novosti, nine. Some of them said they would comply.

What’s so offensive? Svobodnye Novosti was ordered to remove material about “Putin’s Palace,” the sprawling Black Sea pleasure palace that Mr. Navalny exposed as having been secretly constructed for Mr. Putin. The other eight items, published between 2018 and 2021, all stemmed from Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption probes, including revelations about how Mr. Putin’s coterie accumulated expensive real estate, fancy cars and lavish clothing. The television channel said it was ordered to remove reports about an investigation of secret residences held by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin among other items.

For many years, Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism was a softer variant than that of the Soviet Union, leaving room for some independent news media. But the past year has brought harsher crackdowns, including the effort to force closure of Memorial, Russia’s prestigious repository of Soviet persecutions. Now the government is trying to airbrush away specific reports that embarrass Mr. Putin and his pals. The erasures won’t eliminate the evidence entirely, however. The YouTube video of Mr. Putin’s palace remains available and has been viewed more than 121 million times.

Mr. Navalny endures days and nights in a prison barracks with the windows covered in white paper so he can’t see out, under constant watch by other inmates, but he won’t be silenced. He recently exchanged letters with Time magazine, in which he urged the West to put pressure on Mr. Putin by going after his riches abroad. “Everybody knows the names of the oligarchs and friends of Putin who hold his money,” he wrote. “We know those who finance his yachts and palaces.”

Mr. Navalny’s political organization has been decimated, but he is undaunted. He vowed to resume his democratic quest in Russia, through “fair national elections.” He added, “Russia badly needs at least 4-5 cycles of fair elections overseen by independent courts in order to finally break the vicious cycle of authoritarian rebirth, and to permanently affirm that power at every level is only won that way.” He’s right about that, and no amount of deletions, nor his cruel imprisonment, can airbrush that truth away.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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