The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been taken off a ventilator and is able to leave his bed for short periods of time, German doctors who have been treating him for novichok poisoning have said.
In a significant update, the Charité hospital in Berlin said Navalny’s condition “continues to improve” and hinted that he was able to talk. It said latest news of his health was made public after consultation with Navalny and his wife.
German medics have cautioned it is too early to say whether Navalny will make a full recovery. But the fact that he is out of a medically induced coma and able to walk a little is the most positive sign to date.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months.
He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote ‘not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me‘.
There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
Navalny collapsed on 20 August after drinking a cup of tea at Tomsk airport in Siberia. He was flown from Russia to Berlin two days later and has spent more than three weeks hooked up to a ventilator. He was unconscious while doctors treated him with the antidote atropine.
Navalny’s aides welcomed the news from Berlin. His press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, said the opposition leader had been “completely disconnected” from a ventilator and could stand up.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, revealed earlier this month that Navalny was poisoned with novichok, a lethal Russian nerve agent that was also used in March 2018 against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, south-west England. Merkel and other world leaders have called on Russia to provide answers and to carry out a transparent investigation.
Новости о здоровье Алексея: он полностью отключен от ИВЛ и уже может на некоторое время вставать с больничной койки
— Кира Ярмыш (@Kira_Yarmysh) September 14, 2020
On Monday, Berlin said French and Swedish laboratories had confirmed Germany’s finding that novichok had been used to poison Navalny. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, called Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and asked him to explain what had happened, the Élysée Palace said.
In a statement, Macron’s office said: “The president expressed his deep concern over the criminal act perpetrated against Alexei Navalny and the imperative that all light be shed, without delay, on the circumstances and responsibilities of this attempted assassination.”
The use of novichok contravened “international norms on using chemical weapons”, Macron said. It is unclear if the EU will impose sanctions on Moscow, which denies involvement and says there is no evidence Navalny was poisoned.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the
Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions
on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate
compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final
structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other
The most potent of the novichok
substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of
the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
Novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively
over-stimulating muscles and glands. Treatment for novichok
exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with
atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil
Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the
structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought they
can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According
to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional
The financial paper Les Echos said the Navalny incident had jeopardised attempts by Macron to restart a dialogue with Putin. A thaw in relations between Paris and Moscow was announced on 14 July with Russia’s vice defence minister and vice foreign minister invited as VIP guests to the French embassy’s Bastille Day celebrations.
This invitation followed a lengthy video conference between Macron and Putin during which Macron accepted Putin’s invitation to Moscow for a visit in September for a “strategic dialogue”.
The news magazine l’Express said Macron told diplomats and ambassadors last year that renewing France’s relationship with Russia was “absolutely necessary”. Macron may have been listening to the former foreign affairs minister Hubert Védrine who has voiced the opinion that “it is completely absurd to have worse relations with Russia today than we had with the USSR”, l’Express reported.
Meanwhile, Navalny’s supporters have secured city council seats in Siberia following regional elections on Sunday. The heads of Navalny’s offices for Novosibirsk and Tomsk both won seats.
Navalny had been in Tomsk to promote his “smart voting” campaign when he was poisoned at the airport on his way back to Moscow. Ksenia Fadeyeva, the 28-year-old head of Navalny’s Tomsk office, said she won a city council seat along with another Navalny ally.
“This is the first victory of a Navalny office head,” Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the opposition politician’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter. “It was in Tomsk where Navalny was poisoned.”