Monday, 26 Oct 2020

Aleksei Navalny, Russian Dissident, Says He Can Walk and Speak Now

Nearly a month after being poisoned with a nerve agent, Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, said he has recovered his ability to speak and walk down stairs. He has also regained what is perhaps his most potent skill — making acerbic posts on social media.

In his second message on Instagram since emerging from a coma two weeks ago, Mr. Navalny on Saturday thanked his doctors at the prestigious Charité hospital in Berlin, and flashed some of the wit that has endeared him to millions of Russians, if not to their leader in the Kremlin.

“They transformed me from a person who was ‘technically alive,’” he wrote, “into someone who has every chance of again becoming that Highest Form of Existence in Modern Society: a person who is able to quickly scroll through Instagram and knows, without thinking too hard, where to put likes.”

Much as he has throughout his political career, Mr. Navalny seems intent on documenting every step of his recovery on social media, giving his nearly 2 million followers on Instagram and millions on Twitter and YouTube, a close-up look at the effects of one of the world’s most mysterious and highly classified chemical weapons.

German authorities, backed by laboratories in France and Sweden, say Mr. Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a class of chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union. It was used in the attempted assassination in England two years ago of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the British government.

Unlike Mr. Navalny, Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Julia, who was also poisoned, have basically vanished. Aside from a brief televised statement in which Ms. Skripal described a “slow and extremely painful” recovery, not a word has been heard from either of them since they were found unconscious and foaming at the mouth on a bench in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.

Their disappearance from public view has fueled conspiracy theories — many originating with Russian officials or Kremlin-controlled media — that the Skripals have been killed or perhaps were never poisoned to begin with.

While Mr. Navalny’s resurrection in life and online has not stopped the Kremlin’s propagandists from churning out reams of alternative theories about his poisoning, it has forced Russian officials to reckon with him in a way they had long sought to avoid. Before the poisoning, most top officials, including President Vladimir V. Putin, refused to even utter his name in public.

Last week, both Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, held news conferences in which they were forced to address the poisoning. Both dismissed accusations from Mr. Navalny’s supporters and the German government that the Russian state was involved, and suggested without evidence that the Germans had poisoned him.

With the European Union beginning deliberations over possible financial sanctions against Russia, Moscow’s diplomatic mission to the bloc published a list of awkwardly written questions last week meant to raise doubts about the poisoning. The first question: Why would Russia bother poisoning Mr. Navalny when, according to polls, his popularity rating is 2 percent?

How the poisoning might affect Mr. Navalny’s standing among Russians is unclear, though it has certainly raised his profile, with seemingly interminable news media coverage for nearly a month both inside and outside the country.

Mr. Navalny, himself, has yet to address the political implications of his poisoning, aside from vowing to return to Russia upon his recovery to continue his work. His two messages to supporters so far have mostly concerned his recovery.

In Saturday’s message, which was accompanied by a photo of a gaunt Mr. Navalny walking down a flight of stairs, the opposition leader said that while he had been able to regain some faculties, his recovery would be a long one.

“The telephone in my hand is useless, like a rock, and pouring myself a glass of water becomes a total scene,” he said. “Right now I’m a guy whose legs shake when he goes up the stairs, but one who thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a stairwell. You’re supposed to go up it. Perhaps, I need to look for an elevator.’”

“Before,” he said, “I’d simply stand there stupidly and look at it.”

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