“I used to have a nightmare many times when I woke up when someone called me and said, Alexey was killed or something very serious happened to him,” Volkov recalls in an interview. with CNN. “I have had this nightmare at least 10 times in my life. ”
Last week he went through this nightmare. An early morning phone call told him that Navalny had collapsed on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk and was now in a coma. He says anticipating this moment didn’t make reality any easier to deal with.
” I was terrified. Of course, emotionally it was a very dramatic blow, ”he says. “So it took me several hours to concentrate. ”
But as Navalny’s chief of staff, he had a job to do: get him out of Russia and receive trusted medical care.
He was eventually airlifted to Berlin, where doctors at Charité Hospital determined he was likely poisoned by a substance from a group of chemicals called cholinesterase inhibitors. The failure of the medical team to determine the specific poison so far has been used by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson to justify Russian authorities not yet opening a criminal investigation.
Volkov says the answer is just one factor that points to the Russian state’s involvement in an attempt to assassinate Navalny.
“Based on the information I have at this point, I strongly believe it is either the state or part of the state. So, as of now, we have no proof that Putin ordered it. government agencies. But the level of organization, the poisons they used. It’s not something you can buy in a drugstore, at a drugstore next door, ”Volkov says.
Russia denies any attempt to harm Navalny.
‘The only protection: advertising’
Volkov said his friend knew the risks. Other opposition figures have been shot, beaten and poisoned. Navalny, Volkov says, never thought about changing his behavior or quitting his job.
“So when we discussed it, our thought was the only possible protection… it’s maximum publicity. So the higher the number of our supporters, the higher his approval rating, the greater the risk the Kremlin would take in trying to kill him. ”
So why now? Navalny has openly challenged the Russian elite for 10 years. If people within the Russian state tried to kill Navalny, why would they risk turning a much-admired activist into a political martyr?
Volkov says the timing points to two possible factors.
The first: Belarus. Navalny had strongly supported mass protests in the neighboring country after his disputed presidential election. He called on the Russians to show the same passion to overthrow their own leaders. Putin has often expressed his aversion to street-led revolutions.
And in two weeks, Russia will hold its own municipal elections. Navalny’s national organization prepared for this event with a campaign to promote tactical voting. He proved effective in defeating pro-Putin candidates in last year’s Moscow Assembly elections.
In the end, Volkov says, someone made a calculation: the benefits of removing Navalny from Russian politics would outweigh the problems of his outraged supporters.
“It was an attempt to kill, not to scare him,” Volkov said.
Navalny’s recovery should be slow. It will be some time before we know if and when he will resume his role as the Kremlin’s strongest and most effective critic.
What is Russia like without Navalny? “We are not considering that,” Volkov said.
CNN’s Sebastian Shukla and John Torigoe contributed to this report.