Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia pose for a selfie in an unknown location in Germany. Navalny Instagram via AP
A relaxed-looking Alexei Navalny posted a touching selfie embracing his wife on his road to recovery after being poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent — and thanked his “good unknown friends” for saving his life.
The 44-year-old Russian dissident was discharged Wednesday from a Berlin hospital, where he spent over a month after he fell ill from Novichock on a plane from Siberia on Aug. 20.
On Friday, Navalny said he owed his life to the pilots who made an emergency landing and the paramedics who he said had diagnosed poisoning and injected him with atropine, a drug used to treat nerve agents.
The Kremlin denies poisoning him and says it has seen no evidence.
“As far as I understand … the killers’ plan was simple: I will feel bad 20 minutes after takeoff, after another 15 minutes I will pass out,” Navalny wrote.
“Medical assistance will be guaranteed to be unavailable, and in another hour I will continue my journey in a black plastic bag on the last row of seats, terrifying passengers going to the toilet,” he added with his characteristic dark humor.
Navalny thanked the pilots for diverting to Omsk, despite a bomb warning that was called in to the airport there, according to Reuters.
He also praised the airport medical personnel and ambulance workers who “did not say any lies about diabetes, etc., but immediately clearly said: ‘this is toxic poisoning’ and gave me a dose of atropine.”
Their actions “simply gave me an extra 15-20 hours of life,” he wrote. “Thank you unknown good friends. You are good people.”
Conflicting accounts have emerged of when and where Navalny was administered the atropine, which medical experts have said likely saved his life.
Sources had previously told Reuters that paramedics gave him injections, but not of atropine, and that he received it later at a hospital in Omsk.
President Donald Trump has refused to condemn Russia over the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, saying he has not seen proof.
He said the case was “tragic” but urged reporters to focus instead on China, which he said was a bigger threat to the world than Russia.
Nato and Germany say there is “proof beyond doubt” that Mr Navalny was attacked with a Novichok nerve agent.
His team says he was poisoned on the Kremlin’s orders. Russia denies this.
On Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry suggested that if a Novichok-type nerve agent had indeed been used, it did not necessarily originate in Russia.
Mr Navalny – an anti-corruption campaigner who has long been the most prominent face of opposition to President Vladimir Putin in Russia – is in a coma in a Berlin hospital having been airlifted there from Siberia, where he fell ill.
What did Trump say?
Speaking at a press event on Friday, he said he had yet to see evidence of poisoning in the case.
“So I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic, it’s terrible, it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet but I will take a look,” he said.
He also stopped short of criticising Mr Putin and said Beijing posed a greater threat.
“It is interesting that everybody’s always mentioning Russia and I don’t mind you mentioning Russia but I think probably China at this point is a nation that you should be talking about much more so,” he said.
What is Nato’s position?
Tests at a military laboratory in Germany show “beyond doubt” the presence of a Novichok nerve agent, the German government and Nato say.
On Friday Nato called for Russia to disclose its Novichok nerve agent programme to international monitors. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said members were united in condemning the “horrific” attack on Mr Navalny.
Mr Stoltenberg said it required an international response, but gave no further details.
The US National Security Council has pledged to “work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable”.
What did Russia say about nerve agents?
The brief statement released by the foreign ministry on Saturday noted “multiple hostile statements made against Russia” over Mr Navalny’s illness.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in Mr Navalny’s case.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Germany had not yet shared any findings with Moscow prosecutors and said Russia had “nothing to hide”.
Meanwhile a toxicologist in Omsk – where Mr Navalny was initially treated after the plane he was flying on made an emergency landing – insisted no poison had been found by doctors who examined him there.
“Any external factors could have triggered a sudden deterioration. Even a simple lack of breakfast,” said Alexander Sabayev, chief toxicologist for the Omsk region.
What happened to Navalny?
He fell ill last month while on a flight from Siberia to Moscow.
The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk and Russian officials were persuaded to allow him to be airlifted to Germany two days later.
A nerve agent from the Novichok group identified by Germany in the Navalny case was also used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. They both survived but a local woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after coming into contact with the poison.
Britain accused Russia’s military intelligence of carrying out that attack in Salisbury. As part of a co-ordinated response, 20 countries expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats and spies. Russia denied any involvement.
Alexei Navalny is likely to survive his poisoning with novichok but his long-term prospects and chances of making a full recovery are unknown, the hospital treating him in Berlin said on Thursday.
The Russian opposition leader “continues to improve”, doctors at the Charitéhospital said. But they stressed: “Recovery is likely to be lengthy. It is still too early to gauge the long-term effects which may arise in relation to this severe poisoning.”
Both Skripals survived. Medics treated them with atropine, the antidote which is currently being given to Navalny. Yulia was discharged from Salisbury district hospital after one month, Sergei after two. Their current whereabouts and health status are unknown.
There have been three further recent novichok cases in the UK. They are PC Nick Bailey, who was contaminated when he visited the Skripals’ Salisbury home, and Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, who picked up novichok disguised in a perfume bottle. Sturgess died after spraying it on her wrists.
Rowley said he still had problems with general fitness and the vision in his right eye. “It’s more noticeable when I’m outside walking along the street. It still sends me off balance,” he said. “I get out of breath really quickly. I used to be able to run so far. Now I can’t even jog across the road without getting out of breath.”
He added: “There’s the mental health side of it as well. It’s something people just don’t think about. People think you get over it because it’s in the past but it’s like the trauma of it has left a scar on the inside.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical and biological weapons counter-terrorism expert, said several factors would determine a novichok victim’s fate. They included timely medical treatment, the level of exposure to the nerve agent and age and physical condition. Navalny is 44 – significantly younger than the 69-year-old Sergei Skripal.
“Navalny is getting the best support from German doctors. We know more about novichok than we did two years ago. It all depends on how big a dose he got,” De Bretton-Gordon said. He concluded: “It’s pure conjecture but he should make a reasonable recovery. Nerves do repair themselves.”
De Bretton-Gordon was sceptical that the novichok had been concealed in Navalny’s tea, and believes a dose of this kind would have killed him. Instead, he thinks it more likely the novichok was administered in a way that was similar to the method used in Salisbury. Two assassins working for Russia’s GRU military spy agency smeared it on the handle of Skripal’s front door.
According to Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian scientist who exposed the Soviet Union’s secret nerve agent programme, novichok was extensively tested in the late 1970s and 1980s. Mirzayanov worked at the Shikhany military research facility where the nerve agent was developed near the south-western city of Saratov.
In a memoir Mirzayanov revealed that one of his colleagues, Andrei Zheleznyakov, was accidentally exposed to novichok when a rubber tube ruptured and leaked in the lab. Zheleznyakov felt dizzy, reported blurred vision to his superiors and collapsed next to the metro station on his way home.
Doctors at the hospital where he was taken had no idea how to treat his symptoms. He lived. But Zheleznyakov suffered afterwards from poor health. “The poisoning robbed Andrei of his concentration, his regular job and his creativity,” Mirzayanov wrote, adding that his friend “lost his life to the very weapon he was creating”.
In contrast to Zheleznyakov, Navalny has been receiving sophisticated treatment which appears to be working. The Charitéhospital said on Thursday there was a “gradual recovery” in Navalny’s “cholinesterase activity” – a positive sign. Cholinesterase is an enzyme used by the nervous system to regulate the body’s basic functions.
Novichok inhibits its production. If cholinesterase levels are depressed victims suffer from multi-system problems, including in the heart and lungs. In severe cases this leads to death. Meanwhile, Navalny knows nothing about the substance which caused his collapse. He remained in a medically induced coma and was on a ventilator, the hospital said.
The Kremlin has dismissed accusations that President Vladimir Putin sanctioned the poisoning of critic Alexei Navalny.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the allegations were untrue and could not be taken seriously.
Doctors in Germany, where Mr Navalny is being treated, said he had “probably” been poisoned but Mr Peskov questioned why they had “rushed” to that opinion.
Mr Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow last Thursday.
His supporters suspect poison was placed in a cup of tea at Tomsk airport.
The flight of the arch-Putin critic was diverted to Omsk, where doctors treated him for three days before he was transferred to the Charité hospital in Berlin.
His condition is serious but not life-threatening, the Berlin doctors say.
Mr Navalny, 44, made his name by exposing official corruption, labelling Mr Putin’s United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves”. He has served several jail terms which he says were the result of politically motivated charges.
There have been a number of previous attacks on high-profile critics or opponents of President Putin, including politicians, intelligence officers and journalists. The Kremlin has always denied involvement.
What did the Kremlin say?
Mr Peskov said of the allegations of President Putin’s involvement: “We can’t take such accusations seriously. They absolutely cannot be true. They’re more like ’empty noise’, so we don’t intend to take them seriously.”
In response, Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, tweeted: “It was obvious that the crime would not be properly investigated and the culprit found. However, we all know perfectly well who he is.”
Mr Peskov said the diagnoses by both Russian and German doctors matched but the “conclusions differ”.
“We don’t understand why our German colleagues are in such a hurry. The substance hasn’t yet been established,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for a Russian investigation into the suspected poisoning. The UK also called for a “full and transparent” investigation.
Mr Peskov said one would only be launched if poisoning were definitely established as a cause.
What is Mr Navalny’s condition?
He is in intensive care and still in an artificial coma.
The Charité hospital says that “clinical evidence suggests an intoxication through a substance belonging to the group of cholinesterase inhibitors”.
The exact substance has not been identified. The inhibitors can be used to treat conditions like Alzheimer’s but can also be used in nerve agents. They block a crucial enzyme meaning that muscles, particularly those associated with breathing, can go into spasm.
Mr Navalny has been treated with atropine. The Kremlin says Russian doctors also noted lowered cholinesterase levels and administered atropine, but found no evidence of poisoning.
Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said she feared Russian doctors had delayed his transfer as authorities were trying to wait for evidence of any chemical substance to disappear.
Timeline: Navalny targeted
April 2017: He was taken to hospital after an antiseptic green dye was splashed on his face in Moscow. It was the second time he was targeted with zelyonka (“brilliant green” in English) that year. “It looks funny but it hurts like hell,” he tweeted following the attack.
July 2019: He was sentenced to 30 days in prison after calling for unauthorised protests. He fell ill in jail and doctors said he had suffered an acute allergic reaction, diagnosing him with “contact dermatitis”. His own doctor suggested he might have been exposed to “some toxic agent” and Mr Navalny said he thought he might have been poisoned.
December 2019: Russian security forces raided the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, taking laptops and other equipment. CCTV footage showed officials using power tools to get through the door. Earlier that year, his organisation was declared a “foreign agent”.
How have other critics fared?
A number of Putin critics have been targeted and not just with poison.
They include politician Boris Nemtsov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who were both shot dead.
Intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died after his tea was poisoned in the UK by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.
Journalist and opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza is still alive, but has alleged he was poisoned twice by Russian security services. He nearly died after suffering kidney failure in 2015 and went into a coma two years later.
Another Kremlin critic, Pyotr Verzilov, accused Russia’s intelligence services of poisoning him in 2018, when he fell ill after a court hearing, losing his sight and ability to speak.
Russian doctors treating the country’s most prominent opposition figure said on Friday that Alexei Navalny was not poisoned, as allies of the Kremlin critic suspect.
Instead, the 44-year-old is said to have been diagnosed with a metabolic disease caused by low blood sugar.
Alexander Murakhovsky, the head doctor treating Navalny in the Siberian city of Omsk, said traces of industrial chemical substances had been found on Navalny’s clothes and fingers.
Navalny is in a coma after falling ill during a flight to Moscow from Siberia on Thursday. Allies of Navalny have claimed something was put in his tea at an airport cafe.
A German air ambulance thought to have been sent to collect Navalny landed in Omsk on Friday morning, Reuters reported, citing flight tracking data.
Alexander Murakhovsky, chief doctor at Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1 where Alexei Navalny was admitted after he fell ill in what his spokeswoman said was a suspected poisoning, speaks to the media in Omsk on August 21, 2020.
DIMITAR DILKOFF | AFP via Getty Images
Navalny’s allies have accused Russian authorities of trying to block his medical evacuation, saying “every hour” of delay represents a “critical threat to his life.”
“The ban on the transportation of Navalny is only needed to stall for time and wait until the poison in his body can no longer be traced,” Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson, said via Twitter on Friday, according to a translation.
Yarmysh said doctors at the hospital were initially willing to authorize the transportation of Navalny until very recently. “This decision, of course, was not made by them, but by the Kremlin,” she said.
The Kremlin on Thursday said medical authorities would swiftly consider any request for Navalny to be moved to a European clinic.
Rights groups call for investigation
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at a joint press briefing on Thursday that they were both prepared to offer medical assistance to Navalny.
Merkel called for the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s hospitalization to be “cleared up very quickly,” while Macron said he was “extremely worried and saddened” by the news.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that the government would investigate if tests concluded Navalny had been poisoned, the state-run TASS news agency reported. When asked whether the situation was a special case given Navalny is a vociferous critic of Putin, Peskov replied: “The current government has many critics.”
Human rights groups have denounced the alleged poisoning of Navalny and called for an immediate and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the hospitalization.
“We are deeply concerned for the health of Mr. Navalny, and wish him a speedy recovery,” Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, said in a statement on Thursday.
A file photo dated September 29, 2019 shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in support of political prisoners in Prospekt Sakharova Street in Moscow, Russia. Alexei Navalny is unconscious in hospital after allegedly being poisoned according to his press secretary.
Sefa Karacan | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the alleged poisoning as “undeniably similar to incidents involving other hardline critics of the Russian authorities,” including the politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. and Pussy Riot punk band producer Pyotr Verzilov.
“Navalny himself became seriously ill previously during his administrative arrest a year ago. None of these incidents were investigated,” the group added.
In July last year, Navalny was hospitalized from a detention center, where he was held on administrative arrest after organizing peaceful demonstrations. Authorities said Navalny had suffered an allergic reaction, although the politician himself believes he was poisoned.
Navalny, like many other lawmakers in Russia, has frequently been detained by authorities and harassed by pro-Kremlin groups. In 2017, he was attacked by several men as they threw anti-septic in his face, damaging one eye.
A staunch critic of Putin, Navalny had campaigned to challenge the long-time leader in the 2018 presidential election, but he was blocked from standing for office.