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Flowers and a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny that Lyudmila Navalnaya, mother of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, put to pay tribute to her son at the at the memorial to victims of political repression, in Salekhard, 1937 km northeast of Moscow, Russia on Feb. 20.The Associated Press

Last Friday, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin killed Alexey Navalny. It was done out of fear.

So accurate and unremitting was Mr. Navalny’s criticism of the Russian dictator’s regime, so ruthless was its exposure of the cowardice, corruption and brutality that lie at the heart of it, and so inspiring was it to the Russian people, that Mr. Putin pulled the trigger.

Not the literal trigger, of course. That would have required leaving the fortified security of the Kremlin. No, Mr. Putin finally succeeded in killing Mr. Navalny – after an embarrassingly botched poisoning attempt by his security forces in 2020 – with the help of corrupt courts, inhumane prisons, torture and, possibly, more poison.

It is heartening to see the United States government and others insist there is no doubt that Mr. Putin is responsible for Mr. Navalny’s death, and that sanctions will follow.

But while the Kremlin’s accomplices in the Arctic penal colony where Mr. Navalny was tortured and given mystery injections hide his body from his mother – no doubt buying time to erase the evidence of whatever it was that killed him and to make a proper autopsy next to impossible – the most important thing to focus on is Mr. Navalny’s message, and his Gandhi-like courage.

Mr. Navalny did not have to put himself in harm’s way. After his near-death experience in 2020, he was flown to Germany to recover. He could have stayed there with his wife and two children and continued to post videos exposing Mr. Putin’s oligarch-abetted plunder of the Russian state and his decimation of the basic human rights of its citizens.

But Mr. Navalny was a Russian patriot; a safe foreign harbour was no place for him. In January, 2021, he said goodbye to his children and flew with his wife to Moscow. Hundreds of people shouting his name waited at the airport to greet the man they considered to be the symbol of Russia’s freedom.

Authorities re-routed the plane to another airport, where Mr. Navalny was immediately taken into custody.

After a quick show trial, he was sentenced to two years in a prison infamous for its maltreatment of inmates. While there, he was sentenced to 19 years on fabricated charges of promoting extremism. In December, the state moved him to the Arctic gulag where he died.

Throughout his ordeal as a political prisoner in Mr. Putin’s Russia, Mr. Navalny never lost his smile, never gave up hope and never displayed fear. He and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, encouraged his followers to do the same.

The message he left for Russians in case of his death, recorded for a 2022 documentary made by a Canadian director, contained perhaps the most important words he ever spoke: “If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power not to give up, to remember that we are a huge power that’s being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we really are.”

Mr. Putin tries to project strength through cruelty and a smug indifference to human decency. His butchery of Ukrainian civilians, the torture of captured Ukrainian soldiers and the mass kidnapping of Ukrainian children are just part of it. He is equally cruel inside Russia’s borders, sending men to the front as cannon fodder, and jailing anyone who speaks even the mildest opposition to his illegal war, or who dares to publicly mourn Mr. Navalny’s death (some 400 people have been arrested for doing so).

But unlike Mr. Navalny, Mr. Putin lives in fear: of his own people’s strength, of the threat that they might rise up against him, and of the truths that could bring him down, such as the fact his people are among the poorest in the developed world.

He is also no doubt fearful of the fact that he simply may not be able to murder enough of his own people to preserve his hold on power.

History shows us that monsters like Mr. Putin, and the regimes they build, never last. One day, statues to him will be torn down and thrown in a junkyard.

Alexey Navalny, thanks to his uncrushable belief that Russia can be a free country again, is the person who will be remembered when that day comes.

For now, his most important legacy is that oppressed people, and those who support them, must never give up. As Mr. Navalny said in his final message, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.” And then he smiled.

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