Lethal Neutrality: What do public opinion polls say about Navalny's death as a political event?

Despite being downplayed in state-controlled Russian media, Navalny's death was a shocking event for Russian society. This is indicated both by the scale of awareness and the speed with which the news spread. At the same time, paradoxically, the majority of those surveyed by three available polls on the subject say that it did not evoke any emotions in them. Similarly, between 40% and 50% of respondents did not express a definite opinion about Navalny's activities, while among those who did, negative assessments prevail. Active supporters of both pro-Kremlin and opposition narratives regarding Navalny are roughly equal in number. The demobilisation of authoritarian society is also evident in interpretations of the politician's death. Only 12% claim that Navalny was killed by the Russian authorities in prison, another 18% believe his death resulted from harsh conditions in prison, and just over half follow the official narrative of 'natural causes' of death. As was the case during the attempted assassination of Navalny in 2020, for a significant segment of society, recognising the Kremlin's responsibility for Navalny's death would mean the need to shift into opposition and enter a state of latent confrontation with the authorities. The desire to avoid such a choice, accordingly, leads to opting for a conflict-free version of the cause of death. At the same time, the struggle for the interpretation of Navalny's death is still to come, and this event is likely to have a long-lasting impact on political struggles and political mythology.

Death and its interpretation

The funeral of Alexei Navalny, who was killed in a penal colony on 16 February, was a significant event in Russian political life. Tens of thousands of people came to bid farewell to the politician in Moscow, and spontaneous memorials sprang up across the country and around the world (→ Alexandra Arkhipova, Yuri Lapshin: Spontaneous Sanctuaries). Navalny's name has not left the pages of international publications for more than a fortnight. At the same time, Russia's censored media paid minimal attention to both the murder and the funeral. For example, on the day of the funeral on 1 March, the evening newscast on Channel One did not mention the funeral at all, and the death of the politician on 16 February was only reported in the seventh segment, i.e. almost at the very end of the programme. 

Despite these censorship restrictions, the death of Alexei Navalny became the second most mentioned event in February, noted by 13% of those surveyed (the first was the Russian troops' offensive and the capture of Avdiivka, at 21%), according to the results of poll conducted by the Levada Centre. It is worth noting that 40% of respondents could not name a single event, i.e. Navalny's death was mentioned by one in five of those who responded. When asked directly, 78% of Russians said they had heard about Navalny's death; a quarter (24%) said they had heard 'a lot'. Among those who rely on the Internet as a source of information, this 'awareness' was 90%, but it was also very high among those who rely on TV for their information (76%). In a survey by the ExtremeScan project poll, conducted 19-22 February, similar figures were found: 73% knew about Navalny's death.

On 16 February, a group of researchers from the OpenMindInstitute (OMI) project conducted an online survey on their platform and analysed a sample of 8500 social media posts that mentioned Navalny. According to their data, by the evening of 16 February, 83% of Russians were already aware of the politician's death, which is in line with the Levada Centre's figures (for Internet users), but gives an indication of the speed at which the information spread, indirectly indicating its perceived importance. 

At the same time, 69% of those who responded to the Levada Centre said that they did not experience any special feelings after learning about the incident, which is not particularly consistent with the speed of dissemination of information about the death and, in our opinion, rather indicates the secrecy of respondents, i.e. their unwillingness to discuss the topic. Sympathy and regret were experienced by 17%, and negative emotions (shock, indignation, irritation, anger) by 9%. Among young and opposition respondents, these emotions are more common, occurring in 28% and about 50% of cases respectively. Among OMI respondents, however, several hours after learning about the death, a significant portion also did not express any emotions; 44% reported surprise, 40% expressed regret, 28% felt anger, and 22% experienced fear. Similar figures are provided by the ExtremeScan survey: 49% expressed indifference, 29% showed a degree of sympathy or outrage.

The majority of OMI respondents (59%) believe that official sources about Navalny's death should be trusted, while 41% do not trust them. Not surprisingly, opinions about the cause of Navalny's death vary considerably among these two groups. About 70% of respondents in the first group (40% of the total sample) believe that his death was caused by health problems — both related and unrelated to his time in prison — or an accident. In the second group, a third (14% of the sample) believed that he died from natural causes. A quarter of those surveyed (10% of the sample) believed that Navalny was murdered by the Russian authorities, while another group suggested that he was murdered by some members of the Russian elites, but without the approval of the top leadership (3% of the sample). 

In the sample as a whole, 12% believed that Navalny was murdered by the Russian authorities, and about 55% believed that he died of natural causes, but a third of this group (18% of the full sample) believed that his health problems were related to his time in prison. Thus, 30% of those surveyed were ready to hold the authorities responsible for the death of the politician to some extent. Additionally, 31% of the sample agreed with the statement that Navalny's death is disadvantageous to the Kremlin. Interestingly, despite the significant negative aura of propaganda surrounding Navalny throughout his years of activity, almost half (46% of respondents) agree that he was in prison solely for political reasons.

Navalny: the battle of narratives

Sociologists from the Levada Centre have been measuring attitudes towards Navalny since 2013. The politician's popularity peaked in 2020-2021, when only 12% of respondents said they knew nothing about him at that time. Approval of his activities was at 20% at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 (between the poisoning and the release of the film 'Putin's Palace'). However, by mid-2021, his approval rating had dropped to 13%. By that time, however, Navalny was in prison, the Anti-Corruption Foundation had been recognised as an extremist (and subsequently terrorist) organisation, and arrests had taken place among activists at Navalny's headquarters. All of this may have reduced the willingness of respondents to answer this question. Over the two years since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there have been important changes to this picture: while in February 2022 12% knew nothing about Navalny, in January 2023 this had risen to 23%, and in February 2024 it was 30%. This rapid forgetfulness looks unusual and may reflect a shift in the sample associated with the increased repressiveness of the 'climate of opinion'. In the ExtremeScan survey, however, recognition of Navalny was 85%. 10% expressed a willingness to vote for him if he were on the list of presidential candidates, and this figure was 20% among those under 30.

'In general, do you approve or disapprove of Alexei Navalny's activities?', 2013-2024, % of those surveyed

Nevertheless, in the Levada Centre survey conducted after the politician's death, 11% said they had a positive view of him, half said they had a negative view, 10% could not make up their mind, and 30% said they knew nothing about his activities. It should be noted that this is more than the share of those who were unaware of his death. In the OMI survey, 19% reported a positive view, 33% expressed a negative view, and half said they were neutral or had not thought about it. OMI analysts believe that the regime has succeeded in shaping a negative attitude towards the activities of the opposition politician. 

However, a question that highlights competing narratives around Navalny's activities provides a more nuanced picture. Equal shares of those surveyed (38% and 37%, respectively) chose the labels 'puppet of the West' and 'fighter against corruption', and equal shares also chose the options 'fighter for human rights' (28%) and 'traitor' (26%). Navalny's activities are associated with liberalism and democracy by 25% and 17% of OMI survey participants, respectively. Similar narratives are reproduced by those surveyed by the Levada Centre. Among those who approve of Navalny's activities, 31% said that they liked him because he told the truth, 28% because he was an oppositionist, and 19% because he fought corruption. People who had a negative view of the late politician were most likely to say that he was 'paid by the West' (22%). 

In an OMI question about Navalny's personality rather than his political activities, approximately half of respondents noted his 'determination' (52%), 'courage' and 'intelligence' (51% each), 'leadership' (50%) and 'charisma' (48%). Interestingly, these qualities were mentioned by about a third of those who said they had a negative view of Navalny. In other words, his leadership capital appears to be perceived as very high across different respondent groups.

Polls and authoritarian society

Thus, we observe a significant ambivalence in assessments and a struggle of narratives surrounding Navalny's personality. First, we see an extremely high sensitivity of the population to the news of his death. Second, the majority of respondents claim neutrality or express indifference. The percentage of negative assessments in the Levada Center survey exceeds the positive ones by almost five times, and in the OMI survey, it is slightly more than one and a half times. The shares of those who support pro-Navalny, opposition and Kremlin narratives about Navalny's activities are approximately equal. Navalny's leadership potential is rated highly, including by his opponents. Half of respondents say that Navalny was a political prisoner, while 12% believe that Navalny was murdered by the Russian authorities, and 18% believe that they are indirectly responsible for his death, having driven him to death through harsh prison conditions; more than half trust the official narrative of death from natural causes. This is roughly the picture of the sociological data at this point.

Public opinion surveys are an unreliable tool in conditions of strong repressive pressure, propaganda, and censorship. People who do not support the war and the regime are three to four times more likely to believe that it is unsafe for them to participate in polls; among those who do agree to participate the proportion of those who feel this way is about 40%. In these conditions, the probability of self-censorship (in the form of refusal to participate or avoidance of certain answers) is extremely high. At the same time, surveys give us a picture of an authoritarian society that must be treated with both caution and scrutiny.

In the picture we see in surveys related to Navalny's death, we can observe first of all a demobilisation that is very characteristic of authoritarian society. This is manifested primarily in the proportion of those who declare their indifference to the news of Navalny's death and to Navalny himself. As has already been noted, the scale of public awareness of this event and the speed with which this information spread, despite its suppression in the mainstream media, leave no doubt that it was perceived by society as extremely important, almost shocking. At the same time, as was the case, for example, with the announcement of 'partial' mobilisation, having experienced an emotional shock, the public avoided formulating any conclusions from this shock.

Within this context, the opposition's assertion that Navalny was killed by Putin may cause this demobilised part of society to reject it, as was partly the case with the attempted assassination of Navalny in 2020. We observe a similar situation when a portion of Russian society denies the crimes of the Russian army against the civilian population in Ukraine. In all these cases, recognising the accuracy of the information means, for this part of society, the necessity of entering a state of confrontation with the regime. However, they are not prepared to do so, and this unwillingness makes them vigorously deny the inconvenient interpretation of events. In other words, if, from the point of view of the opposition, Putin's responsibility for Navalny's death should encourage more people to move towards opposition, then in an authoritarian reality, the fear of confrontation with the regime will force the average person to deny the authorities' responsibility. It is not recognition of fact that leads to political conclusions, but on the contrary, blocking political conclusions leads to the non-recognition of fact.

At the same time, we can assume that the main struggle over the interpretation of the reasons for Navalny's death is still to come. This death itself will be a long-lasting event and will have a lasting impact on the political struggle and political mythology of Russia. The powerful energy of Navalny himself and the almost mythological narrative of his confrontation with the tyrant, which is framed, in addition, by the backdrop of imprisonment and unjust incarceration, will retain its potential for a long time. Under certain conditions, if confrontation with the regime becomes inevitable for the average citizen, it may become a catalyst for the radicalisation of anti-regime sentiments.