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In Russia’s Arctic, Alexei Navalny’s mother searches for her son’s body

For the mother of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died at age 47 in an Arctic penal colony, the journey to recover her son’s body Saturday was an odyssey with no clear destination.

In the end, she didn’t get what she came for.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, 69, received an official note Saturday stating that the politician had died in prison at 2:17 p.m. local time a day earlier, Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson said Saturday.

Together with members of Navalny’s legal team, Lyudmila traveled to the town of Kharp in the Yamalo-Nenets region, some 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow.

It was there that Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service said Friday that Navalny felt unwell after a walk and fell unconscious. When Lyudmila arrived less than 24 hours later, officials said that her son had died from “sudden death syndrome,” said Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. He did not elaborate.

Navalny’s death removed the Russian opposition’s most well-known and inspiring politician less than a month before an election that will give President Vladimir Putin another six years in power.

Prison employees told Navalny’s mother Saturday that they did not have her son’s body. They said it had been taken to the nearby city of Salekhard, a little over an hour’s drive away, as part of a probe into his death.

When Lyudmila arrived in the town with one of Navalny’s lawyers, however, they found that the morgue was closed, Navalny’s team wrote on their Telegram channel. When the lawyer called the morgue, they were told that the politician’s body was not there either.

This time, Lyudmila headed directly to Salekhard’s Investigative Committee office. A small group of journalists watched as Lyudmila walked toward the office, dressed in a thick black coat as temperatures hovered close to minus 25 degrees centigrade (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit). Occasionally, she took the arm of one of those walking next to her as the group made their way along paths edged with thick piles of snow.

Here, she was told that the cause of her son’s death had, in fact, not yet been established, said Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh. Officials told Lyudmila that the politician’s relatives would not receive his body until they had completed additional examinations.

Initially, it seemed as if Lyudmila might head to another morgue. Instead, she returned to her hotel in the town of Labytnangi, another 30-minute drive. Navalny’s team, meanwhile, said they were still no closer to finding out where the politician’s body was being held.

“It’s obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body,” Yarmysh wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, after Lyudmila’s visit to the Investigative Committee office. The spokesperson also said that Navalny’s team “demand that Alexei Navalny’s body be handed over to his family immediately.”

Navalny, who had been serving a 19-year prison term since January 2021 after being convicted three times for extremism, has spoken several times about whether he might die while in custody.

After the last verdict, which Navalny believed to be politically motivated, he said that he understood he was “serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of my life or the length of life of this regime.”

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