Our Voices

Alexei Navalny Wrote Letters to Kerry Kennedy: An Interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper

Alexei A. Navalny, Russian opposition leader and activist, was killed in the remote Russian prison known as Polar Wolf on February 16th. Throughout his life, he stood bravely against oppression and corruption, and the letters he sent from prison were another example of his continued resistance and courage. On February 20, Kerry Kennedy joined CNN’s Anderson Cooper to discuss letters she received from Navalny while he was in prison.

Navalny was arrested shortly after he returned to Russia from Berlin where he had been recovering from a nearly fatal poisoning attempt largely blamed on the Russian government. Though he knew he faced arrest the moment he stepped back on Russian soil in 2021, he made the choice to return because he could not give up his country or his beliefs, stating that “If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.” His arrest led to a series of protests across the country, as did his death. These protests have led to an increased government crackdown, with over 366 people detained since Navalny’s death.

While in prison, Navalny was forced to live in a 7 by 10 foot concrete cell with meager rations, and long stints in solitary confinement. Despite these conditions, Navalny continued to read and to reach out to family, friends, and supporters via hundreds of letters and, when possible, social media. His letters, which reveal his curiosity and resolve, are one way that Navalny’s supporters say his “legacy will live on.”

Books became a source of solace for Navalny and he boasted of reading 44 books in English in a year. Among the books he read was Bobby Kennedy: the Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye, a book, he told Kerry Kennedy in a letter, that made him cry “two or three times.” “It was a personal revelation to me,” he wrote, “reading this book and understanding the story of RFK.” Navalny’s insatiable curiosity and a desire to “share his views” will be, according to Kerry, one of the “outstanding accomplishments of his life – his dedication to democracy, for free expression.”

Kerry responded to Navalny’s letter by sending a signed poster of her father that he said he hoped to hang in his office one day, the words a continual inspiration and a parallel to Navalny’s own life. The poster was inscribed with these famous lines from Robert F. Kennedy’s Ripple of Hope speech in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

In her conversation with Anderson Cooper, Kerry calls Navalny’s death a “terrible tragedy,” praising him as the “Mandela of Russia” and “of the world really because he carried forth the vision of accountability for crimes, of stopping corruption, and, most of all, free expression, and of bolstering civic space.” Kerry galvanized listeners, stating that “we owe it to him to take action, not to just let this moment go.”

Seizing the moment and taking action is exactly what the team at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights continues to do. “We work on civic space – the ability of people to criticize their government without fear of oppression,” she told Cooper, and we help to hold governments accountable for their actions. If the world had held Putin accountable for the poisoning of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko or the poisoning of Navalny, or when Putin committed atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, or in Crimea, “Navalny would be alive right now,” Kerry argued, and “he might be alive if we had sent Ukraine the funds that it needs right now so desperately to stop the Russians.”

Furthermore, she stated that we need to be concerned about Navalny’s lawyers and the opposition political figures who are “thrown in jail simply because they’re supporting Ukraine.” It is time, she said in a LinkedIn post following this interview, that the United States “increase sanctions on Russian oligarchs who profit from corruption” and “demand the release of political prisoners detained for condemning the war in Ukraine or for laying flowers commemorating Navalny’s life.”

She says all of us can take action by supporting the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization Navalny founded.

Navalny’s letters are being amplified by his wife Ulia to “carry his most subversive message yet – that his courage and his anger should live on” as a ripple of hope to those fighting oppression. In one set of letters sent to Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Navalny wrote, “I understand that I am not the first, but I really want to become the last, or at least one of the last of those who are forced to endure this.”

“Hope,” Navalny wrote in a letter to his friend Mr. Feldman, “I’ve got no problem with it.”