Hidden harms and the death of Alexei Navalny

By Johnna Wellesley.

“Life makes no sense if you have to tolerate endless lies.” (Navalny)

The sudden death of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on 16 February 2024 in an Arctic penal colony was felt around the world. Responding to the announcement from the Federal Penitentiary Service, his wife, Yulia, addressed the Munich Security Conference and openly questioned the veracity of reports that her husband was dead. Without access to his body and forensic confirmation from trusted sources, she could not be sure. Amid widespread suspicion regarding both the whereabouts and condition of his body, Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, traveled 1900 kilometers from Moscow to demand the return of her son, only to be rebuffed. The subsequent death certificate recorded an official cause of death as ‘natural causes’.

The circumstances surrounding Navalny’s death raise several ethical questions: what justifies our sense of moral objection to the withholding of his (or any) dead body? Is the implausible and/or inaccurate determination of the cause of death problematic, and if so, for whom? The death of Alexei Navalny highlights our moral obligations to the dead and the implications for accuracy and truth-telling at a social and legal level.

There is an expansive literature examining the moral standing of the dead  (see 1, 2, 3). Historical arguments point to various harms (e.g., desire thwarting, deprivation, and interest impairment theories) to which the person who has died is potentially exposed. Someone’s posthumous status does not effectively neutralize their interests nor automatically isolate their interests from those of the living. Sociocultural and religious practices, as well as certain legal instruments, affirm that the moral interests of the dead are bound to and sustained by the living. Expectations of respectful and appropriate care for the dead occur at multiple levels—from the administrative conclusion of life to the humane care of their bodies to the respect of memory and legacy.

Customs and rituals related to mourning and remembrance reflect our commitment to honoring the dead, and they fundamentally reject acts that undermine humanity and legacy. In the case of Navalny, withholding information pertaining to the location of his body was a harmful extension of the institutional power stemming from his imprisonment. The physical separation from his body also created social and moral tensions where mourning was stymied, and the final account of his life was clouded in suspicion and fear. Whilst death may represent the biological end of a person’s life, their biographical significance continues. Navalny endures as son, husband, and father—among other meaningful roles—and the concealment of his body was morally injurious. Shock and sadness for his loss reverberated through the world, with memorial sites appearing spontaneously as unifying demonstrations of witness to his courage and resistance to the regime responsible for his death.

In London, for example, flowers, candles, tributes, and framed photographs layered the pavement leading to the Russian Consulate. Memorials of this kind often act as sites of manifested collective grief where people are symbolically drawn together. They offer opportunities for reflection and transformative healing that span social hierarchies and geographical limitations. For Russians at home, similar acts were regarded as expressions of open defiance with significant personal risk, effectively questioning oppressive mandates about the permissibility of grief—or who should be grieved.

Despite the eventual return of his body, the accompanying death certificate recorded an improbable cause of death, that of natural causes. Death certificates are essential legal documents for both individuals and populations. At a population level, specificity in determining the cause of death is considered crucial to epidemiological and public health initiatives and in the maintenance of accurate mortality records. At an individual level, death certificates act as verified records that finalize administrative aspects of a person’s life. Studies examining high levels of inaccuracy in determining the cause of death reveal a lack of procedural and clinical competence. One study in Vermont found that 51% of certificates had errors implicating the correct interpretation of the cause of death. Fictitious or inaccurate determinations not only misrepresent the final processes of the body but are an ethically problematic distortion (or erasure) of the memory of the deceased with far-reaching implications. Culturally embedded attitudes, including attitudes toward death, are contingent upon dimensions of social and political power that endorse what is openly recognized and acknowledged. Concealment or censure by medical institutions not only jeopardizes credibility but is a breach of clinicians’ professional commitments.

Accuracy in cause of death is more than a compassionate gesture toward good grieving. It provides a sense of finality for families to understand what has happened to their loved ones, accept the reality of their loss, and bear witness to their legacy. Navalny’s experience may seem unique to his political status, but some families are affected by similar issues where, for example, after stigmatized deaths such as suicide, coroners are less willing to give families access to their bodies. This is often explained as a wish to mitigate suffering caused by viewing a body that has undergone substantial change as a result of death, but is, at its core, a reinforcement of social control over the natural processes and consequences of dying.

Iskra Fileva suggests that the dead are owed only the truth, whereas the living we owe our respect. Navalny’s death, however, highlights the inseparable nature of truth and respect morally deserving for the dead from the living.

 

Author: Johnna Wellesley

Affiliations: University of Texas Medical Branch

Competing interests: None declared

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