MOSCOW — On the morning of August 20, Georgy Alburov was having breakfast at the Xander hotel in Tomsk. An employee of Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alburov had stayed in the Siberian city with three colleagues after Navalny’s departure for Moscow that morning, to gather material for the organization’s latest investigation into official graft.
Around 10 a.m., news emerged that Navalny had been taken ill, and that the plane carrying him to the capital had made an emergency landing in Omsk, another Siberian city. Alburov and his FBK colleagues, who had for years worked under President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic, immediately concluded that Navalny had been targeted by the state, Alburov said.
“We began debating what we should do,” he told the independent Russian TV channel Dozhd. “We’re familiar with the history of political poisonings in recent years. This could not have been anything else.”
Distrusting Russian investigators and law enforcement agencies, which have harried Navalny for years with frequent arrests and criminal accusations he contends have been fabricated by the Kremlin, they decided the best course of action was to gather all evidence from his room and deliver it to independent investigators.
They donned disposable gloves they had brought as a coronavirus precaution and took the elevator up to the hotel room Navalny had vacated that same morning, and which hotel staff had not yet managed to clean. “We were able to retrieve everything that, at the time, could have been linked to his poisoning,” Alburov said.
Berlin says that tests by Germany, France, and Sweden have confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with a poison from the Novichok group of military-grade nerve agents, and Western leaders have pushed Moscow for an explanation. But since Russia’s most prominent opposition activist fell ill, state media outlets have instead spun various theories about his incapacitation, advancing seemingly every idea short of the notion that he was targeted, as Alburov and his other supporters believe, by the Kremlin.
Claims peddled without evidence on TV talk shows and reports suggest he was poisoned by his own employees, or by Germany upon his arrival in the country, or that he wasn’t poisoned at all — an apparent replay of what critics say is a Kremlin tactic of sowing doubt that was honed as Moscow sought to deflect blame after 298 people were killed in 2014 when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over territory held by Russian-backed militants in Ukraine.
On September 22, in conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin allegedly spoke “with contempt about Aleksei Navalny, considering him a simple Internet troublemaker who had simulated diseases in the past,” France’s Le Monde newspaper reported.
In the meantime, Russia has balked at mounting a full-scale investigation, arguing that until Berlin provides Moscow with details on the opposition activist’s diagnosis, there is insufficient evidence of a crime. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
So as Navalny recovers, Alburov and his colleagues have been working to piece together what happened. Part of the task is gathering any items that could provide clues as to the ways in which the poison was most likely administered, and the moment it happened.
On the morning of August 20, they documented their search of Navalny’s hotel room by taking photos of the space and recording a video showing the evidence gathered, which was later posted to Navalny’s Instagram account.
One item in particular proved to be decisive: an empty water bottle. It was on one of those bottles that German military investigators later found traces of Novichok, according to official reports.
It remains uncertain whether the bottle had been laced with the poison, or Navalny had come in contact with the chemical elsewhere first. Vladimir Uglev, one of the scientists credited with developing Novichok in the Soviet era, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service the evidence suggested the poison had been put on something like a deodorant stick or electric toothbrush and was found on the bottle because Navalny then touched it before leaving the hotel room.
In comments to Dozhd, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said the FBK waited until the opposition leader was conscious before sharing details about how they had retrieved the water bottle from the Xander hotel.
“We needed permission from Aleksei [Navalny], and when we got it, we decided to reveal it,” she said. “Pretty much everything used by Navalny that could be taken from his hotel room was taken by our employees.”
She said the bottle with Novichok on it was transferred by Navalny’s aides, who traveled from Tomsk to Omsk upon hearing of his poisoning.
And while his aides worked to assemble incriminating evidence and urge an impartial investigation, Navalny himself, having only recently regained consciousness, chimed in to accuse Russia of secrecy and call on it to stop disseminating conspiracy theories and begin sharing what investigators knew.
In a blog post on September 21, he demanded the return of the clothes he wore on the day he was poisoned, which were taken away before he was flown to Germany. The post was published once 30 days had elapsed since his poisoning, the maximum period of time allowed for a criminal probe to begin.
“A month has passed and no investigation has been launched,” Navalny wrote. “But fine, I expected as much. I am now interested in one thing: my clothes.”
In later comments to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, an unnamed administrator at the Xander hotel said that she had allowed Navalny’s colleagues access to his hotel room because management feared he might have been poisoned by an item from its minibar.
“We decided to do them a favor and show them [the room]. Who knows, maybe it was food poisoning,” she said. “Life brings surprises.”