The sudden death of Alexei Navalny, charismatic Russian opposition leader and political prisoner, was no surprise. The enemies of Vladimir Putin have a way of dying, whether shot like liberal leader Boris Nemstov or blown up in planes like erstwhile Putin ally and Wagner Group chief Evgeniy Prigozhin. But it was nevertheless a shock, a reminder of the violent nature of Putin’s rule, marked by oppression at home and aggression, including war, abroad.

Alexei Navalny had lots of critics. Many Ukrainians and even some fellow Russian dissidents regarded him as a Russian nationalist. But Navalny’s fame, and possibly the source of the Kremlin’s hatred of him, was his ability to capture Putin’s corruption and make it visible in lurid infamy. Navalny’s 2021 documentary, “A Palace for Putin,” featured riveting production values that hold a viewer in rapt attention as the film lays out in detail the gross self-indulgence of Putin’s tacky residence in southern Russia, a sort of Versailles-meets-Mar-a-Lago. Navalny and his team made the corruption real. Having done so, he indicted the whole Putinesque system as a means to enrich itself while ordinary Russians continue to struggle. Navalny had the talent of a natural politician: able to connect with people on basic issues.

Navalny also had courage. After medical treatment in Germany for poisoning, another Kremlin method of intimidating or killing its enemies, he returned to Russia knowing the risks. Imprisoned dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza showed that same courage, returning to Russia despite pleas from his friends, myself included, that he was in danger. Navalny and Kara-Murza both rejected the option of a comfortable life in exile. Both felt that their duty to their country and their best hopes for that country required them to return to it, sharing the privations and risks that every Russian is subject to. That degree of moral and physical courage is both astounding and, in the longer run, hopeful. But Navalny is now dead and Kara-Murza is vulnerable to whatever punishment the Kremlin feels like dishing out.

At this point, it is not quite possible to term Navalny’s death an assassination. But the suspicion is reasonable. If it was murder, why now? Russia’s next presidential “elections” are scheduled for mid-March. Putin will win them of course, but an opposition candidate, the relatively low-key Boris Nadezhdin known for appearing on state TV panels as a sort of token liberal, entered the race as an avowed anti-war candidate and seemed to have captured a great deal of grass roots support. Two days before Navalny’s death was reported, Kara-Murza published an op-ed in the Washington Post that took Nadezhdin’s sudden prominence as a sign of cracks in supposedly solid pro-Putin Russian society. The regime, as expected, found technical reasons to invalidate Nadezhdin’s candidacy. Yet Nadezhdin’s rise may well indicate, as Kara-Murza suspected, that Russian society is tired of Putin’s wars and Putin’s corruption.

If Boris Nadezhdin’s brief but sudden prominence indicated weakness in Russians’ support for Putin, the Kremlin might well have wanted to rid itself of the most charismatic, politically capable opposition leader and to do so before the elections. The regime still has most of the guns. But the pressures on the Putin regime are visible for all to see.

The war in Ukraine is costly in Russian lives and, unless the U.S. Congress fails to come through, Ukraine can keep resisting the Russians on land while pushing them hard with rocket attacks. Russia’s economy has been mobilized for war, but if Putin doesn’t win the war soon, the economic pressures may be unsustainable. Whatever fancy supermarket former Fox News host Tucker Carlson visited in Moscow, when he was there two weeks ago for his infamous interview with Putin, Russian living standards are not doing well. Unsuccessful war, economic stagnation, and political stasis was at the heart of the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire in 1917, something Russian dissidents inside and outside Russia know well.

All that is of little comfort to Alexei Navalny’s family, or to Vladimir Kara-Murza’s. But the cause of a better Russia for which Navalny gave his life and Kara-Murza risked his, is neither a lost nor impossible cause.

IMAGE: People leave flowers during a vigil for Alexiei Navalny in front of the Russian Embassy on February 16, 2024 in Munich, Germany. The death of Russian opposition politician, Alexi Navalny, 47, was announced this morning by the Russian Prison Service. He is survived by his wife, Yulia Navalnaya and two children. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)