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In Navalny's final hours of freedom, he was calm, funny and watching 'Rick and Morty'

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia board the plane prior to flight to Moscow in the Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Schoenefeld, near Berlin, on Jan. 17, 2021.
Mstyslav Chernov
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AP
Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia board the plane prior to flight to Moscow in the Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Schoenefeld, near Berlin, on Jan. 17, 2021.

Updated February 16, 2024 at 3:36 PM ET

Three years ago, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world with his courage to return to his home country despite having been poisoned by a nerve agent linked to Russia just a few months earlier.

Upon his arrival, Navalny was immediately detained and later sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges including extremism, embezzlement and fraud — which many saw as a move by the Kremlin to thwart Navalny's political ambitions.

On Friday, Russian authorities announced that Navalny died while in a remote prison in the country's Arctic. He was 47.

Navalny was a relentless critic of President Putin. He boldly spoke out against corruption in the Kremlin and led nationwide protests with no fear of retribution.

Aside from his political fervor, Navalny was also known for his charisma, humor and down-to-earth nature. His affable personality was especially on display during his 2021 flight to Moscow from Germany, which many viewed as his last moments of freedom.

Navalny is surrounded by journalists inside the plane as he walks to his seat on Jan. 17, 2021.
Mstyslav Chernov / AP
/
AP
Navalny is surrounded by journalists inside the plane as he walks to his seat on Jan. 17, 2021.

Swarmed by reporters, Navalny stayed calm, polite and cracked jokes

On Jan. 17, 2021, flight DP 936 was packed with reporters and passengers filming Navalny and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya's every move. But he remained calm, polite and gently led his wife to their seats.

When asked repeatedly whether he was afraid of what might happen if he returns to Russia, Navalny responded with a positive attitude every time.

"I feel great. This is the best moment of the past five months," Navalny said in Russia, according to The Washington Post. (Navalny had spent the previous few months in Berlin recovering from being poisoned.)

"In Germany, it was also good, but returning home is always better," he added.

Later, a reporter asked what Navalny anticipated was waiting for him in Moscow.

"I expect wonderful weather," he joked.

When Navalny reached his seats, he poked fun at the fact that he and his wife were assigned the 13th row.

"I'm sitting in lucky 13!" he said.

Navalny and his wife Yulia sit in the plane and watch <em>Rick and Morty</em> together on Jan. 17, 2021.
Mstyslav Chernov / AP
/
AP
Navalny and his wife Yulia sit in the plane and watch Rick and Morty together on Jan. 17, 2021.

Navalny and his wife watched Rick and Morty on his laptop

Once the crowd dispersed to their seats, Navalny and his wife spent time on the flight enjoying Rick and Morty, an American animated show about the wild adventures of a mad scientist and his grandson.

The show was pulled up on Navalny's laptop, which he firmly placed on his lap for the two to watch.

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia sit on the plane on a flight to Moscow on Jan. 17, 2021.
Mstyslav Chernov / AP
/
AP
Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia sit on the plane on a flight to Moscow on Jan. 17, 2021.

Fast-forward to a month later, Navalny quoted Rick and Morty in Russian court, The Associated Pressreported.

"To live is to risk it all," he said, reciting a quote from the show. "Otherwise, you're just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you."

Alexei Navalny kisses his wife Yulia as he is detained by police at the passport control after arriving at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow on Jan. 17, 2021.
Mstyslav Chernov / AP
/
AP
Alexei Navalny kisses his wife Yulia as he is detained by police at the passport control after arriving at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow on Jan. 17, 2021.

Navalny kissed his wife before being taken away at the airport

Law enforcement awaited Navalny when he and his wife landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

In a final statement before he was detained, Navalny told reporters that all the charges against him were fabricated, adding that he was "not afraid of anything."

With officers eyeing Navalny, he briefly kissed his wife goodbye and walked off with a group of police, according to footage from various news outlets.

On Friday, Russian prison authorities said Navalny "felt unwell" after a walk in the prison yard and soon lost consciousness. Attempts to resuscitate him by emergency medics "failed to give positive results," officials said in a statement.

Prior to his death, Navalny's family members accused authorities of repeatedly denying him medical care and subjecting him to long, brutal stints in solitary confinement.

Navalny is survived by his wife, brother Oleg, daughter Daria, and son Zakhar.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 16, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the TV show Rick and Morty as Ricky and Morty.
Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.