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Special Report: In Germany's Black Forest, Putin critic Navalny gathered strength and resolve

IBACH, Germany (Reuters) - Just over two weeks after his poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny began to respond to the words of his wife Yulia and wake from a drug-induced coma.

As he emerged from what he would later describe as days of appalling hallucinations, he found himself in Berlin’s Charite hospital, where he’d been evacuated for emergency treatment on Aug. 22. He would later recount how he had to be lifted into a chair from his hospital bed and would sit with his mouth open, staring at a single spot on the wall.

In the months that followed, Navalny withdrew to a remote corner of the Black Forest. He used the time to drive himself back to physical fitness with intense workouts and take his war with President Vladimir Putin to a new level: targeting him directly, for the first time, with a video investigation into a lavish Black Sea palace.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen people who visited Navalny or communicated with him during his almost five months in Germany. They include financial backers, some of Navalny’s top lieutenants and German officials. These people recounted that Navalny never wavered in his single-minded mission to displace Putin, and never entertained staying in the West to wage his campaign from abroad. On the contrary, after concluding that Putin had personally ordered his poisoning, Navalny became even more determined to achieve his goal.

The interviews also shed light on how Navalny kept his political operations going during his brief exile and how supporters financed his emergency care. At least four Russian business and political figures living abroad provided crucial funding.

On Jan. 17, Navalny flew back to Moscow and was immediately arrested for alleged parole violations related to a suspended jail term in an embezzlement case he says was trumped up.

Fallout from Navalny’s poisoning and arrest has convulsed Russia’s relations with the West, already at a post-Cold War low, with Moscow raising the prospect of a rupture in ties with the European Union and the West weighing new sanctions.

Nationwide protests against Navalny’s detention attracted tens of thousands of people in the depths of Russia’s winter. But riot police hit back hard, detaining more than 11,000. Facing such a crackdown, it’s unclear where Navalny’s movement goes next. Some supporters worry it is losing momentum.

Putin, who makes a point of never uttering Navalny’s name, has said Russian state security agents would have “finished the job” if they had wanted to kill Navalny. The Russian leader has said accusations that he ordered Navalny’s murder are part of a U.S.-backed smear campaign targeted at him personally. The Kremlin has even questioned whether Navalny was poisoned at all and queried his sanity.

A HUMAN DUTY

In hospital, Navalny chronicled his slow recovery by posting pictures on Instagram. An image of himself with his wife Yulia smiling, climbing a staircase to train his muscles, resting on a bench outside.

German police kept a watchful eye. Navalny noticed a police officer guarding him in his ward 24/7, he told Russian blogger Yuri Dud in an interview. The German state confirmed it provided protection for Navalny, but appears to have paid for nothing else.

Other bills were picked up by wealthy Russian businessmen, most of them living outside their homeland having fallen out of favour with Russian authorities. These men don’t all share the same political views, but they agree on one thing: Russia needs a genuine opposition to challenge a president who has been in power too long.

Boris Zimin, the son of a former Russian telecoms magnate, confirmed to Reuters that he paid for Navalny’s medical evacuation to Germany, a cost of 72,000 euros. Navalny has said previously that Zimin, who lives in Israel, pays him an annual salary for legal work. This makes up most of Navalny’s 5,440,000 roubles ($73,500) annual income, Navalny has said.

“It’s important that Alexei has a legal and clear income,” Zimin said of the arrangement, likening it to a citizen paying taxation. “Society gives politicians funds to allow them to work. I don’t have close relations with him. We’re not close friends. He doesn’t owe me anything.”

Zimin first met Navalny more than a decade earlier. At the time, Zimin’s father was one of Russia’s most celebrated philanthropists. His charitable foundation, which provided grants to young scientists and mathematicians, closed in Russia in 2015 after the Justice Ministry branded it a “foreign agent,” or entity, because it banked abroad.

Three other prominent Russians told Reuters they paid medical bills estimated at up to 70,000 euros in total: London-based Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who made his fortune in mobile phones before falling out with Russian authorities; U.S.-based Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, and Roman Ivanov, an executive at Russian internet firm Yandex, who also now lives abroad.

Ivanov said he consulted with his wife before agreeing to transfer an undisclosed sum - “a fairly large amount but less than a third” of the total, he said - to Charite hospital. “I transferred money from my European account, which is registered with the Russian tax service, nothing secret. And in general, it seems to me that there should be no complaints against me. What have I done? I helped pay for a patient’s treatment. I didn’t finance the revolution, but helped to cure people.”

Ivanov said he doesn’t think of Navalny as “the ideal presidential candidate,” but “the same people shouldn’t sit in power all the time.”

Aleksashenko, once one of Russia’s leading liberal voices, said he “considered it my human duty” to make a financial contribution towards Navalny’s treatment. Chichvarkin, a long-standing supporter of Navalny, said the two men had a shared outlook. Chichvarkin left Russia in 2008 after law enforcement officials raided his company’s central Moscow office.

“IF I DON’T TRY, I’LL NEVER KNOW”

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After his discharge from hospital, Navalny resurfaced in mid-October in the Black Forest village of Ibach, set in a high valley. Locals told Reuters he flew in late at night by helicopter.

Navalny moved with his wife and son into an apartment in an upscale complex with views towards the Swiss Alps. Armed police guarded their new home.

Bjoern Leber, a 23-year-old physical trainer, was hired to help Navalny regain his fitness. Leber told Reuters he got the job when one of Navalny’s assistants walked into a gym in the nearby town of St. Blasien and asked for a trainer who spoke English and could keep a secret.

At the start, Leber said, Navalny “had lost a lot of strength. He barely could muster five push-ups, and they were shaky push-ups at that.” He struggled to get into a car.

The two men spent hours boxing, juggling and running. They also used a counter-current swimming pool in the basement spa.

“His motivation was enormous. When we were boxing, and he was genuinely shot, and I told him, ‘Come on, another three strikes,’ he gave me another three - or even five,” said Leber.

When not exercising, Navalny worked on his MacBook or went sightseeing. Villagers spotted him hiking or jogging. He was full of questions about German local government, said Ibach’s mayor, Helmut Kaiser.

Leber’s grandmother gifted Navalny a Black Forest cake, layered with cream and laced with cherry schnapps. Leber recalls asking Navalny if he thought it was a good idea to return to Russia. “If I don’t try, I’ll never know,” was the reply.

By early December, Navalny and his entourage moved to the old university town of Freiburg, near the French border. It was here that Navalny secretly worked on a feature length film with Vladimir Putin as its target. ‘Putin’s Palace’ would allege that Putin is the owner of a sprawling estate on Russia’s Black Sea coast. It was released on YouTube on Jan. 19, two days after Navalny’s arrest. The 112-minute film has since been watched at least 113 million times.

The central allegation - that the palatial residence had been built for Putin - had been reported before. In 2014, for instance, Reuters documented how two associates of Putin had profited from a program to buy medical equipment for the state and then sent money to Swiss bank accounts linked to the flashy property. Putin's spokesman denied he owned the property then, and continues to do so. here

The Navalny video, however, captivated the Russian public in part because of its slick production, aerial shots of the palace and 3-D mockups of its interior. When protesters took to the streets after Navalny’s arrest, some brandished gold toilet brushes - a mocking reference to one of the more outlandish luxuries alleged in the film.

Publishing an investigation into Putin personally was something Navalny had been weighing for some time, people familiar with his thinking say. But he worried about the consequences.

“Alexei used to say that when we write about Putin, it will be our last investigation,” said Ivan Zhdanov, a colleague. “But, of course, we will continue.”

Vladimir Ashurkov, a long-time associate of Navalny, has lived in London for almost a decade. He sought political asylum in Britain after Russian authorities accused him of embezzlement, a charge he denies and says is politically motivated. “Going after Putin isn’t easy,” he told Reuters. “With others you can look at offshore companies and accounts. Putin is careful.”

Ashurkov shared a Zoom dinner with Navalny and his wife a few weeks after Navalny regained consciousness, and he noticed a hardening of his friend’s resolve.

“As he became more and more convinced of the involvement of Putin in his poisoning, he became more and more focused on trying to expose” Putin’s actions, Ashurkov said.

This shift in mood was noticed by Christo Grozev, lead investigator of British open-source news project Bellingcat. Grozev interacted with Navalny on another investigation, around the same time as the Putin palace expose, that identified Navalny’s alleged poisoners as agents of Russia’s FSB intelligence. The Kremlin has dismissed the report.

“He had a strong hypothesis that nobody in Russia would have access to Novichok,” the chemical used to poison him, “without the consent of the Kremlin.”

Navalny shot and produced much of his video investigation about Putin at Black Forest Studios in the small town of Kirchzarten.

One of the studio’s owners, Nina Gwyn Weiland, told the local “Stuttgarter Nachrichten” newspaper that she had no idea who had hired the space until Navalny showed up. The staff was sworn to secrecy, she said. Navalny and his team, of around 20 people, worked long hours, unwinding at the end of the day in the studio bar. Contacted by Reuters, the studio declined to comment further.

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Navalny filmed segments elsewhere too. Notably in Dresden outside the apartment where Putin used to live when he worked for the KGB in the 1980s and in Berlin where Navalny visited the archives of the Stasi secret police to see Putin’s identity card.

In mid-December, Navalny declared his poisoning case solved.

“I know who wanted to kill me. I know where they live. I know where they work. I know their real names. I know their fake names. I have their photos,” Navalny said in a video, summarizing the findings of the Bellingcat investigation. “This is a story about a secret group of murderers from the FSB that includes doctors and chemists.”

A few days later, he announced he had phoned up one of his would-be killers and tricked him into disclosing details of the murder plot, including that poison had been placed in Navalny’s underpants. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm his assertions.

Russian authorities dropped unambiguous hints that he would be jailed if he returned. These included a move by state investigators to open a new fraud case against Navalny, a charge he denies.

MOSCOW IS MY CITY

Some of Navalny’s supporters hoped he would stay out of Russia, at least for a while, for his safety but they soon realized he was determined to return home as soon as possible.

Ashurkov, Navalny’s friend in London, said he wanted to plant the idea that Navalny “has options, that he can engineer a life outside Russia for a while, that he would at least consider it.”

“But when I looked at him and talked to him and started reading what he was writing, I understood that returning to Russia was his sole aim and there was no talking to him about this.”

Zimin, who paid for Navalny’s emergency flight from Siberia to Berlin, believes Navalny “understood that he had a path to remain in Germany and live a normal life. He had already achieved a lot. But he wouldn’t have the same influence. And he made his choice. It seems to me he made his choice before he even began to think about what might happen. He acted according to his principles and values, which prevailed over everyday concerns.”

A German official confirmed to Reuters that Navalny made no request to stay. “We didn’t receive an asylum request. He is a free man and he returned out of his own free will.”

Navalny used Instagram to announce his planned return to Russia.

“It was never a question of whether to return or not. Simply because I never left. I ended up in Germany after arriving in an intensive care box for one reason: they tried to kill me,” Navalny wrote. “Russia is my country, Moscow is my city and I miss it.”

Having made his flight details public, Navalny was accompanied by a gaggle of journalists on the flight, with his wife, to Moscow. Before arriving, his plane was diverted to another of the city’s airports to thwart his supporters who were waiting to greet him.

His arrest was swift. Four masked police officers intercepted him at passport control. Navalny, after kissing his wife Yulia on the cheek, walked away with them.

Two days later, Navalny’s allies released their Putin palace video.

At least nine of Navalny’s allies inside Russia were then detained one by one for what the authorities said were illegal calls for protests amid a pandemic. Some were put under house arrest, where they remain, cutting them off from the internet and their mobile phones. Others fled the country.

A couple of weeks later, a Moscow court jailed Navalny for nearly three years for parole violations, ignoring a Western outcry over his treatment and nationwide protests that had attracted tens of thousands in the middle of winter.

Some supporters wondered if he should have waited longer before returning, perhaps closer to parliamentary elections that are due in September, when the weather for protests would be better. Chichvarkin, the London-based ally who helped pay for Navalny’s treatment, said he counselled caution when he visited Navalny in the Black Forest.

“I advised him to wait because it was dangerous. But he’d already decided everything. It was useless,” he told Reuters.

Aleksashenko, the former deputy Central Bank chairman, said it was debatable whether the timing of Navalny’s return could have been any better. If Navalny had stayed in Germany, he said, six months from now “the Kremlin – and Kremlin media – would have said: Your team is in prison and you are hiding over there.”

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, based in Lithuania, said the timing of Navalny’s return was never in doubt.

“It was always clear that as soon as the doctors said it was possible for him to return, he would have to return. There was no strategizing,” Volkov told Reuters.

In recent weeks, Russian state media have sought to remind Russians of Navalny’s past flirtation with far right groups. In videos from 2007, Navalny likened militants in Chechnya to cockroaches and espoused deporting migrants, saying, “We have the right to be Russian in Russia and we will defend that right.” In 2008, when a short war broke out between Russia and Georgia, he insulted Georgians, calling them rodents. He would later offer a qualified apology. Navalny has moved away from such rhetoric in the last decade. Allies say these early comments were an attempt to form a broad-based anti-Kremlin alliance, which meant engaging with hardcore nationalists too.

In the latest legal jousting, on Feb. 20 a Moscow court found Navalny guilty of slandering a World War Two veteran. Navalny has said authorities are attempting to tarnish his reputation.

Funding for Navalny and his allies has surged, much of it in hard-to-trace bitcoin donations, according to data reviewed by Reuters. Bitcoin donations worth nearly $300,000 at current prices were received from Jan. 1 to Feb. 11, the data showed. At least two financial backers confirmed to Reuters that they have increased their regular donations.

Navalny’s supporters don’t expect any rapid change in Russia. Aleksashenko, who helped pay for Navalny’s treatment, believes only further mass protests can pose a real challenge to the Kremlin.

Leber, the personal trainer, said he sent Navalny a text message after his return to Russia and arrest. “Stay strong,” it read. There’s been no reply. “There are no cell phones in prison,” Leber said.

reporting by Sabine Siebold in Germany, Anton Zverev and Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Catherine Belton in London; additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; editing by Janet McBride

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