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Alexey Navalny is in a coma and doctors aren’t sure why ‘Meduza’ reports from on the ground in Omsk, where Russia’s most prominent opposition politician is fighting for his life

Source: Meduza
Maxim Karlaev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On August 20, Anti-Corruption Foundation founder Alexey Navalny was hospitalized at an intensive care unit in Omsk after his plane from Tomsk to Moscow was forced to make an emergency landing when he became violently ill. The opposition politician’s condition is serious: at the time of this writing, he’s in a coma and connected to a ventilator. Navalny’s aides say he was almost certainly poisoned, though the circumstances of this alleged attack remain unknown and the substance potentially used is still a mystery. At Meduza’s request, Omsk journalist Vasily Epanchintsev, a reporter for Gorod55, visited the hospital where Navalny is being treated to learn more about what has happened. 

“His condition is stable but serious”

“He said he wasn’t feeling well and asked me for a napkin to dry the sweat from his forehead. He asked me to start talking because he wanted to focus on the sound of a human voice. I talked to him for a bit and later the cart came through with water for us. I asked him if the water would help and he answered no, saying he probably needed to go to the restroom. He got up and went and later lost consciousness,” Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, told Ekho Moskvy. Other passengers on the plane heard Navalny moaning in pain (there’s now footage online where you can listen to the disturbing sounds for yourself).

The aircraft made an emergency landing in Omsk, where an ambulance drove right up to the plane’s boarding ramp. They loaded Navalny into the vehicle and brought him to a local toxicology center not far from the airport. The facility is known as the main hub in Omsk for treating patients in need of emergency care, though online reviews posted by former patients are full of complaints about lousy service, poor conditions, and how it’s better luck to be hospitalized at the nearby Kabanov City Hospital, where the care is apparently much better. 

About an hour after Navalny was hospitalized, around 10:30 a.m., local time, Omsk’s regional Health Ministry commented officially for the first time about his condition, calling Navalny a “well-known blogger” and stating briefly that he was receiving ICU treatment “at one of the city’s hospitals.”

The hospital set up a press center in its gym, placing blue plastic tables between scaffolding and a volleyball net, spacing out everything as a coronavirus precaution. Journalists weren’t the only guests: representatives from local government ministries started arriving, as well. By this time, Navalny’s local supporters had already called the police to the hospital in an effort to compel the doctors to disclose what they knew about his condition. 

The doctors put Navalny on a ventilator as a precaution, “fearing the worst,” sources at the hospital told the local news outlet Gorod55. He was breathing on his own when this happened. 

Around 1 p.m., the hospital’s deputy chief doctor, Anatoly Kalinichenko, first addressed journalists. By then, Navalny was already in a coma. Dr. Kalinichenko struggled to communicate clearly with the reporters and bloggers assembled at the hospital. “I can inform you that the patient is in our care. His condition is serious but stable. There are several diagnoses that are being ruled out and confirmed… There is no certainty that the cause of his condition is poisoning. Naturally, poisoning is being considered as one of the possible reasons,” Dr. Kalinichenko said, stumbling over himself as he spoke.

The physician declined to answer any clarifying questions, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, and refused to say if Navalny’s life was in danger, though he promised that a diagnosis would be reached by the end of the day.

As journalists waited for the next press conference, the conversation turned to confusing reports circulating on Telegram, where pro-Kremlin channels began writing that Navalny had imbibed excessively the previous evening. Meanwhile, his aides categorically deny any late-night revelry and insist that he was poisoned for political reasons. The release of a video recorded aboard Navalny’s flight where his moaning is audible led to additional speculation about what might have caused his sudden illness. 

By 2 p.m., the first picketer arrived outside the hospital to protest the apparent attack against Navalny. He wore a medical mask and carried a sign with a protest poem featuring verses like “You won’t escape this disgrace / Not you or your gang, your grace.” 

“A cautious, good prognostic sign”

“Thank God, we have a specialized center for treating such patients. Doctors are honestly working now to save his life… Until the patient is discharged, there’s always some danger to life,” explained Anatoly Kalinichenko at his second press briefing, again refusing to answer any questions from journalists. 

Meanwhile, agents from the Federal Security Service and the Investigative Committee arrived at the hospital and police officers started patrolling the facility. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, noted that even the ICU was “packed with police.” Despite this onslaught of law enforcement, the hospital staff tried to go about their work normally. Ambulances were still pulling up outside the emergency room every five or 10 minutes. 

The journalists at the hospital next turned their attention to a statement by Navalny’s personal physician, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, who stressed the urgent need to transfer Navalny to either Hanover or Strasbourg. Back in Moscow, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov promised the Putin administration’s cooperation with any medical evacuation, if Navalny’s team were to make such a request. Anastasia Vasileva, another of Navalny’s personal doctors and an activist in her own right, says she’s already asked for the Kremlin’s assistance in this.

Amid talk of a transfer, the presence of a single unoccupied ambulance parked outside the hospital led journalists and Navalny’s supporters to speculate that officials were planning to move the politician. Dr. Kalinichenko quickly dispelled these rumors: “There are no such plans. The patient is receiving all the care he needs at our facility. Nothing more is required at the present time.”

Speaking to reporters again, Dr. Kalinichenko also noted that Navalny’s condition was serious but stabilized. It was a “cautious, careful, good prognostic sign,” he explained, adding that his team of physicians had consulted with top federal specialists, who allegedly approved of their actions. 

Around 5:40 p.m., the hospital’s makeshift press center closed shop. The next update on Navalny’s condition wouldn’t be made until 10 a.m., the next day, following morning consultations about the patient’s status.

Yulia Navalnaya and Ivan Zhdanov, August 20, 2020
Alexey Malgavko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

“Unevacuable condition”

The moment Alexey Navalny’s sudden illness was reported, his wife, Yulia, lawyer and political ally Ivan Zhdanov, and “Doctors’ Alliance” leader Anastasia Vasileva rushed to the airport in Moscow and boarded a plane for Omsk. When they arrived at the hospital, however, they weren’t allowed to see Navalny. Officials first refused to admit them due to “a lack of security clearance.”

When Yulia Navalnaya demanded access to her husband, the hospital said it couldn’t permit it until she produced their marriage certificate. Hospital staff also maintained that Navalny had not “consented” to her visit — a peculiar condition, given the patient’s comatose state. For hours, Navalnaya, Vasileva, and Zhdanov were also denied an audience with Alexander Murakhovsky (the hospital’s chief physician and a member of Russia’s ruling political party), who was supposedly busy “in a meeting.”

“I don’t know what kind of doctors there are here, but it’s an ordinary ER facility and the equipment needed to examine the toxins that could have poisoned Navalny are nowhere nearby,” complained Kira Yarmysh, after the hospital ended its contact with journalists for the night. 

An hour later, Navalny’s wife and colleagues were finally permitted to speak to Dr. Murakhovsky, and Navalnaya was at last allowed to see her husband. Afterward, regional health officials in Omsk even distributed a special announcement to local reporters from Murakhovsky stating that Navalnaya was “satisfied with the results of her meeting with her spouse.”

But the hospital’s supervisors nevertheless rejected Navalnaya’s main demand to transfer her husband to another facility. His doctors say moving him now is impossible for medical reasons. “It’s the hospital’s position that his condition is unevacuable,” Ivan Zhdanov explained on Twitter. A source familiar with Navalny’s diagnostic results told Meduza that moving him now could aggravate his current condition. Navalny’s colleagues at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, however, say they’re certain that officials want to keep Navalny in Russia only because they’re trying to conceal any traces of poisoning.

Around 8:30 p.m., Navalnaya, Vasileva, and Zhdanov left the hospital. Roughly two dozen of Navalny’s supporters remained outside the facility, not far from a parked police unit. One activist picketed near the building, holding a sign listing recent assassinations in Russia: “Starovoitova, Politkovskaya, Nemtsov… Navalny?” along with the hashtag “#WeKnowWhoIsToBlame.”

By 9:30 p.m., the hospital grounds were completely empty. Navalny’s supporters say they plan to return to the facility in the morning when the next update about his condition is expected.

Despite the Omsk doctors’ promises to release the information before the end of the day, Alexey Navalny’s diagnosis is still a mystery. The regional Health Ministry has however stated officially that “there are no data to suggest he suffered a stroke or a heart attack and no data indicating any infectious lesions, including coronavirus infection.” Meduza’s source with access to these diagnostic results confirmed that the cause of Navalny’s illness remains unknown. 

Story by Vasily Epanchintsev in Omsk with additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter in Moscow

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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