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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Top Navalny aide attacked with hammer outside home in Lithuania

Leonid Volkov, the longtime chief of staff to Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov. 23, 2022. (Andrej Vasilenko/The New York Times)

By Paul Sonne

The chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died last month in an Arctic penal colony, was attacked with a hammer and tear gas outside his home in Lithuania’s capital late Tuesday, according to Navalny’s press secretary, who said the police and an ambulance had been called to the scene.

Leonid Volkov, who served as one of Navalny’s top organizers, was pulling up to his house in Vilnius when the attack happened. At least one assailant smashed his car window, sprayed him with tear gas and began beating him with a hammer, Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, said in a statement released on X (formerly Twitter) and in other comments she gave to Russian media.

Volkov survived the attack.

Photographs posted online by another top aide to Navalny showed Volkov conscious but injured, with a mark on his head and blood streaming from one leg. Other photographs showed the bashed-in window of his car, which was parked in a driveway in front of a children’s basketball hoop. Later in the evening, the aide posted a photograph of Volkov being loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

“He began to fight back with the car door and with his legs,” Yarmysh told the exiled Russian news outlet Meduza. “Therefore, they hit him where they could — on his legs.”

The identity of those behind the assault was unknown as of Tuesday night, and it was not immediately clear whether there was one attacker or more.

The assault on Volkov happened nearly a month after Navalny’s death in prison, in circumstances that have not yet been explained.

The opposition campaigner’s wife and aides accused President Vladimir Putin of Russia of murdering Navalny. President Joe Biden said Putin “and his thugs” were responsible for his death. The Kremlin has denied the allegations. The Russian prison service said Navalny had collapsed while taking a walk outside his cell.

The attack Tuesday night comes amid broader worries about the safety of those continuing Navalny’s work from abroad. Hours before the attack, Volkov was asked in an interview with Meduza about the main risks for Navalny’s organization. He replied, “The key risk is that we will all be killed.”

Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist who exposed the Russian intelligence unit behind a 2020 poisoning of Navalny in an investigation featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny,” issued a warning in Russian on X after the attack on Volkov. “The great terror of a small dictator has begun,” Grozev said. “Activists, journalists and simply free-thinking people — be careful. Don’t be afraid, but be careful. Don’t make things easier for brainless bandits.”

The Lithuanian police confirmed that a Russian citizen, whom they did not name, was beaten outside his home in Vilnius shortly after 10 p.m. local time, according to the Baltic news outlet Delfi.

“News about Leonid’s assault are shocking. Relevant authorities are at work,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement on X. “Perpetrators will have to answer for their crime.”

Volkov, a former software company executive who ran Navalny’s nationwide network of regional offices in Russia, fled to Lithuania in 2019 as Russian authorities cracked down on Navalny’s anti-corruption organization and opened criminal cases against his aides.

In recent days, Volkov had been leading calls for “Noon Against Putin,” a plan for Russians who oppose the president to show up together at the country’s polls at 12 p.m. on the last day of this weekend’s presidential election.

Before his death, Navalny had supported the idea as a way for Russians to register resistance without risking arrest. Volkov has called on Russians to execute the plan as a way to honor the opposition leader’s last wishes.

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