He fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow and the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk. Two days later, Russian officials allowed him to be flown to Germany for treatment.
BBC Russia has put together a story about how a flight attendant and medics fight to save her life over the skies of Siberia. It’s a dramatic two-hour timeline of that perilous journey.
How the incident started
It was August 20, and Alexei Navalny took an airline flight S7 from Tomsk to Moscow. He didn’t eat or drink anything all morning – other than a cup of tea he bought at Tomsk Bogashevo airport, according to his press secretary Kira Yarmysh.
Another passenger on the flight, Ilya Ageev, saw Navalny drinking tea about an hour before the plane took off. The Kremlin critic smiled and joked with fellow passengers who knew him.
08.01 UTC time in Tomsk
During the first half hour of the flight, Navalny began to feel unwell. The flight attendant distributes water to the passengers, but she refuses. He then got up to go to the toilet.
08.30 Tomsk time
A plane passenger wanted to use the toilet, but Alexei Navalny had been in it for 20 minutes. Other passengers began queuing to use the toliet.
8:50 am Tomsk time
At this time all four flight attendants on the plane realized that their passengers were not well.
09.00 Tomsk time
A few minutes later, a flight attendant made an announcement asking if any of the passengers were doctors on the plane. The passengers are now starting to realize that the situation is serious.
The rest of the cabin crew alerts the pilot and tries to provide first aid to Navalny.
His assistant, Ilya Pakhomov, walked down the hall asking for medical help. One woman, who has not been identified, said she was a nurse.
For the next hour he and the flight attendants focused on keeping Navalny conscious until the pilot could make an emergency landing, according to S7 airline.
“He didn’t speak a word – he just screamed.”
Sergey Nezhenets, a lawyer, sits in the back row near where Navalny is being treated. He was scheduled to transfer to Moscow before flying to Krasnodar in southern Russia.
“I started to notice what happened when a flight attendant asked about the whereabouts of a passenger who was a doctor on the plane,” Nezhenets told BBC.
“Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced that they were going to land in Omsk, because a passenger was sick. I only realized that the passenger was Navalny when we landed, when I checked Twitter and saw the spokesperson’s post.
“A few minutes after the announcement about the doctor, Alexei started groaning and screaming. He was clearly in pain. He was lying on the floor in the section of the plane reserved for cabin crew. He didn’t say a word – he just screamed.”
That’s when a nurse offered medical assistance, he explained.
“I don’t know what they are doing, I can’t see it,” he said.
“But I heard them keep saying ‘Alexei, drink, drink, Alexei, breathe!”
“When he groaned we all felt better, because we knew he was at least alive. I stress, at the time I didn’t know it was Navalny.”
Two of Navalny’s assistants stood nearby; one of them is press secretary Kira Yarmysh.
“She is very anxious,” Nazhenets said.
“The medics asked what happened to him and Kira said: ‘I don’t know, he might have been poisoned’.”
08.20 UTC time in Tomsk
The crew moved quickly to request permission to make an emergency landing at Omsk, the airline said, and that permission was granted immediately.
It took 30 minutes for the plane to land after the passengers were notified there was an emergency landing.
But the cabin crew “kept checking the windows and complaining that, because it was so cloudy, it took longer to land while Alexei was very unwell.”
The attorney heard vomiting sounds as they urged him to drink.
Is his stomach pumped?
The chief doctor at Omsk airport, Vasily Sidorus, refused to confirm or deny this. All he said was “There is everything.”
Should they suspect food poisoning, the crew may have tried it, said Israeli intensive care expert Mikhail Fremderman.
“But that won’t help in cases of poisoning with organophosphorus compounds, which the Germans are talking about right now.”
And if Navalny’s food or drink has been poisoned, vomiting will pose a risk to those who offer medical assistance, as well as those who clean the plane later.
09.01 UTC time in Tomsk
At 09.01, Omsk time, the plane landed.
09.03 UTC time in Tomsk
Airport medics immediately boarded the plane two minutes after it landed.
As soon as they examined Navalny, the medics said “This is not our case – he needs intensive care,” Nezhenets said.
He then heard one of the medics calling the ICU ambulance. They were asked to go straight to the landing area, stressing that the patient was in serious condition.
Then, he heard a medic explain what color the plane was and tell the ambulance driver to park the ambulance near the stairs.
“We waited 10 minutes until finally the ambulance arrived,” he said.
“While waiting, the doctor checked Navalny’s blood pressure and gave him an IV – but I thought it was clear to them that it was pointless.”
Sidorus said that he did not take care of Alexei Navalny himself, but that his colleagues were also trying their best to save his life.
“It is very difficult to understand what happened, because he could not speak,” he said.
“They did what they could, saved someone’s life and made sure he was transferred to a proper hospital.”
The passengers we spoke to believe that medics spent about 15-20 minutes checking Navalny on the plane.
09.37 UTC time in Tomsk
He was then dropped off the plane and put into an ambulance, which headed straight for Omsk No. 1 Emergency Hospital.
The plane then refueled and, after half an hour, continued on to Moscow, Nezhenets told BBC.
“When we landed at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, several policemen and men in police clothes got on the plane.
“They asked the passenger who was sitting in the line closest to where Alexei was sitting, while the others were free to leave. Alexei was sitting somewhere in the middle of the plane, line 10 or 11.”
It’s strange to see the police on the plane. “At the time, the case didn’t look criminal. However, here are the security services.”
“Poisoned with Novichok”
For two days, the hospital in Omsk treated Navalny in the acute poisoning department. Initially they did not allow him to be flown to Germany, citing his unstable condition.
However, on August 22, he was flown to the Charité clinic in Berlin and two days later German doctors said their tests showed he had been poisoned.
Doctors in Omsk, including the doctor at the No. 1 Emergency Hospital and the head of the toxicology section, insisted that no toxic substances had been detected in Navalny’s body when he was treated by them. They call metabolic disease a potential alternative diagnosis.
BBC Russia asked Omsk health authorities for a detailed response to Navalny’s hospitalization, but received no response.