MOSCOW — A pro-Kremlin propaganda film posted online before Russia’s 2018 presidential election smeared Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader now lying comatose in a German hospital after a poisoning attack, as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.
A former prime minister, the target of Mr. Navalny’s most vivid exposé of corruption, denounced him as a “political con man.”
For President Vladimir V. Putin, however, the anticorruption campaigner looms like Lord Voldemort, a figure from nightmares who, like Harry Potter’s archenemy, “must not be named.”
During more than 20 years in power, Mr. Putin has never publicly uttered the name of his most high-profile opponent, according to archives of his speeches and interviews on the Kremlin’s website. When he did say his name after prodding from an American interlocutor during a private event in 2013, it became a national news story.
Aside from references to Mr. Navalny included in official transcripts of news conferences, the Kremlin website deigned to use his name only last week — and thus acknowledge that Mr. Putin’s most relentless critic actually exists.
“There is a weird taboo. It is sacral, mystical,” said Dmitri Belousov, a former scriptwriter for state television who for years penned character assassinations of the Kremlin’s foes. Fearing arrest over past private interest in anarchism, Mr. Belousov fled Russia last year and is currently seeking political asylum in the Netherlands.
He said the targets of his television hit jobs — ordered up by officials in the Kremlin and produced with compromising surveillance footage provided by the security services — included Moscow’s former mayor, once seen as a possible rival to Mr. Putin, and the self-exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but it was Mr. Navalny who drew the most vicious fire.
“They really hate Navalny,” Mr. Belousov said, because “what he has done is completely out of their control. The Kremlin fights against any force that it cannot control, any opinion that it does not control. This is their guiding strategy.”
Another source of their anger, he said, was that the security services, despite years of hunting, could never find any compromising material on him.
The fight has continued even as their enemy lies in a coma in a German hospital. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with the nickname of “Putin’s cook” and a target of Mr. Navalny’s anticorruption investigations, said last week that he had purchased some of Mr. Navalny’s debts and would force him to pay up if given the chance.
“Of course, if Comrade Navalny gives his soul to God, then personally I do not intend to persecute him in this world,” Mr. Prigozhin added.
Even unconscious, Mr. Navalny has managed to needle the Kremlin and its allies. His organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, released a video on Monday that featured footage of Mr. Navalny denouncing corrupt pro-Kremlin politicians during a recent trip to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. He named 18 local legislators who he said had suspiciously intimate ties to a construction industry notorious for corruption.
On his flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Aug 20, Mr. Navalny fell violently ill and would probably have died had the pilot not made a swift emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where he was hospitalized for two days before being flown to Berlin for treatment.
German doctors say Mr. Navalny was poisoned. Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, dismissed this judgment as “empty noise,” and said Russia saw no reason to open an investigation into what had happened to “the patient,” a new moniker that recently joined “the gentleman,” “the person you mentioned,” “the defendant” and other terms that the Kremlin uses to avoid mentioning Mr. Navalny’s name.
The timing of the poisoning, following mass protests in neighboring Belarus over a disputed presidential election and weeks of street demonstrations in Russia’s Far East, has generated a swirl of speculation. Why, after so many attacks over the years on Mr. Navalny’s character and, in at least two instances, his person, did the threats suddenly escalate to what seems to have been attempted murder?
One popular theory is that the Kremlin, spooked by the protests to the west in Belarus and to the east in Khabarovsk, wanted Mr. Navalny out of the way to prevent him from mobilizing discontent closer to Mr. Putin and upsetting his plans for parliamentary elections next year.
An alternative theory, however, is that Mr. Navalny’s poisoning pointed not to the strength of a ruthlessly efficient system of repression but to the weakness of a system whose response to potential threats has become so degraded that the state no longer functions as a single unit but rather as a jumble of rival clans and freelance enforcers with grudges, like Mr. Prigozhin.
“Every element of the system acts according to its own logic, not in the interests of the system as a whole,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of a political analysis firm, R.Politika, and author of a recent article calling the poisoning the “act of a sickly regime.” “Poisoning is not the most effective way of dealing with an opponent. It is total idiocy.”
Adding to the confusion is the fact that, unlike the victims of several other baroquely horrific poisoning cases linked to Russia, Mr. Navalny has never been classified as a traitor, an enemy category that Mr. Putin holds in particular contempt and that he has said deserves no mercy.
Aleksandr V. Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital in 2006 after being poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope, was a former intelligence officer who broke with the Kremlin. Sergei V. Skripal, who was attacked in Salisbury, England, in 2018 with a nerve agent, was a turncoat former spy.
But the border between treachery in service of a foreign power and domestic opposition has grown increasingly blurred of late. “All domestic politics are now seen as a reflection of foreign threats,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council who was ousted from the body last year in a purge of independent-minded members. “This perception is not entirely new, but has reached unprecedented dimensions in recent years.”
She added: “The view that everything in the world is a battleground between great powers is the belief and religion of Russia’s ruling elite at the moment.”
While much of the world recoiled at video footage of riot police officers in Belarus violently beating protesters, Mr. Putin last week commended the police for their “restraint” against people whom Russian state television routinely describes as Western stooges or worse.
But at least some of the numerous attacks on Mr. Putin’s opponents over the years seem to have caused surprise and even shock in the Kremlin.
One of these was the 2015 killing of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and prominent Kremlin critic, in the heart of Moscow. Investigators said a hit man and four accomplices from Chechnya had carried out the killing, but they never established, at least for public consumption, who ordered it.
The most likely culprit, many believe, was the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Kremlin ally who has nonetheless enraged parts of the security apparatus by repeatedly taking the law into his own hands.
Mr. Putin and others in Russia’s ruling elite don’t so much fear Mr. Navalny, Ms. Stanovaya said, as despise him as a disruptive interloper.
“They are like residents of a luxury residential neighborhood who want to get rid of a tramp who starts sleeping next to their beautiful fountain,” she said. “Navalny is not part of their world, and they want him gone.”
Ms. Stanovaya added that Russia’s ruling elite — particularly former K.G.B. officers like Mr. Putin and many of his close advisers — see the opposition leader “as an instrument” used by Russia’s foreign enemies, “not as a rival or even a person.”
“Our country is run by the logic of the K.G.B.,” she said.
During the presidential election campaign in 2018 — a race from which Mr. Navalny was barred — a candidate who was allowed to run, Mr. Putin’s goddaughter Ksenia Sobchak, asked the president why “being an opposition activist in Russia means that you will either be killed or imprisoned” and whether this indicated that “the government is afraid of fair competition.”
Mr. Putin replied: “I assure you, the authorities are not afraid of anyone and have never been afraid of anyone.” He was re-elected to a fourth term with 77 percent of the vote.
The landslide victory was preceded by an all-out offensive on Mr. Navalny in state-controlled outlets and social media. This included a crudely defamatory video, posted anonymously on YouTube, with the title “Hitler 1945 /Navalny 2018” — WE CAN REPEAT THAT!”
The video, which featured doctored photos of Mr. Navalny wearing swastika armbands, was widely shared, setting off a torrent of mockery from Mr. Navalny’s fans and applause from his enemies.
The Kremlin, widely suspected of having commissioned the film, claimed that Mr. Navalny produced the video himself.
That Mr. Navalny has inspired such vividly improbable theories over the years is a measure of his success not only in getting under the skin of Russia’s governing elite but in messing with its head, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services.
His videos exposing the lavish lifestyles and apparent corruption of the pro-Kremlin elite, Mr. Galeotti said, have attracted huge viewership not only among rebellious youths and liberal intellectuals but also among members of the elite, who worry that some of Mr. Navalny’s information was leaked by rival factions within the leadership and that they could be next.
“Nobody inspires such hostility and fear as Navalny,” said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London and an expert on Kremlin decision-making. This, he added, means there is a very long list of potential enemies who might want him dead, or least incapacitated.
But, he added, Mr. Navalny is such a high-profile target that no one with a personal grudge would move against him without at least the tacit assent of Mr. Putin.
“It is like the mafia: Nothing can be done without the approval and guarantee of impunity of the boss,” he said. “I am not saying Putin gave a direct order to poison him, but nobody can act unless they are sure that the boss will be happy and won’t punish them.”
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.