Outside the hermetic world of the Kremlin and the Russian prison system, few could have foreseen the death of Aleksei Navalny on Feb. 16. His death sent shockwaves through the movement he led and the hearts of his close friends and family. In the days since, a beacon of hope for his disheartened supporters has been the pledge by his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, to carry on his work.

About a month later, Navalnaya sat down with TIME for an interview in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the Anti-Corruption Foundation is now based in exile. It was her first interview since her husband’s death, and over the course of two hours, she spoke about how her family is coping with their loss, how she has come to terms with continuing Navalny’s work, and what she intends to do in the face of Russia’s sweeping crackdown on dissent and its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which took place on April 1. It has been condensed and edited by TIME for clarity.

When did you last see Aleksei alive?

The last time I saw him was a few days before the war started. It was in 2022, around Feb. 15 or 16. He was still in Pokrov, in the first prison where he was sent. We weren’t allowed to visit him that often because he was constantly in solitary confinement. But when we were allowed, we always tried to coordinate so that his parents and our children could also come. And we’d all have lunch together. Then they would leave in the evening, and Aleksei and I would stay for another two days.

What do you remember about that visit?

The Olympics were on TV—the figure skating—and there were a couple of Russian women who were leading. They were competing against each other. Aleksei was never a big fan of sports. But since it was such a major competition, I made him watch the figure skating with me.

By that time, the Russian military had massed some 200,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, poised to invade. What did you and Aleksei talk about in relation to that?

Of course, we talked about it. The world, the West, the U.S., they were all warning, saying that war was about to break out. But honestly, at that time, it felt like Putin was just trying to scare everybody. I thought that was his style—to bring the situation to the brink, scare us, and then step back and retreat.

Why were you so sure he wouldn’t invade?

I thought Russians—that Putin wouldn’t dare do such a thing because nobody in Russia would support it. It’s like in our family, we have close relatives on both sides, close friends. We have families where the mother is Ukrainian and the father is Russian, or vice versa. You couldn’t imagine Putin taking such a risk. It was so common—to have relatives on both sides.

Aleksei himself has family in Ukraine, right?

Yes, of course, Aleksei’s father is from Ukraine.

After the full-scale invasion began, did you get a chance to discuss the situation with Aleksei? Maybe on the phone?

We didn’t have a chance to talk to him on the phone. Maybe once or twice, very briefly. But in prison, talking on the phone is not the same. I understood that the conversation was being recorded, and there were several [prison guards] sitting right next to him. Honestly, those were just calls to hear the voice of your loved one. And once in the summer, on my birthday, he somehow managed to get permission to have a phone call with me. But it didn’t work. He called, said, “Hello, hello,” and then the connection was cut off. That was the last time I heard him say “hello” to me.

In December, he was transferred to a new prison colony north of the Arctic Circle. By that point, were there talks about trying to secure his release through a prisoner exchange with the West?

I knew about those talks. I can’t really talk about them in detail simply because I wasn’t deeply involved in them. But I knew that they were happening.

He spent just two months in the Arctic prison camp before his death. During that time, you were able to exchange several letters with him through his lawyers. Did anything in those final written communications stand out to you, any sense of foreboding, any hints about what was to come?

Probably not. Of course, now, looking back, I can start interpreting things.

Such as…

Honestly, I’m not ready to talk about such details yet. Looking back, I’ve started to think about such things. But at that time, it was always very friendly and cheerful between Aleksei and me. So even if one of us wrote a sad letter, the other one would say, “Come on, now, you’re being too gloomy.”

We often exchanged notes about how if he was lucky enough to hear music on the radio instead of Putin’s speeches, he would write to me and say such-and-such a song is about me. The last song that he wrote to me about was very sad. I wrote back and said, “No, come on, that’s too much.”

What was the song?

I’m sorry, I won’t tell you that [ laughs ]. But music, in general, was a rarity. In solitary, there was a speaker directed at him, and most often it would just broadcast these speeches of Putin’s for months on end. Aleksei would describe it with humor, as he did everything. But in fact, it’s a form of torture.

What did this final song tell you about his state of mind?

Nothing particular. I was just surprised because he was always so cheerful. Even the day before he died, we saw him in court, and he was laughing. He was never depressed. But I think it was really tough on him. For the past two years, they were really torturing him. They were literally starving him. That’s probably the most horrible thing that I think about when I imagine how he lived in prison.

Let’s talk about that horrible day, Feb. 16, when we all learned about his death. I’d like you to walk me through that day, how you found out.

I had arrived in Munich the night before, for the Munich Security Conference. It wasn’t the first time I had been there. I had several meetings scheduled. I woke up in the morning and was preparing for a few meetings. The first one was around noon, and I glanced at my phone. Some notifications came in, and I saw headlines about Aleksei Navalny. There was nothing unusual about that because Aleksei had court hearings almost every day. So I’m used to getting notifications that start with the words “Aleksei Navalny.” And then I saw the third word. The third word said he had died. And then for about five seconds, I just looked away, and only then did the meaning of the word really sink in. I was in my room, alone.

What were you thinking?

It was hard to believe. Not that I didn’t believe it. But I felt like we needed to figure it out. The news was coming only from official Russian sources. I would call them propaganda, basically all of them. So I decided that first we needed to understand what had happened, and only then could I allow myself to start crying and feeling.

It’s hard to describe what I felt. It’s a feeling that I can’t describe and that I hope I will never experience again in my life. At first, I wanted to pull myself together. Lesha’s mom called me and said she was flying to the colony. I agreed that she should go there. We had some hope that maybe it wasn’t true, that it was some kind of mistake.

Lesha’s mom behaved like a real hero there. She is a real hero. There is nothing more horrible in life than to walk around for a week knowing that your son has been killed and you can’t get his body. The people who were responsible for this were just mocking her. They were blackmailing her. They were saying that they wouldn’t give her the body, that they would bury him right there in the camp. It was awful. Aleksei’s mom went through all of that with dignity and still managed to achieve what she set out to do, which was to get Aleksei’s body released.