Russia After Alexei Navalny

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated an era of political reform in the Soviet Union by liberating political prisoners and internal exiles, including the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov. During the next three years, Sakharov presided as the moral leader of the democratic opposition in Moscow and spoke his mind from the rostrum of the Congress of People’s Deputies. On the eve of a major debate, he told his wife, “Tomorrow there will be a battle.” He went to his study to take a nap and never woke up. Sakharov had died of natural causes, a free man in a fleeting era of hope.

In 2020, Vladimir Putin set out to crush popular dissent in Russia once and for all, ordering his secret police to hunt down his nemesis Alexei Navalny, the eventual winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. For nearly a decade, Navalny had driven Putin to distraction, denouncing his regime as a “party of crooks and thieves.” He campaigned for high public office and employed open-source reporting techniques to uncover the gaudy corruption of the regime: the yachts, the planes, the villas, the billions stashed abroad.

Agents of the F.S.B. trailed Navalny to Siberia. They broke into his hotel room and, in a plot that might have been scripted by Gogol, spiked his underwear with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent. Navalny wore the poisoned garment aboard his flight home to Moscow and, sitting in seat 13-A, he soon found himself howling in agony, as his body began to shut down. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk. Somehow, Navalny survived. He was eventually flown to Germany and, with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, at his side, he came out of a medically induced coma and steadily regained his strength. But he declined permanent refuge in the West. Do not be afraid, do not give up, was his constant refrain, and he refused to betray his own counsel and principles. In January, 2021, Navalny boarded a flight to Moscow, knowing full well that his moral prestige represented an intolerable threat to the regime. Putin had him arrested at the airport.

At his trial, Navalny showed that he was worthy of the Russian dissidents of the past, men and women who risked everything to tell the truth, whether it was at show trials where the verdict was never in question or in samizdat manuscripts that were passed hand to hand. But Navalny, who preferred to see himself as a politician, was also distinctly modern. Rather than attack his persecutor in court with high-flown metaphors and allusions, he referred to Putin plainly, comically, as “this thieving little man in his bunker,” as “Vladimir, the Poisoner of Underpants.”

Part of Navalny’s appeal was that he evolved over time. He set aside the crude nationalism of his early rhetoric and learned to deploy both his courage and his humor. He came off not as a luftmensch, an ethereal intellectual, but as a grounded member of a hopeful generation: interested in freedom and prosperity. He even spoke of “happiness”––hardly a common term in the Soviet and post-Soviet political lexicon. His methods were entirely new. One of his earliest ventures into protest was as an activist shareholder; he used his small investments to uncover the ways some of the biggest Russian companies illegally enriched their Kremlin patrons.

Navalny knew how to talk to people on their level. He consumed many of the Russian classics and prison memoirs, but he also spoke of his affection for “Harry Potter” and “Rick and Morty.” In a letter written to his friend Sergey Parkhomenko shortly before his death, Navalny referred not only to the portrait of despair in Chekhov’s story “In the Ravine” but also to the no less gloomy late-Soviet landscape depicted in the popular film by Aleksei Balabanov, “Cargo 200.”

Last week, forty miles north of the Arctic Circle, at a prison camp known as Polar Wolf, Navalny was pronounced dead. Or, to call things by their proper name, he was murdered. The cause provided by the local prison authorities—“sudden-death syndrome”––was just an additional form of contempt and violence.

Speculative history can be hollow, and a country in need of martyrs and saints is not to be envied, and yet it is hard to overstate the loss of Navalny. Imagine the course of South African history had Nelson Mandela been killed on Robben Island. Or the fate of Czechoslovakia had Václav Havel been poisoned in his cell at Ruzyne Prison, near the Prague airport. Navalny was fearless, and a man of faith. When his friend Yevgenia Albats confided that she feared dying in exile, he told her, “There is no death.” And yet, as Albats said the other day, the loss is devastating: for now, at least, “hope is lost.”

In this moment, Putin’s self-possession can only be outsized. He is a few weeks away from winning another phony election. He senses that the war in Ukraine, which just entered its third year, is going his way and that the Republican Party and its standard-bearer have little interest in resisting that dark trend. Putin has every reason to think he is secure. Cruelty is his ultimate protection. There are hundreds more political prisoners languishing in his jails, including Vladimir Kara-Murza (who has been poisoned twice) and the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich.

Certain reactions in the United States to Navalny’s death have been clarifying. Tucker Carlson, freshly returned from a Moscow grocery store and Putin’s knee, hustled to express Russia’s allure to Glenn Beck. Donald Trump went on Truth Social not to send his condolences but to compare his self-inflicted troubles to Navalny’s killing. President Biden, for his part, was admirably direct in his response: he squarely blamed Putin for Navalny’s death, met with his widow and his daughter in San Francisco, and announced a package of further sanctions as punishment for the murder and for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In 2007, Putin went to the Munich Security Conference in order to unburden himself of his resentments against the West and to make it clear that he would carry out a politics based on that fury. Now, seventeen years later, at the same conference, Yulia Navalnaya exemplified the courage of the husband she had just lost and took the same stage. She stood tall. She refused despair. There will come a day, she insisted, that Putin will be called to account for what he has done to her family, for what he has done to Russia. “And that day,” she said, “will come very soon.” ♦

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