Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


Alexei Navalny’s moral courage should shame us all

The Sunday Times

It was difficult to pinpoint one’s emotions when news came through of the death in custody of Alexei Navalny. Contempt for the tyrant who ordered the assassination, scorn for the calculus through which this cowardly act was conceived and shuddering anger at the stooges and useful idiots who enable Putin’s murderous regime, not least Tucker Carlson, this era’s Lord Haw-Haw, who had spent the week posting slick videos claiming that the repressive hellhole of modern Russia is an enlightened, wealthy, harmonious utopia.

But there was another emotion too: admiration of a rare kind for the man who had died, having endured God only knows what hardships in an Arctic corrective facility known as Polar Wolf. A man who had battled for much of his adult life to expose the excesses of the regime and who continued his campaign, even after a horrific poisoning, because he was so driven in his convictions. Think about that for a moment: Navalny could have lived a life of minor celebrity and comfort in exile, but he opened himself up to false imprisonment and the risk of murder by flying back to the homeland in January 2021. The Book of Matthew says: don’t hide your lamp under a bushel. Navalny used every device at his disposal to highlight the corruption of Putin, Medvedev and the network of crooks who surround them.

Moral courage — that is what I am getting at here: the willingness to encompass personal risk on behalf of a bigger ideal. This was once considered a central aspect of the qualities required for leadership. Henry V rode at the front of his troops, just as Boudica personified the martial spirit of the Iceni. George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S Grant, and Dwight D Eisenhower were all wartime generals, gaining kudos from their service. These leaders may have been fighting a foreign enemy, unlike Navalny, who risked his life exposing an inner one, or Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in prison to end the evils of apartheid, but they all faced danger on behalf of what they believed.

It is something we once had here, too. In his excellent book Chums, Simon Kuper reminds us that Harold Macmillan was seriously wounded three times in the First World War. “Once, after being hit in the knee and pelvis, he lay in a shell hole for 12 hours, medicating himself with morphine, playing dead when Germans came near and reading Aeschylus in the original Greek. Yet in 1916 he refused his anxious mother’s suggestion that he apply for a safe staff job.” Churchill was nearly killed on the Belgian front after volunteering for the Royal Scots Fusiliers, aged 41. Clement Attlee fought at Gallipoli, where he was one of the last men out of the Suvla sector, and was wounded in Mesopotamia while bravely running ahead of his troops. Anthony Eden won the Military Cross for carrying back a wounded sergeant from no man’s land under German fire.

Alexei Navalny was attacked with green antiseptic in 2017 and poisoned in 2020. Still he stayed in Russia
Alexei Navalny was attacked with green antiseptic in 2017 and poisoned in 2020. Still he stayed in Russia

I doubt anyone today would make military service or personal suffering a requirement for leadership, nor would we want our leaders to physically go into battle as they once did, but the reverence for moral courage expresses a subtle political logic. Nassim Nicholas Taleb summarised it in his book Skin in the Game. Talk, he notes, is cheap. It is therefore easy to be drawn in by a silver-tongued leader who proclaims patriotism and waves the flag, but who — behind closed doors, when power has been achieved — plunders the coffers or exposes countrymen to risks he’d never be prepared to confront himself.


Hasn’t this been the Achilles’ heel of societies throughout history? In political debate we often ponder the rate of taxation or role of the state, failing to notice that there have been successful societies with many different levels of taxation and sizes of public sector. The true danger for a society is elite capture, whether by the 17th-century Hawaiian god-kings who lived lives of extravagance while the islanders suffered or the modern-day African strongmen who cultivate images as men of the people while siphoning off millions into Swiss bank accounts.

Wasn’t this the lesson of Navalny’s life, too? Didn’t he die to expose the kleptocratic tendencies of modern Russia, contrasting his own moral courage with the grotesque parody of patriotism portrayed by Putin, whose gold embossed toilets in his billion-dollar Black Sea palace were built off the backs of his countrymen, many of whom live in abject hardship? The economist Paul Gregory described the theft of Russia’s mineral wealth by political elites in cahoots with FSB operatives and oligarchs as “the largest single heist in corporate history”.

Again, you might think: why does any of this matter these days? Surely the standing of a political leader in a modern, technocratic society should be based on their judgment in office, not whether they faced bullets (or nerve agents) in their formative years. But this fails to grasp the wisdom of Taleb and ancient thinkers like Socrates. People who take risks on behalf of the public good are not likely to betray it on attaining power. Yes, we should select leaders on the basis of intelligence and judgment, but if they have no skin in the game, how can we be sure they will deploy these traits to serve the public interest rather than their own? “Courage”, Taleb points out, “is the only virtue you cannot fake.”

And doesn’t this capture the essential predicament of the West: that as we have become more sophisticated, we have squandered this wisdom? Where George Washington risked his life for the emerging republic, congressmen today parlay their political connections into obscene wealth in cahoots with lobbyists who swarm the capital and whose numbers have rocketed over the past 30 years, tracking almost precisely the collapsing public trust in government. The American economy continues to grow, but the gains are now captured by a parasitic class of corporate and political interests while median incomes stagnate.

We see an echo of this in the UK, too, where recent prime ministers have been more likely to have spent earlier years in public relations than public service. VIP lanes, the Downing Street parties, Greensill, the Zahawi affair and the endemic use of the revolving door are all indicative of a moral fracture between the political class and those they profess to serve. High-profile politicians used to resign when things went wrong, conscious of an acutely personal responsibility to the public interest; now they are practised in the art of self-justification, obfuscation and the other techniques that the public have come to regard as inextricable aspects of the political process itself.

And that is why Navalny’s life doesn’t just highlight what has gone wrong with Russia but offers a rebuke to the West, too. I am not saying that leaders today must have taken personal risks, whether in the military or anywhere else, but I do suggest we need a re-evaluation of the rules and norms that govern public life; perhaps above all a recognition that politics should be about public service, a vocation, an act of self-sacrifice rather than self-enrichment. For too long we have foolishly put our trust in the superficial, the smooth, the groomed, the honeyed, the dubiously plausible, forgetting that in politics, as in life, it is the integrity expressed through courage that matters most.

Towards the end of Skin in the Game, Taleb writes: “Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk. If you do not take risks for your opinion, you are nothing.” They are words that perfectly capture the life and example of Alexei Navalny.

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