Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


In Death, Navalny Is Even More Dangerous to Putin’s Lies

A black-and-white portrait of Alexei Navalny rests on a monument of flowers.
Credit... Reuters
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This piece has been updated to reflect recent developments.

For most of the 12 or so years in which Alexei Navalny crusaded against the rule of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president tried to avoid mentioning his gadfly by name, even as he and his minions tried every which way, assassination included, to silence him. Yet when the news of Mr. Navalny’s reported death in a remote northern labor camp appeared on official Russian news sites, it included the detail that Mr. Putin, on a visit to the city of Chelyabinsk, had been “informed.”

Many official outlets also reported the reactions of officials in the West, and some on discussions in the Russian legislature, about how the United States and its allies in Europe would likely exploit Mr. Navalny’s death, possibly by imposing more sanctions.

This treatment of Mr. Navalny’s death — with the gravity usually reserved for a national crisis — flies in the face of the government charade that he was nothing more than a crook or could be discredited by calling him a terrorist, extremist and Nazi, as the trumped-up charges that sent him to the labor camp implied. Instead, the official reactions inadvertently confirmed what Mr. Putin had tried so hard to conceal: that Mr. Navalny’s ceaseless accusations of corruption and misrule were a serious political challenge to Mr. Putin’s dictatorial rule. And that in death, Mr. Navalny could become even more dangerous.

Unlike his Soviet predecessors in the Kremlin, who could draw on a universalist ideology to justify repression, Mr. Putin has had to build his personal rule on an illusion of democracy while fixing elections, bending the courts to his will and allowing massive corruption. Instead of criminalizing opposition as “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” Mr. Putin must combat principled dissent, like Mr. Navalny’s, with concocted labels like “foreign agent” or “terrorism.”

What made Mr. Navalny dangerous was that he broke through the lies. And that could make him an even more potent figure, a martyr. That is a risk to the Kremlin only a month before national elections, which Mr. Putin wants to portray as a ringing national endorsement of his rule and his war on Ukraine.

Mr. Navalny had denounced the invasion of Ukraine from the outset. “This is a stupid war which your Putin started,” he told a court in Moscow. Mr. Putin believed he could stifle opposition to the war by arresting critics or sending them into exile. Many of those opposed to the war were from the urban intelligentsia, not the provincial masses, who are generally more willing to accept the Kremlin’s propaganda, which blames the war on machinations by the United States or supposed threats by Ukraine.

Mr. Navalny spoke to resentments among ordinary Russians. His primary target was corruption, especially the self-enrichment of Mr. Putin and his cronies. He used folksiness, humor and courage, alongside an organization that produced a stream of slick, entertaining videos.

In one of them, made to prove that the Kremlin was behind his poisoning, Mr. Navalny reportedly impersonates a Russian security official to elicit information — a remarkable feat of investigative journalism in a police state. The videos about the palace built for Mr. Putin and the extravagant country estate of the former president Dmitri Medvedev were seen by millions. His condemnation of the ruling United Russia party as a “party of crooks and thieves” became an indelible slogan.

Though he tried to run for office and urged followers to vote against Mr. Putin, Mr. Navalny was not a politician. Initially a member of the opposition Yabloko party, he broke with it because he was willing to support any faction that opposed Mr. Putin, whatever its ideology.

He was a crusader — against corruption, against evil, against venality, and always against Mr. Putin. He revealed some of this in a series of published answers to questions posed by Boris Akunin, a popular Russian writer of mysteries who now lives in Britain and whose arrest was recently ordered in absentia by a Russian court for “justifying terrorism.”

Mr. Navalny spoke of his faith in God and science, of his love of literature, of his love of Russia. His favorite book, he said, was Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which he read at 10 or 11.

What, Mr. Akunin asked, is the greatest source of evil? “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is the inaction of good people,” Mr. Navalny replied. And what brings the most benefit? “Participation in the battle of good and neutrality.”

That was his credo, the impossibility of standing to the side while evil ran rampant. Russians at all levels understand these spiritual crusades. They have turned Russian writers and artists into the most powerful opponents of authoritarians and autocrats, echoing and answering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s challenge to “live not by lies.”

But while Mr. Solzhenitsyn and the dissidents of the Soviet era fought against a regime that denied freedom in the name of a utopian ideology, Mr. Navalny’s battle was against those who used the victory over Communism to accumulate power and wealth. “I can’t stop myself from fiercely, wildly hating those who sold, pissed away and squandered the historical chance that our country had in the early ’90s,” he said in one interview.

Mr. Putin and his cronies, many of them veterans of the old K.G.B., understood the threat Mr. Navalny posed. They worked hard to silence him or drive him into exile with endless petty arrests, harassment of his followers and, in 2020, an infamous attempt to murder him in Siberia with a form of the nerve agent Novichok.

But Mr. Navalny survived and returned to Russia the following year, knowing that Mr. Putin would probably send him to the labor camps in which so many of Russia’s greatest dissidents languished, and that he might well die in one. He has been imprisoned since 2021 and was shipped last year to a remote and notoriously brutal camp known as “Polar Wolf,” high above the Arctic Circle.

Still, he continued to speak out, through occasional visits from his lawyers or through his organization and his family. Mr. Navalny’s website has been campaigning to challenge any claims that the result of next month’s presidential election in Russia should be seen as a popular endorsement of Mr. Putin’s rule. “Let’s break his plans and make it so no one would be interested in the concocted results of March 17, but all Russia would see and understand that the will of the majority is that Putin must go away,” was the call.

It is too early to gauge the immediate consequences of Mr. Navalny’s death. Much of the organized opposition to Mr. Putin has been crushed through arrests or flights abroad. But the rise of a new martyr will give new force to the questions and accusations Mr. Navalny leveled, making it that much harder for Mr. Putin to sustain the myth of serving Russian greatness.

Mr. Navalny was not afraid of suffering, and chose to fight for what he believed in. “I believe in real love,” he told Mr. Akunin. “I believe that Russia will be happy and free. And I do not believe in death.”

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