Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


What Feckless Americans Can Learn From Navalny’s Bravery

a photograph of Alexei Navalny standing outside amid a group of people.
Credit... Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
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Vladimir Putin’s Russia has just become even more bleak and soulless with the reported death in an Arctic prison of Aleksei Navalny, the 47-year-old dissident who showed immense bravery and humor as he tried to bring democracy to his homeland.

Navalny’s strength, resilience and courage contrast with the fecklessness of so many Americans dealing with Putin. From Donald Trump to Tucker Carlson, a remarkable number of American leaders and their mouthpieces roll over before the Russian president.

“Why do Trump and his congressional enablers want to further appease this Russian tyrant?” Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, asked after the news broke of Navalny’s death.

I hope Navalny’s example will fortify Americans and Europeans alike, for despite all our resources we have not shown a sliver of the strength that he did.

The most fundamental test of our fortitude is simple: Will the United States continue to support Ukraine as it tries to fight off Russian invaders? I hope Navalny’s sacrifice helps us find the will to stand up to Putin.

Navalny was Russia’s foremost dissident and opposition leader but also emerged as something of a Mandela of our age. Despite being poisoned and repeatedly punished with long bouts of isolation in remote prisons, Navalny stood unbroken. He continued to mock Putin and denounce the invasion of Ukraine.

His wit and refusal to bow to authority made him a Kremlin nightmare. Sent to the gulag, he mischievously attempted to unionize prisoners and guards alike.

As recently as Thursday, he appeared by video in a court hearing and jokingly asked for part of the judge’s salary. “Because I am running out of money, thanks to your decisions,” Navalny explained, referring to fines imposed on him.

No wonder Navalny is reported dead. So many brave Russians — journalists, lawyers, political figures — have died after challenging the authorities. It’s baffling how many Americans have responded in the opposite way, by acting as Putin’s poodles.

Tucker Carlson managed a 127-minute interview with Putin this month without even asking a single question about Navalny. It was such a softball interview that Putin professed exasperation at the deference and said he wished he’d been asked sharper questions.

Carlson even embarked on what seemed a promotional tour of Putin’s Russia, praising Moscow. “It is so much nicer than any city in my country,” he said. “It is so much cleaner and safer and prettier, aesthetically, its architecture, its food, its service, than any city in the United States.”

And the Moscow subway? “There’s no graffiti. There’s no filth. There are no foul smells,” Carlson said. “There are no bums or drug addicts or rapists or people waiting to push you onto the train tracks and kill you. No, it’s perfectly clean and orderly.”

And grocery shopping? It’s a bargain! Carlson goes shopping in Moscow, spends less money than he expects and says the experience radicalized him against America’s leaders. He doesn’t seem to understand that Russians spend four times as much of their income on food as Americans, and that prices are cheap because Russia is a poor country with a weak currency.

It is of course true that Moscow has a beautiful subway, and I’ve no objection to commentators pointing that out — or wondering aloud why American cities can’t have mass transit as nice. But it is profoundly troubling when American sycophants seem eager to whitewash Putin’s brutality, largely ignore his victims and score political points at home in ways that burnish Russian dictatorship and diminish American democracy.

(After news of Navalny’s death, Carlson seemed to pirouette. “It’s horrifying what happened to Navalny,” he told The Daily Mail. “The whole thing is barbaric and awful. No decent person would defend it.”)

Navalny’s daughter, Dasha, a student at Stanford, told me last year that she had had reservations when her father decided to return to Russia voluntarily in 2021 after Russian agents had apparently poisoned him and nearly killed him. He knew the risks he faced, yet he went ahead. “My personal preference would have been that he stayed with me,” she said. “But I never questioned his decision to go back.”

“I’m super worried about him always, as a daughter,” she added. “I have it in the back of my head that maybe he shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s what he’s passionate about, and for the greater good of the country.”

Today’s right-wing affection for Putin is an echo of the traditional myopia that ideologues have had for overseas dictators, including the left’s onetime fondness for Mao. Today’s version, led by Trump himself, is dangerous — witness Trump’s recent suggestion that he might invite Russia to attack NATO allies that did not pay enough for arms — and it’s also oblivious to Putin’s long history of brutality at home and abroad.

Putin solidified his grip on power in 1999, in the aftermath of several mysterious apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists and began a war in Chechnya that presented him as a decisive, tough patriot defending his nation’s interests. However, there have long been suspicions that the bombings were orchestrated by Russian security authorities themselves, to give Moscow an excuse to crack down. We still don’t know for sure, but my view and that of many others is that on balance the evidence suggests that the authorities were more likely to have planned the bombings than Chechen terrorists.

In other words, from the very dawn of his rule, Putin has been associated with repression, deceit and brutality toward his own people. Russia has also destabilized or attacked its neighbors, from Georgia to MoldovaEstonia and Ukraine, and according to the F.B.I. interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

That is the Russia that Navalny stood against. And that is the Russia that too many Americans have buttressed by opposing aid to Ukraine.

It’s natural to see the loss of Russia’s most important opposition figure as a sign of Putin’s commanding power, but I wonder if it isn’t also a sign of his insecurity.

A Russian dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza, wrote a few days ago in The Washington Post, “Even from a Russian prison, I can see Putin’s weakness.” And Navalny himself once said: “If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power.”

Those are words that Russians and Ukrainians alike should take to heart, but it’s also a message to American members of Congress and right-wing partisans who have become Moscow’s fellow travelers. May Navalny’s heroic sacrifice wake them up.

More on Aleksei Navalny

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