Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, recently sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of extremism, has penned an essay from his prison cell harshly criticizing a broad range of Russian public figures widely considered to be democratic reformers, activists and journalists.
In the essay, titled “My fear and loathing” and published on his website, Navalny traces the emergence of Vladimir Putin’s regime and Russia’s descent into autocracy from Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s political leadership in the 1990s. He starts by quoting Fear No Evil, a book by Soviet-Israeli activist and pollitician Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in various prisons during the 1980s and 1990s as a refusenik:
“In the introduction (I remind you, the year is 1991), Sharansky writes that it is in prisons that the virus of free-thinking persists, and he hopes that the KGB will not find ‘an antidote to this virus.’ Sharansky was wrong. The antidote was found. The antidote that now, in 2023, seems to have more political prisoners in Russia than in the Brezhnev-Andropov times. What has the KGB got to do with it? There was no creeping or overt coup in our country led by people from the special services. They did not come to power by pushing the democrat reformers out of power. They did it themselves. They called them themselves. They invited them themselves. They taught them how to fake elections. How to steal property from entire industries. How to lie to the media. How to change laws to suit themselves. How to suppress opposition by force. Even how to organize idiotic, stupid, talentless wars.”
Navalny goes on to detail the reasons for his self-described “hatred,” pinning it on the lack of interest in democratization from Russia’s political elites during the initial years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the methods used to keep the Communist Party from returning to power in 1996:
“That is why I can't help it and I fiercely hate those who sold, drank, and wasted the historical chance that our country had in the early 90s. I hate Yeltsin and ‘Tanya and Valya’ [Tatyana Yumasheva and Valentin Yumashev], [Anatoly] Chubais, and the rest of the corrupt family who put Putin in power. I hate the swindlers, whom we used to call reformers for some reason. Now it is very clear that they did nothing but intrigue and take care of their own wealth. Is there any other country where so many Ministers of the ‘Government of Reforms’ became millionaires and billionaires? I hate the authors of the most stupid authoritarian constitution, which they sold to us idiots as democratic, even then giving the president the power of a full-fledged monarch.
I especially hate everyone for the fact that there was not even a serious attempt to remove the basis of lawlessness — to carry out judicial reform, without which all other reforms are doomed to failure. I am studying this a lot now. In 1991, the RSFSR adopted a good concept of judicial reform, but already in 1993, counter-reforms aimed at building a judicial vertical began. At that time, all political forces wanted honest courts. There was a complete consensus in society. If an independent judiciary had been established, a new usurpation of power would have been impossible or very difficult. So make no mistake: the thing that is now dashingly handing out 8-15-20 year sentences to innocent people started to be built long before Putin. Now it is clear: no one in the Kremlin and the government of the 90s wanted an independent court. That's because such a court would have been a barrier to corruption, election fraud, and the transformation of governors and mayors into irremovable princes.
I hate the ‘independent media’ and the ‘democratic society’ that provided full support for one of the most dramatic turning points in our new history — the fraudulent presidential election of 1996. Again, I was an active supporter of all this at the time. Not election fraud, of course — I wouldn't have liked it even then, but I did my best to ignore it, and the general unfairness of the election didn't embarrass me even for a bit. We’re now paying the price of thinking — back in 1996 — that election fraud is not always a bad thing. That the end could justify the means.”
The essay then goes on to compare Russia’s experience to that of other Eastern European countries following the end of the Soviet Union, as well as the corrupt nature of the people in power in Russia at the time:
“I hate the entire leadership of Russia, which in 1991 (after the putsch) and in 1993 (after the shooting of the parliament) had absolute power and did not even try to make obvious democratic reforms. For example, what was done in the Czech Republic (where there is now a democracy and an average salary of 1 760 euros), Poland (democracy and average salary of 1 680 euros), Estonia (democracy and an average salary of 1 810 euros), Lithuania (democracy and an average salary of 1 959 euros) and other Eastern European countries. Of course, different people were in power then. Good people, honest and sincere too. However, this tiny minority, whose desperate and unsuccessful struggle only shows us even better the corruption and shamelessness of the power elite back then.
It was not with Putin in 2011 but with Yeltsin, Chubais, oligarchs, and the entire Komsomol-party gang that called themselves ‘democrats’ that we went not to Europe, but to Central Asia in 1994. We exchanged our European future for villas of ‘Tanya and Valya’ [Tatyana Yumasheva and Valentin Yumashev] on the ‘millionaires' island’ of St. Barth. When Putin's KGB/FSB officers got free access to political posts, they didn't have to do anything. They just looked around and exclaimed in amazement: Wait, was that allowed? If the rules of the game are like this, so that it is possible to steal, lie, falsify, censor, and all courts are under our control, then we will have a pretty good turnaround here.”
Navalny closes out the piece by criticizing multiple public figures often considered as opposed to Vladimir Putin, and cautioning against aligning with them politically in the pursuit of reform:
“What I have written about the 90s is not a historical exercise, reflection or meaningless complaining. It is the most important and most urgent issue of political strategy for all supporters of the European path and democratic development. I was impressed by the large collection of different opinions about our investigation of [former Echo of Moscow radio chief] Alexei Venediktov and [former presidential candidate and media personality] Ksenia Sobchak. They received tens and hundreds of millions of rubles from the budget fund, which served as a common fund for the United Russia party. Venediktov received 550 million right at the time when he was in charge of the observation headquarters and directly organized the theft of votes. He was the face, the agitator, and the monitor of electronic voting, the purpose of which is to take your vote and put it in the stack of the United Russia party's candidate.
Let's all join the United Russia then. We'll create a fraction of hardcore Sobyaninists (that's what I call them), the basis is already there. Every hero of the ACF investigations will be immediately justified by the Dream Team: Ksenia Sobchak (one, two), Alexei Venediktov, Maxim Katz (one, two, three), and Kirill Martynov, a former Nashi activist and now head of Novaya Gazeta for some reason. Everything will be fine. There will be plenty of money. We, solid Sobyaninists, demand: immediately take the bad Putin away from us and give us the good [Segei] Sobyanin and [Mikhail] Mishustin, [Igor] Shuvalov, and [Maxim] Liksutov.
So don't doubt it. Tomorrow we will have a new chance — that window of opportunity, and tomorrow we will have to deal with those who think that elections should be canceled or falsified (‘God forbid extremists will be elected’). It is okay to bribe journalists (‘we don't pay anyone, we just asked an oligarch we know to buy this TV channel’), courts should be kept on the hook (‘or they will bribe judges and juries’), the personnel base of the government should not be changed (‘they are professionals, we should not recruit people from the street»’, and so on. Up to the point that the contract for the construction of that bridge over there should be given not to a tender, but to a ‘reliable contractor’ with whom we have been working for a long time. Those with such ideas will not be Putinists or Communists at all — they will once again call themselves democrats and liberals.
Real life is complicated, hard and full of compromises with unpleasant people. However, at least we ourselves should not become unpleasant people and welcome corruption and cynical fraud even before circumstances require compromise.
I am very afraid that the battle for principles may be lost again under the slogans of ‘realpolitik.' Please advise me on how to get rid of this hatred and fear.”
Novaya Gazeta Europe editor-in-chief Kirill Martynov has responded to Navalny's essay, saying:
“I did not participate in the Nashi movement. Dmitry Muratov is Novaya Gazeta's editor-in-chief. I also did not defend those exposed in the [Anti-Corruption Foundation's] investigations. I ask the authors who write 'letters by Alexei Navalny' to be careful with their factchecking: letters by political prisoners are not [the same as] Twitter.”
Alexei Navalny's 19-year sentence was imposed on August 4, 2023, as an aggregate of all his convictions, including previous sentences which have not yet been served. “All sentences are compounded, starting with Kirovles,” a lawyer familiar with the verdict told the BBC's Russian Service on condition of anonymity.
Prior to the announcement of the verdict, the 47-year-old Navalny was already serving a nine-year sentence for fraud and contempt of court. He also was sentenced in 2021 to two and a half years in prison for a parole violation. Taking into account the time Navalny has served under house arrest, pre-trial detention and in a penal colony — over three years — his remaining time behind bars now stands at more than 15 years.
In case of Navalny's conviction, prosecutors also requested that the politician serve his sentence in a “special regime” penal colony — a term used to refer to the Russian prisons with the highest level of security and the harshest inmate restrictions. According to Russian law, such penal colonies are designated for men with life sentences or “especially dangerous recidivists.”
Before his January 2021 arrest, Navalny exposed official corruption and led major anti-Kremlin protests across Russia. After recovering from nerve agent poisoning in Germany, executed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), he returned to Moscow, and was arrested by police officers at passport control at Sheremetyevo Airport.
A joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and CNN, with contributions from Der Spiegel, published in December 2020, revealed the names and ranks of the FSB officers responsible for poisoning Alexei Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent.
After the release of the investigation, Navalny called Konstantin Kudryavtsev, one of the FSB officers mentioned in the report, introducing himself as an assistant to Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council. In the conversation that followed, Kudryavtsev gave details of Navalny's poisoning.
Cover photo: Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Getty Images