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Sudden life syndrome: Why Alexei Navalny cannot be killed


The last time I penned a column was after the murder of my friend and comrade Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Back then, Russia still hadn’t gotten used to the practice of political assassination, and getting used to it wasn’t something we wanted to do. No one knew at the time that groups of FSB and GRU operatives were already active at home and abroad, ridding the world of Putin’s critics by poisoning them with Novichok — or else using the older method of simply shooting them from point-blank range.

It was a strange time. With the war in eastern Ukraine already simmering and the Kremlin regime rapidly slipping into dictatorship, an alternative Russian society was still bustling with life. Journalists wrote whatever they wanted from coworking spaces in downtown Moscow, and hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens gathered in central squares from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok to chant as they pleased — “Putin is a thief!“Away with the KGB rule!” and “Russia will be free!” — without fear of losing their jobs or being expelled from university. For an entire decade it was as if Russia had been stuck in a state of suspended animation, right in between 1990s-style freedom and Stalinist dictatorship, without any clear indication as to when or where the pendulum might ultimately swing — if it would ever even swing at all.

But the pendulum has swung indeed, and here I am, writing another column about another murdered friend and comrade of mine. Like Nemtsov, this comrade was always brimming with energy and wit, had an unbreakable will, and never lost faith in Russia’s future freedom.

I met Navalny twenty or so years ago. Little known at the time, he was occupying a modest cubicle in the office rented by the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party on Pyatnitskaya Street, just across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. As I recall, my first thoughts were: “Look at him, still stuck in a youth movement in his late twenties – what a loser!” Within just a few years, however, Navalny had joined the ranks of Russia’s most impressive political activists, and a few short years after that, he had evolved into the unrivaled leader of Russia’s political opposition. How did that happen?

Navalny’s strength had nothing to do with unique ideas. We shared and still share the same elementary demands: we wanted the authorities to leave the independent press alone; for our judges to stop delivering verdicts that had been dictated to them over the phone by Kremlin officials; for dissidents to be able to protest in the street and to speak out on state-controlled television; for corrupt officials to be handed prison sentences instead of promotions; and of course, for voters to have the actual power to replace their president, governor, or mayor. In other words, our aspirations were not different from those of the citizens of any other nation, from Germany and the U.S. to Papua New Guinea. These and other goals were so common — so unremarkable — that if we were to use them as the basis for an election campaign, we would have found ourselves copying the text of the Russian constitution itself, almost word for word. It was not Navalny’s political agenda that made him different.

What made Navalny special was his talent for speaking the plain and natural language of common sense, relatable to everyone from schoolchildren to old ladies in the park. He could raise the most complicated, painful, taboo topics — the embezzlement of public funds by Putin and his entourage, the luxurious lifestyles of public servants and securocrats — and using facts, figures, and photographs, expose everything that was unjust in the country so engagingly that it was all but impossible not to understand. Putin had purged this kind of information from television broadcasts by fire and sword, but Navalny rode the wave of social media, starting with Livejournal blog posts in the 2000s before evolving into the slickly produced YouTube videos that passengers on the Moscow metro would watch on their way home from work. And it wasn’t just Muscovites who were paying attention. Thanks to Navalny and his team, smartphone screens all across the country reinforced the reality that the Emperor and his most loyal underlings all had fancy clothes — and luxury cars, and posh villas, and oversized yachts — that none of them could have possibly afforded on their official civil servant salaries.

Whatever approval rating statistics servile Kremlin-controlled agencies may have been publishing, Navalny’s team had successfully built a nationwide network of offices, staffing them with young, highly motivated, and fearless supporters, who often worked on a voluntary basis. No one else in Russia enjoyed this kind of popular enthusiasm – not even Putin himself. Starting with the mass “Fair Elections” protests of 2011, in which Navalny was among the main protagonists, Russians who were opposed to Putin’s ambition to reinstate the suffocating Soviet regime saw how numerous they were. In their midst, they also saw a great many young people, who had grown up without the hegemony of state-controlled television and thus remained immune to official propaganda.

No one else in Russia enjoyed this kind of popular support – not even Putin himself

Although he has supporters among all age groups, Navalny is first and foremost the voice of the younger generation. The first massive rallies that Navalny inspired himself came to life in 2017 following the release of a viral video exposé demonstrating then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s inexplicably luxurious lifestyle, and the atmosphere on the street among those who were sick and tired of seeing their country’s future invested in the offshore accounts of its ruling class was that of a student festival. It was no coincidence: everyone understood that the future lay with Navalny, that the aging political bureau headed by an old lunatic was like the last herd of mammoths, inevitably on its way to extinction.

A youth protest has a special vibe to it — the blend of buzzing creativity and unbridled enthusiasm that can only materialize when the people investing in the future fully expect to live to see it. The crowds on the street need the ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ because they need a country to live in for decades to come; the old lunatic only needs a realm to rule until he dies — for all he cares, the country can follow him into the grave. Navalny-era protests were festive occasions, each one giving a boost of energy, each one bringing together thousands of kindred spirits who could see with their own eyes how strong and numerous they were.

Putin killed Alexei Navalny, but he did not kill the phenomenon that Navalny the man had grown to embody. Navalny will live for as long as we ridicule the dictator, for as long as we expose crooks and thieves for what they really are, for as long as we find ever more new forms of protest, and for as long as we keep truly, sincerely, and firmly believing in the Beautiful Russia of the Future, doing whatever we can to render it a Beautiful Russia of the Present. Navalny will live so long as we do not surrender; this was his political will, and we must execute it — if not, we will kill Navalny with our own hands, and this time it will be for real.

Are we up to the task? The outcome is not set in stone, of course. But it’s easier to put some Novichok on a pair of underpants than it is to crush thousands of people determined to stay strong. Navalny will haunt Putin everywhere like a recurring nightmare — in the form of a Gulag victims memorial half-covered with flowers, of vigils all over the country despite a total ban on any public protest, of new journalistic investigation videos gathering millions of views, of sudden long lines appearing at polling stations at a specific time with the expressed purpose of demonstrating just how many Russians still inside Russia are eager to see the end of the dictatorship. Hordes of law enforcement officers will be running around, stretching themselves thin in an attempt to mask all of the holes in the Emperor’s authority, and Navalny will be watching them from heaven, roaring with laughter.

I can see that today many feel as though the ghostly light at the end of the damned tunnel, a light that already appeared to be flickering, has been snuffed out for good. This feeling of hopelessness and despair is understandable. We are all heartbroken — and that is exactly the impact Putin hoped for.

But that’s today.

Tomorrow we will be the ones to act.

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