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OPINION

What Alexei Navalny understood about Russia — if only too late

The one time I met Alexei Navalny in person, he was testifying in the UK Parliament, in a room I now recall as being far too small for the guest of honor. It was 2011. Navalny was already a celebrity in Russia for his searing, hilarious exposes of state corruption, but not yet a household name in the West. He held forth on his customary subject matter before answering questions from the audience. One person asked if it were still possible — given the entrenched criminality that was not merely an indulged outcropping of the Putin regime but the defining characteristic of it — to do business in modern Russia without paying bribes. Navalny leaned back in his chair, paused for a moment, and answered: “Yes, but it would be very, very expensive.” The audience laughed. So did I.

Today, Russian prison authorities announced that Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, was “dead” and that the cause was “being established.” This, after torturous treatment for more than three years in Putin’s gulag archipelago, where he was denied medical intervention, rendered emaciated through lack of nutrition, kept in solitary confinement and, most recently, spirited around 1,200 miles from his last penal colony to another, north of the Arctic Circle. People feared he was dead when for two weeks in mid-December no one had heard of or from him and the state was silent as to his whereabouts. Now Navalny is dead. President Biden gave a press conference this afternoon rightly blaming Putin for his demise.

I didn’t expect Navalny to live as long as he did after he took the decision, in January 2021, to return to Moscow. He had already been poisoned twice by FSB assassins, one of whom admitted to him, in what must count as history’s most incredible prank call, how the second poisoning was done: by lacing Navalny’s underwear with a military-grade nerve agent in a hotel in Tomsk, Siberia. That Navalny survived exposure to Novichok was a happy accident involving a quick-thinking airplane pilot and a surprise decision by his killer in the Kremlin to let him be evacuated from Russia for life-saving care. He recuperated under conditions of relative safety and security in the Black Forest of Germany, where he filmed an Oscar-winning documentary about how he and The Insider’s chief of investigations Christo Grozev solved the attempted murder of Vladimir Putin’s most serious political rival. Navalny might have remained indefinitely in Germany under the protection of an E.U. and NATO intelligence service. But no. He had to go back to Russia because he was a Russian politician and you cannot run for office in Russia from Europe. If he were killed, he said on camera, take it as a sign that “we are powerful” — “we” being civilized Russia and the implication being Putin is weaker than he seems.

To other Russian opposition figures, Navalny was an egomaniac and an aspiring dictator with a congealing cult of personality all his own. He and his team at the Anti-Corruption Foundation would brook no criticism of their methods or allow any questioning of his mantle as heir apparent, even as he alone languished as a captive of the Russian state. “It’s a bit like Syria, Michael,” one observer of these circles acidly told me not long ago. “The opposition hates each other more than they hate the regime.”

To Ukrainians, Navalny’s courage was beside the point. He was a man to be held in deep suspicion because he represented just another shade of great Russian chauvinism and imperialism, and not even the “liberal” shade

The Ukrainian perspective is frequently absent in stories about Ukraine, and it deserves to be heard now amid all the attendant obsequies about a slain Russian political leader. To Ukrainians, Navalny’s courage was beside the point. He was a man to be held in deep suspicion because he represented just another shade of great Russian chauvinism and imperialism, and not even the “liberal” shade. A litany of racist or ultranationalist comments bedeviled his activism in real time, well unto the attempt to sack Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022. This version of Navalny as an alternative president of Russia would have invaded Ukraine, too, the argument went. Had he not in the recent past certified Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, contrasting the peninsula’s status with that of a “a ham sandwich” that, unlike the Ukrainian territory Navalny’s country had just illegally annexed, could actually be handed back over to its rightful owner without much fuss? He had.

Ukrainians will remind us that Navalny’s cohort, living comfortably in the very European exile he declined, have not exactly covered themselves in glory in recent days. They have been clothed-eared and calculating at best, behaving peremptorily on social media and expressing greater anger about being denied pride of place at a NATO summit in Lithuania or by the presence inflatable pool sharks meant to anger them than they have by atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha and Mariupol.

These points are well-taken. And while I don’t make a habit of disagreeing with friends while their house is still on fire, I’ll offer a few modest observations about Navalny.

At the start of the war, he wrote that “Putin and his senile thieves” were the true enemies of Russia, “and its main threat, not Ukraine and not the West.” This at a time when the entire school of American foreign policy “realism,” a good number of experienced foreign correspondents, and a military-industrial complex of Western useful idiots were still litigating whether NATO expansion, Victoria Nuland’s cookies, or the Azov Battalion might not be the truly culpable party in Putin’s 21st century war of genocidal conquest.

Navalny was more prescient about how a war waged by crooks would go than a lot of seasoned Western think tanks and government analysts

Moreover, Navalny’s justly celebrated and viral muckraking into the kleptomania and rot eating away at every Russian state institution — including, yes, Sergei Shoigu’s “reformed” Ministry of Defense — certainly went a long way in convincing me, at least, that a special military operation meant to last 72 hours wouldn’t be the cakewalk of either Putin or the U.S. intelligence community’s fantastical imagination. Navalny was more prescient about how a war waged by crooks would go than were a lot of seasoned Western think tanks and government analysts who were taken in by the Potemkin allure of Russian government statistics on paper.

Navalny’s cohort may be bellyaching about the lack of attention paid to themselves, but he has not. He has spent the war admirably engaging with his own past shortcomings, acknowledging where he stands in contrast to where he once stood. Reckoning with one’s prior colonialist rhetoric at a time when colonialism has been codified as state ideology is no small thing. Navalny apologized last April, for instance, for his sinister and bigoted cracks about Georgians at the height of the 2008 summer war, acknowledging his ignorance of Georgia’s history and politics. “I apologize again now, but I know that my opinion does not carry much weight in Georgia because of that.” (He published that on Facebook and Twitter by passing messages along to his lawyers from solitary confinement in a prison near Moscow, where I’d imagine it’s hard not to adopt an air of unforced humility.)

Navalny apologized last April, for instance, for his sinister and bigoted cracks about Georgians at the height of the 2008 summer war, acknowledging his ignorance of Georgia’s history and politics

As for Ukraine, in February 2023, on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, Navalny put out a long thread on Twitter. “What are Ukraine’s borders? They are similar to Russia's – they’re internationally recognized and defined in 1991. Russia also recognized these borders back then, and it must recognize them today as well. There is nothing to discuss here.”

So much for Crimea the ham sandwich, then. So much, too, for the then-recently “annexed” oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson. Navalny wrote the foregoing almost a year after a law was introduced that criminalized telling the truth about Russia’s war — spreading “fakes,” as per the Duma – punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That grim irony was hardly lost on a prisoner whose sentences kept increasing for invented crimes.

To the Western imagination, Navalny’s death is tragic but also stupid and somewhat self-inflicted. Had he stayed put in Germany, after all, he’d likely still be alive. What a missed opportunity for a man of substance and charisma and influence to change Russia from within, even if doing so might have required him to spend just a bit longer without. There are ways to explain or understand this decision, of giving a mortal enemy an undeserved checkmate opportunity. Fittingly, the most obvious analogy in Russian political culture shares some telling commonalities with Navalny, even if the worldview could not be more different. This figure, too, was lionized as ardently as he was vilified in his day, public enemy number one and the subject of innumerable conspiracy theories about how he was working to destroy Russia on behalf of foreign governments. He was accused by his detractors (not always unjustly) of messianism and delusions of grandeur, and of being simply a variation on the theme of dictatorship, if even the chance to realize his potential. But for all that, he was also a skilled gadfly and anatomist of the system that tried repeatedly to kill him and eventually succeeded. Writing in 1966, the critic George Steiner likened this figure to “Eteocles going clear-sighted to the death gate in the Seven Against Thebes, refusing the plea of the chorus for evasion or liberty of action:

We are already past the care of gods.
For them our death is the
admirable offering.
Why then delay, fawning upon
our doom.”

Steiner was writing about Trotsky.

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