IIn January, Alexei Navalny boarded a flight to Moscow. Russia’s most famous dissident had spent five months in Germany recovering from the effects of novichok poisoning. Surrounded by journalists traveling with him, he had no illusions about what would happen once he traded Berlin for his home.
The Russian authorities would arrest him, sure. He would spend months, years, in prison. It would probably never come out. On the plane, Navalny ignored these concerns with his usual black humor. “I am not afraid,” he said. He spent the flight watching his favorite show, the US cartoon sitcom. Rick and morty.
Was Navalny’s decision to confront Vladimir Putin an act of supreme bravery, a modern echo of the doomed Decembrist revolt against the autocratic government? Or was it suicidal insanity? After all, Navalny represents the best chance for democratic change within Russia since the collapse of the USSR.
As Navalny had gambled, his arrest in Moscow sparked huge protests against the Kremlin. The protesters took over the squares of 180 towns and cities, from occupied Crimea to Vladivostok. They demanded his release. But this revolution did not entirely ever really threaten Putin’s two-decade rule or affect its control.
While Navalny is in jail, Putin appears ready to continue as president well into his 80s. The security forces have quelled street protests for now using traditional tactics: brutal force, mass arrests and reinforced persecution of a few. More repression is taking place. Dissent, the message says, has unpleasant consequences.
In the space of a few months, the authorities have launched Navalny’s formidable anti-corruption movement, banning its national network of local campaign offices. They have also shut down the few remaining independent media outlets in Russia, calling them “foreign agents” and “undesirables.” Freedom of speech is in trouble.
Russia is moving at alarming speed toward what the authors of a new study call a “full-blown dictatorship.” The three non-Russian academics, Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet and Ben Noble, have written an interesting and timely book about Navalny, the man, the politician and the protester.
Its subtitle asks: “Putin’s nemesis, the future of Russia?” No one knows for sure whether Navalny is indeed the fate of Russia or a tragic national footnote, destined to be topped off by the same goofy team from the FSB spy agency that last summer tried to kill him in Siberia, poisoning his underpants. .
The book convincingly argues that Navalny is the most interesting and significant figure to emerge from the post-communist period. Traces his early career as a blogger and activist to his current status, as Putin’s world-renowned archenemy and biggest headache.
Navalny is neither Nelson Mandela nor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the authors suggest. Instead, he is himself: inspiring, complex, charismatic, impetuous and with excellent media knowledge. And funny too, his humor a club used to hit his enemies. Above all, Navalny is a politician, tactically flexible, contradictory and polarizing.
Navalny was born in 1976 and came from a generation that grew up in the USSR but was never defined by it. In the 1990s he worked as a lawyer and stockbroker. According to his friends, a pro-business right-wing “punk” entered politics during Putin’s early era as a worker for the liberal Yabloko party.
The party expelled him in 2007 after he joined a march of Russian nationalists in Moscow. Many of the attendees were neo-Nazi skinheads. Navalny once compared Chechen terrorists to cockroaches and still advocates a visa regime for Central Asian guest workers.
Does this make you racist? Navalny has never completely denied his early radical views, although his platform these days is that of a majority pro-European Social Democrat, more of the left than the right. The book explains Navalny’s forays into nationalism by citing his view that an opposition should be popular. Only then can it be effective.
It was Navalny’s campaign against rampant state corruption that caught his eye. He investigated the ownership of corporations and private companies such as the oil trader Gunvor. (The US Treasury says Putin benefits; the company denies it.) When I met him in 2010, Navalny outlined plans for me on a giant whiteboard.
The following year, Navalny addressed anti-government demonstrations and presented a memorable slogan for the ruling United Russia party: the “party of criminals and thieves.” He ran an impressive campaign to become mayor of Moscow, winning a third of the votes. Then, in 2012, he launched FBK, an anti-corruption foundation. This became his main political vehicle.
The authors write well about the role corruption plays in Russian politics. They note that under Putin, theft has gone from being something that undermines state control to a tool for disciplining elites. Everyone is an accomplice. And therefore vulnerable to punitive criminal charges. “Stealing is organized to reinforce power,” the book states.
He adds that Navalny’s rise has only been possible thanks to the Internet. Outside of state television and maligned in the Kremlin media, Navalny has turned to the online world to get his ideas out. Has developed an audience through slippery YouTube videos, a daily program and Instagram and Twitter channels, where has 2.6 million followers. (Putin, a techno-dinosaur, doesn’t use email.)
In his cat and mouse battle with the authorities, Navalny has employed ingenious tactics. His aides have flown drones over the palaces of Russia’s venal KGB overlords. The FBK investigation into Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister of Russia, was a bravado piece of storytelling and investigation. That It started with Medvedev’s coaches and ended with luxurious houses and a Tuscan vineyard.
Even critics acknowledge that Navalny is brave. its highly successful research on Putin’s Black Sea palace he was released shortly after his return to Moscow. Navalny describes Putin in scathing terms, as a petty bureaucrat who graduated from stealing cassette recorders as a junior spy in eastern Germany to loot an entire country. “A Little Thief Man in a Bunker” in Navalny’s taunt.
All three scholars say the Kremlin takes the threat Navalny poses seriously. He has imprisoned him on several occasions and filed criminal charges. In 2017, he was barred from running for president. Last year, an exasperated Putin gave a secret order to be killed, Navalny alleges. Two of the Russian doctors who treated him for novichok poisoning have suffered mysterious deaths.
So far, Putin has acted ruthlessly to crush his rivals, but the book notes that his regime is adaptable and realistic. He has worked hard to win the support of ordinary Russians and build an emotional connection with them. As Navalny himself acknowledges, Putin is popular. Even with fair elections and free media, Putin could beat Navalny in a face-to-face poll.
Not that this ever happens. Navalny has gleefully talked about his previous stints behind bars, saying that he meets people from all walks of life and has the opportunity to read. His followers are convinced that he will eventually prevail against an older generation obsessed with the ghosts of the past and Soviet geopolitical fantasies. Maybe. For now, however, his life is hanging by a thread.
Luke Harding’s Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West is released in a new updated edition of Guardian Faber
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism