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Russia’s lost Alexei Navalny’s drive for sanity but his spirit lives on

Russia’s lost Alexei Navalny’s drive for sanity but his spirit lives on
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks with demonstrators during a rally in Moscow on 29 February 2019. (Photo: Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The death of Alexei Navalny may have deprived Russia of one of its best chances to find a way back to national revival and away from further authoritarianism under an increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin. But history can surprise us still.

It is now clear that a tireless, fearless – perhaps even personally reckless – advocate for human rights and democratic values in Russia has died. He was just 47 years old, and at the time of his death he was a “resident” of a work camp in a prison colony north of the Arctic Circle. The government had previously tried to poison him, and he had been arrested and imprisoned repeatedly.

The conditions in a work camp such as that one have been described as “harsh” and they are probably about the same as similar encampments were during the Stalinist era. Maybe the brutal physical punishment was less now, but such a camp would be equipped with electronic surveillance tools, in addition to the usual forms of punishment regimens. Escape from an environment like this one would be highly unlikely: Where would one run to; how would one get there; would one even know where to go and who might conceivably aid an escapee? That is the reason there are penal work camps situated the way this one is.

In Navalny’s case, this incarceration was not his first, of course, and his final days in a prison work camp were probably the worst of any experience he had previously endured. Official acknowledgement of his death said he had been on a walk and unexpectedly fell ill from a blood clot in the brain. Let’s put aside the point that such a precise determination of the cause of death can only be made by an autopsy and the man’s remains continue to be held by prison authorities and who knows what evaluations (and rationalisations of what happened) are, or are not, already being crafted.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Calls for investigations into Alexei Navalny’s death in Russian prison reverberate around the globe

But can anyone recall hearing of someone going for a leisurely stroll in the Arctic tundra in midwinter in February? Rather, conjure up the scene in the film, Dr Zhivago, where the unlucky couple are hiding out in that frozen dacha, in the middle of a blizzard, with the hungry wolves circling the dacha, howling into the Arctic winter? And that was the weather for Navalny’s stroll? Absent an outside evaluation, we shall probably never know for sure what happened, unless the remains are suddenly released and independent experts examine them. Don’t count on that, though.

Navalny’s crusade for democratic accountability and against the rampant corruption in the Russian state has not yet entirely withered, even if its leading advocate has perished.

Nevertheless, his widow Yulia Navalnaya has already spoken publicly about continuing her husband’s efforts, in remarks at the Munich Security Conference that was taking place even as Navalny’s death was announced. Meanwhile, in Russia itself, supporters have been leaving messages and flowers in his memory. 

Inevitably, in a crude effort to rewrite history and quickly expunge the memory of Alexei Navalny, or, at the minimum, to tamp down support for his vision, the police have been taking into custody those making these signs of respect for doing such horrific, treasonous, acts such as leaving flowers in his memory. 

Navalny’s crusade for democratic accountability and against the rampant corruption in the Russian state has not yet entirely withered, even if its leading advocate has perished. How it will play out going forward is, of course, unknown. But one long-time observer of Russian society told me: “Going forward may be hard to measure until we see how Russians react. Most now just feel crushed, with all hope lost once again. Many reformers since 1917 have tried and failed. The best way to end Putinism is with a Kremlin defeat in Ukraine.”

Reformers past

Let’s think on the future impact of Navalny a bit further. Can we say at this early moment that his crusade has achieved nothing? Will he join the roster of other reformers in Russian and Soviet history? Or will there be something more?

Consider Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, the third prime minister (and interior minister) of the czarist empire under the country’s new constitution – from 1906 until his assassination in 1911. Known as the greatest reformer of Russian society and economy, those reforms led to unprecedented economic growth in the Russian state, but it came to a halt after his assassination. Inept repression followed, and his legacy was overwhelmed by Russia’s disastrous entry into World War 1, a subsequent civil war, and then, finally, the imposition of Lenin’s, then Stalin’s authoritarian rule, including the massive famine in Ukraine, and the purges and the Gulag.

Or consider the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev. In contrast to the sclerotic party figures who had come before him, Gorbachev had attempted to lead the Soviet Union away from the failed leadership in the years following Nikita Khrushchev’s time in office, only for Gorbachev to live to see his reforms and the opening up of the economy end in the collapse of the Soviet Union – with the assistance of a failed military coup. In those chaotic years, the new opportunities brought about the rise of the oligarchs, new corruption, Gorbachev’s replacement by Boris Yeltsin, and then, ultimately, the rise of Vladimir Putin. 

Looking ahead, Russia has a national election soon, but Putin’s party – and thus the incumbent president himself – is virtually certain to win, yet again. Any potential alternatives have been rendered ineligible to run for office, leaving one to wonder why they even bother to go through with an election if we already know who is going to win. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: To Russia with Love and Hopeless Devotion, from Fikile Mbalula and the ANC

Putin’s antithesis

But, if Navalny had lived, and even more so if he had been free to move around the country, he still would almost certainly have been declared ineligible to run for office. What he might have been able to do, however, would have been to carry out a “campaign” about the iniquities of a rigged election, of the deep flaws in the personality and policies of the certain winner – and, most especially, the thorough degrading of any democratic processes, the acceleration of high-level corruption, and the further collapse of the strength of civil society, a free media, and open, transparent governance.

He likely would have captured attention among much more of the public, given his skills in exploiting social media and the use of whatever free media remains. He would have hammered away, metaphorically, at the emperor’s appalling wardrobe choices.

As veteran foreign correspondent Serge Schmemann wrote of Navalny’s death the other day in the New York Times: “This treatment of Mr. Navalny’s death – with the gravity usually reserved for a national crisis – flies in the face of the government charade that he was nothing more than a crook or could be discredited by calling him a terrorist, extremist and Nazi, as the trumped-up charges that sent him to the labor camp implied. 

“Instead, the official reactions inadvertently confirmed what Mr. Putin had tried so hard to conceal: that Mr. Navalny’s ceaseless accusations of corruption and misrule were a serious political challenge to Mr. Putin’s dictatorial rule. And that in death, Mr. Navalny could become even more dangerous.

“Unlike his Soviet predecessors in the Kremlin, who could draw on a universalist ideology to justify repression, Mr. Putin has had to build his personal rule on an illusion of democracy while fixing elections, bending the courts to his will and allowing massive corruption. Instead of criminalizing opposition as ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’, Mr. Putin must combat principled dissent, like Mr. Navalny’s, with concocted labels like ‘foreign agent’ or ‘terrorism’.

“What made Mr. Navalny dangerous was that he broke through the lies. And that could make him an even more potent figure, a martyr. That is a risk to the Kremlin only a month before national elections, which Mr. Putin wants to portray as a ringing national endorsement of his rule and his war on Ukraine.

“Mr. Navalny had denounced the invasion of Ukraine from the outset. ‘This is a stupid war which your Putin started,’ he told a court in Moscow. Mr. Putin believed he could stifle opposition to the war by arresting critics or sending them into exile. Many of those opposed to the war were from the urban intelligentsia, not the provincial masses, who are generally more willing to accept the Kremlin’s propaganda, which blames the war on machinations by the United States or supposed threats by Ukraine.”

Russia’s dilemma, now, is that Navalny could have been an effective channel for bringing the aspirations of many into a real conversation about the future shape of Russia.

One crucial element that must still be remembered is that Navalny, at his death, was only 47 years old. Going forward, he would have represented a generation that came of age after the fall of communism and with a population that had increasingly embraced the possibilities of new communications tools and connections to the wider world. In this, he would have been in sync with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, along with other politicians across Europe who have come of age since the collapse of communism. 

Going forward, Navalny would have found a natural ally in Zelensky, in addition to support and encouragement from others in many Western countries. In such an alternative universe, there might even have been growing public pressure to bring the brutal, costly war in Ukraine to an end. But now, such pressures will have to come from elsewhere.

What could have been 

Navalny’s passing at only 47 offers yet another question. Alive, there could have been decades of Navalny’s impact and presence on the Russian political and social landscape. 

Consider this counterfactual: What might have happened in South Africa had Nelson Mandela been subjected to medical mistreatment or a failure to receive care, or even, perhaps, to have had his life brought to a premature end by the judicial system, or by police and corrections officials’ action. If he had died in prison in the mid-1960s, his passing might have caused just a small ripple in South Africa’s political life since it would already have been years since he had been seen in public. Others had been condemned to death and had been executed, after all. 

Of course in our history, the apartheid South African government eventually came to the realisation, rather than treating Mandela as a dangerous challenge, they actually needed him to achieve a settlement. This was the case even while he was in prison; that Mandela’s presence was crucial if the old regime was to find a way forward with their antagonists among the liberation camp. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: When the ANC’s closest allies killed their own Mandela in Navalny and we looked away

Russia’s dilemma, now, is that Navalny could have been an effective channel for bringing the aspirations of many – especially among younger generations – into a real conversation about the future shape of Russia, even if the risk was Navalny might well have rivalled any sitting government in popularity. But for Navalny’s case, we shall never know. 

Perhaps a parallel for his death is with the killing of Steve Biko, still a young man when his treatment by the police in bringing him from the Eastern Cape to Pretoria effectively became his execution. His passing ultimately made it that much harder for the Black Consciousness movement to continue as a cohesive political movement. While his intellectual impact has been very real, his political impact, not so much.

But also consider major historical figures like George Washington, Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer and Shigeru Yoshida. For Washington, had he died at 47 or been captured by the British in the midst of the colonial rebellion, he would have been tried and hanged as a traitor, years before the final successes of that American rebellion.

Churchill at 47 years old was out of power, increasingly seen as a failure, and he was a man struggling for a way back into the halls of power in the years leading up to World War 2. And Adenauer and Yoshida had managed to survive the madness of that war and, for West Germany and Japan, the two men would step forward from retirement or rustication to lead their nations back from destruction and infamy.

Sadly, Russia will never have Navalny’s drive and spirit to lead to a return to sanity in Russia. But his spirit may. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for this article that highlights how much has been lost for Russia with the death of Mr Navalny. It will certainly be incredibly challenging for Yulia Navalnaya and other activist critics of the Putin regime to continue to seek democracy and freedom in Russia. I wish them the very best for their continued critical work.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    A truly great, popular, brave and sincere opposition leader has been killed, who had a radically different, just, free and prosperous vision for Russia, has been deliberately murdered by an evil and deranged mass-murderer. The long-suffering and highly abused population deserve so much more and better than being cursed by the most bestial, brutal and wicked tyrants who have ever lived. Lenin, Stalin and now Putin – a veritable gallery of vermin, bloodthirsty killers and psychopaths. If the decent world allows Ukraine to be defeated, it will mean that Putin has won his completely illegal/unjustified war, and it will not stop there. Once he has the time to rebuild his strength, having suffered huge and embarrassing losses, the Baltic States, Moldova, Poland etc. will be next.

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    I’ve followed Alexei Navalny’s journey for years as I did Solzhenitzen’s. The latter did not die in the Gulag Archipelago and history has to a certain extent, forgotten him. That murderous and evil Putin has, by killing Navalny, ensured the 47 year old’s name will live on as that of martyrs so often does. My hope is that one day, somebody in the inner circle, will poison Putin, preferably with the nerve agent Novichok.

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