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Even in death Navalny is a light Putin cannot snuff out

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The Russian president may well find that Alexei Navalny becomes a more formidable opponent 

Upon the outbreak of World War 2, British poet WH Auden, in his poem September 1, 1939, set out a world catapulted into chaos by a delusional autocrat leading citizens to violence, war, mass destruction and certain death.

This breed of antidemocratic tin man still lives, beating his chest, holding aloft the severed head of a perceived enemy – metaphorically speaking – for the delight of a groomed and appreciative crowd: the hungry masses.

In the last stanza, lamenting “a low dishonest decade” of warmongers and death profiteers, Auden writes:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Anatolyevich Navalny, who died in prison on 16 February at the age of 47, was a rare politician in this age of grift and graft.  

A fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, he is one of Auden’s “ironic points of light”, an affirming example that dictators who despise freedom always try to snuff out light before they inevitably fall and fail.

Nelson Mandela, too, served as such a point of light during his imprisonment as a “terrorist”, and long after his release, rise to power and eventual death.

Big men need little men

The big men of the world, those puffed up with self-importance and access to enormous ill-gotten gains and resources, need enablers, sycophants and buffoons to prop up their Potemkin political imaginations.

American celebrity “commentator” Tucker Carlson, “the richest television host on the planet”, having inherited about $190-million from his parents, is one such buffoon.

After endorsing Donald Trump as the most suitable US citizen to lead “the most powerful country on earth”, he set off for the Kremlin to have smoke blown up his arse by the Russian dictator.

Trump, too, has made it clear that he also looks up to the strongman’s successes.

Carlson sat there like an empty receptacle while Vlad downloaded his version of 1,000 years of Russian and Ukrainian history.

The education (he “studied” history at Trinity College) of Fox News Channel’s former poster boy was clearly wasted on him. When Putin, after kicking off his two-hour monologue in the 9th century, managed to reach 1939 and justified Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Carlson did not bat a lustrous eyelash.

To Putin’s claiming that the Poles had been “uncooperative” and “provoked” the Nazis, who then had “no choice”, Carlson responded “but of course”.

In South Africa we have our own serial lickspittle, the childman and ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. Mbalula headed off to Moscow between February 15 and 17 to participate, alongside representatives from North Korea, in a forum aimed at “combating Western imperialism” (read democracy).

Mbalula has shamelessly and publicly admitted to lying and spreading the fake news that Jacob Zuma’s swimming pool was, in fact, justified as a “fire pool”.

Mbaks shouted slogans and rhetoric, sang and danced and urged supporters to join him outside Parliament when Zuma survived yet another vote of no confidence in 2017.

The day after Mbaks landed for his re-education in Moscow, Navalny died in his prison cell in the brutal IK-3 penal colony north of the Arctic circle while serving a three-decade sentence. His crime? He was unafraid to call Putin to account.

Not a peep from Mbaks. Mind you, he did have to eat the food and drink the tea his hosts in Moscow offered during the forum, so best to keep schtum.

US 2024 presidential hopeful Trump, in an interview with Laura Ingraham, another Fox News glove puppet, likened his current woes – being held to account by the rule of law – to Navalny’s persecution. He was, however, careful not to mention his bro Putin at all.

Modern populists like Zuma, Trump, Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others of their ilk have a much wider range of options available to spread their toxic ideologies and outright lies and untruths. Their weapons now are not only the hardware to kill humans, but also the software to numb brains into deep fear and collective stunning stupidity.

Corruption the oxygen of populism

Navalny’s gift to Russia was the decision to fight endemic corruption, which has enriched fabulously those who orbited the powerful after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is all money stolen from the people of Russia.

It went full-tilt sado-capitalist in the 1990s, you will recall, and this partially led to Putin’s inexorable rise in the chaos that followed.

Putin, like a purring fat cat, tore the surface off Carlson only to find more surface, and below that, an intellectual void.

Navalny’s strategy to thwart Putin’s stranglehold on Russia was to propose that voters support anyone but Putin for president. That was in 2011.

However, election fraud is part of the armoury of the modern-day populist, to whom public participation is as much of a joke as the rule of law itself. Putin duly became president in 2012.

Offering certainty

Populists the world over offer certainties in uncertain times. They are often backward-looking, grave-digging, narrow nationalists who believe in the laws of the jungle, or some ancient text, and that the winner must take all. Some are prepared to go as far back as the Big Bang to claim supremacy.

In death, Navalny will grow into an even more formidable opponent of Putin than in life. Already, jittery Russian authorities have arrested more than 300 people mourning Navalny’s death in the country.

When the ANC’s closest allies killed their own Mandela in Navalny and we looked away

The legacy that Mandela left the world is that he embodied complexity. He was able to embrace his own roots, identity and beliefs, but was intellectually expansive enough to embrace those of others as well.

Mandela dismantled an amoral structure, apartheid, from the inside out and emerged as the leading statesman of the 20th century. He thought outside of himself to carry the hopes and aspirations of millions who were – and still are – unfree. He was also hopeful enough to imagine a collective future.

The attack on democracies today happens from within and it was Navalny who dared to expose the deep roots of this political criminal abuse in a landscape in which there is no freedom of the press, association or thought.

Men like Putin, Trump, Zuma, Netanyahu and others are cowards who fear complexity, modernity and the will of the people. Most of all, they fear a piece of paper: the ballot. DM

Marianne Thamm is the assistant editor of Daily Maverick.

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • Ben Harper says:

    As you label others, so are you – a puppet

  • Just Me says:

    Omitted from this piece is how the Western Oligarchs dread democracy and the will of the people as well. Just google “How Oligarchs have gamed democracy” or “American-backed coups”.

    The US even belligerently backed the Apartheid National Party government just off the over-reach of ‘keeping out communism’.

    So you will find the fear of the ballot is not just those who you mentioned, but very much includes western ‘so-called’ democracies.

  • Prittle Prattle says:

    You tout Navalny’s horn, but forget that even in prison, he supported the genocide of Muslims, pushing for a pure-Russian state, with a neo-Nazi rhetoric.

    Mandela was a bigger man. Don’t compare are the two.

  • Johan Roux says:

    “The legacy that Mandela left the world is that he embodied complexity. ” In Scott Turow’s book “Ordinary Heroes” the son at one point asks his father: “What is courage?”. The father answers: ” To face the complexity of things.” A quality unfortunately in short supply in this world, so thank you for higthlighting it here.

  • Jana Krejci says:

    Was Navalny also not sentenced with his brother for embezzeling some money from a state timber company? So don’t compare him with Mandela.

    • Derek Taylor says:

      Yes he was and he was a paid CIA agent, as far as I know. I am defiantly not letting Putin off the hook, but the bigger picture tells another story concerning Navalny.

  • Martin Smith says:

    How do you deal with the ‘complexity’ of Navalny who regarded immigrants as vockroaches to be shot, joined The Russian March and supported the annexation of Crimea as well as the defence of Russians attacked by Azov in the Donbas. Yes things are indeed more complex than some of us, who see the world in simple Manichean terms, can cope with.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Give the man his due instead of all this negative trivial nonsense!!! He was a true patriot who was against and exposed endemic corruption, nepotism and wholesale theft of a country by the odious and evil Putin and his oligarchs! He was very much like Mandela in the sense that he suffered terribly through being almost fatally poisoned, was brutally treated in prison and gave up his life (47 years old) for his beliefs, for wanting Russia to be a much better place for the long-suffering and highly abused population instead of living under the brutal, criminal, murderous Putin monster and for being fearless. He could easily have stayed in Germany or in another Western country but decided to go back, being true to himself and the opposition. He made some mistakes, as Mandela did, and apologized, but he should be lauded, cherished and remembered for the contribution he made for a better, just, prosperous and free Russia based on democracy and human rights. I really hope he haunts Putin all the way to the grave, slowly and painfully!

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    Love the language Marianne! “Having smoke blown up his arse”. Thats telling these m%&#@$*f%@#&^!

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    Marianne, I cannot see how you can equate Benjamin Netanyahu to Zuma, Trump and Putin. We all know about Zuma. Trump is an imbecile and an alleged crook, and Putin is a megalomaniac. Israel is surrounded by hostile states whose stated goal is to destroy Israel. Israel is responding to the dastardly attack of the 7th of October. You may argue that they have used disproportionate force. I say to you that it is no use to half kill a venomous snake. I think it was Netanyahu who said:
    “If Hamas laid down their weapons there would be peace. If Israel laid down her weapons there would be no Israel”. I believe him. Do you?

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