The Return of Navalny

As Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, travelled back to his home country on a plane filled with media this week, everyone knew what was going to happen next. It had been extensively trailed in advance.

The second Navalny landed, he was going to be arrested by Russia’s security state, and likely carted off into custody, remanded on any number of charges which the state has levied against him and held in reserve, for any opportune moment such as this.

This is of course what happened, and after saying goodbye to his wife – a resolute woman, who told the press that just as she and he were not worried, nor should any of his supporters be – Navalny briefly disappeared. That disappearance was roundly and ineffectually condemned by all right-thinking countries. He later returned to view in a Russian jail, in which a court had been rather rapidly assembled and convened, all the better to charge him with one of these confected crimes and subsequently to imprison him for thirty days.

The press’s demand for drama, and Navalny’s own predictions, were satisfied. He suggested that his supporters might like to take to the streets to protest against his unjust imprisonment.

One question is quite reasonably asked after this performance. What exactly is Navalny playing at? Most observers know why Navalny was in Berlin rather than Russia in the first place. He is lucky to be alive. Last August, as he travelled from Siberia, Navalny was poisoned with what German authorities later identified as a Soviet-era nerve agent.

He was filmed crying out in pain on an aircraft and came close to death, but the pilot’s diverting the flight to Omsk saved him from that fate. It is now clear that far from sending a message, as some initially hypothesized it was intended to do, this attack was meant to solve a problem. Navalny was not meant to survive. The Russian authorities tasked with poisoning him were so determined to do this job that they tried to poison him again.

We know this and more about the poisoning because Navalny cooperated with a number of news outlets and the independent investigators of Bellingcat, not only to create a forensic timeline of events, but also to entrap one of the purported assassins into revealing details of the operation in a highly entertaining interview since broadcast on YouTube. CNN, a partner in the investigation, even doorstepped one of the would-be assassins.

So far, so fiasco. Par for the course, perhaps, of any oppositionist with a skill at enlisting the foreign press, and making the most out of whatever is thrown at him to help his cause. But looking a little closer is instructive. Navalny is not just an agitator or a political campaigner, and nor is he something the Kremlin can use to its own ends – as has been a consistent charge thrown his way by other oppositionists and comfortable western observers.

Instead, he is something different, a man entirely given over to his cause and his politics, a man of baffling and frightening intensity.

The charge that Navalny is not the sort of ideal opposition figure worthy of support from the west has deep roots, and has been echoed recently.

It comes from Navalny’s former activism, from close to fifteen years ago, when he was an agitator in the purest sense of the word – a man railing at life in his country and all its discontentment. He used vulgar language, he spoke without focus, and he endorsed a number of parties and positions in 2006 which seem decidedly on the wrong side of ‘nationalism’.

The Atlantic quoted him in 2013 talking about the puppet governments supported by Moscow in the autonomous republics in the Russian caucuses. ‘We know that there are girls there whose life’s ambition is not about being wrapped up in a burqa and having 25 children, but about living a decent life like humans. There are young people who want to study and work – and their ideal of life is not a Porsche Cayenne and a golden gun’. Vulgar this may be, but it is one way to refer to Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov.

In any case, the Navalny in operation now is less a candidate with a defined set of goals for policy than an individual operating outside of normal politics. Navalny was banned from standing in the 2018 presidential election, so he does not seek elected office. He has established a political operation which is less a party than a working group designed to assist individual campaigns. Some of the candidates he has backed won small-scale successes in previous local elections. But this is not a foundation upon which Navalny could build a government.

Instead he operates as a figurehead to a less tangible permanent campaign, which includes the posting of stinging videos on YouTube exposing government corruption that gain millions of views apiece, as well as other political interventions.

But most pressingly, Navalny’s focus is not electoral politics, but the fight itself. When in Berlin, recovering from two attempts on his life, Navalny roundly told all who would ask that he would return to Russia. He knew that to be in the game, he had to be in the country. He said he was prepared to take whatever pain and threat his return would elicit. He believes that more opposition figures will be poisoned.

When Navalny was first taken deathly ill, I detected a hint of suspicion among more well-heeled observers of Russian politics, people who consider themselves too sophisticated to be taken in by this rough man with an unwelcome past. Some suggested, in the fashion we have seen before, that Navalny could not have been poisoned by the state because he was its creature, a cartoon oppositionist rather than a real one.

This was put to bed when the Russian state tried two times to murder him. And now another attitude predominates. Others – admittedly more prone to appreciate Navalny’s stances and more willing to see him succeed – told me that they felt terribly apprehensive to see him return to Russia. They just knew things were going to go badly for him once again. I doubt they will be proven wrong.

Again, they wondered – why does he do it? And the truth is there in his increasingly emotionless eyes. As much as Navalny believes in the work he is doing, he believes more strongly in the need for himself to be a participant in Russia’s political drama.

Many now wonder if he has a death wish, and that seems not unreasonable. But the Kremlin now knows that if he is attacked once again – this time successfully – or if his maltreatment inspires the protests and opposition he seeks to foment, Navalny will have got what he wants, either way.

This essay was originally published at The Critic.

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