Alexei Navalny: A character of Dostoevskian dimensions

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny is the sort of figure that Western liberal foreign affairs addicts like myself love. He’s a perennial whistleblower and Russia’s best hope for ousting Putin–a self-styled voice of the oppressed. He was practically the inspiration for my last blog on politicians who are fighting the good fight. However, my research pulled up such freaky shit that I decided not to include him. What really did it for me was his involvement with a nationalist movement that puts on a nifty little parade each year complete with swastikas and xenophobic rhetoric. Navalny was speaker at this event from 2008 to 2011. He also supports cutting off funding to Chechnya and wants to make it harder for citizens of former Soviet satellites to work in Russia. Check out this interesting rant from his blog. He makes some good points in it, mainly that police resources are being misused and that corruption–not lack of resources–is the main cause of ineffectual policing in Russia. But I`m never a fan of calls for the deportation of immigrants who had it bad enough at home that they came to Russia to work in squalid conditions. Come on.

And though I don’t pretend to know the finer points of Russia`s territorial issues, cutting off support to Russia’s vulnerable and dangerous North Caucasus region seems harmful and wrong. This is the region that brought us the Boston Marathon bombers; if anything, more needs to be done there.

Speaking with my Russian friend brought an interesting question to light: why isn’t Navalny dead? Putin has know about him for years, and people who cross the Kremlin inevitably end up looking like this:

Alexander Litvinenko

Natasja Weitsz/Getty images

That is a photo of Alexander Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who died weeks after having his drink spiked with a radioactive poison by two KGB officers. Or there was the death of Alexander Perepilichny in 2012, a whistle-blower who fled Russia– he collapsed and died while jogging. No cause of death has been established. Or fellow whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who also died under mysterious circumstances. I am sure there are many more examples, but I think I’ve made my point: don’t mess with the Kremlin. In case anyone didn’t already know. This is terrifying shit.

So why has Navalny managed to come through relatively unscathed? The Kremlin controls the media in Russia, so I’d imagine that Putin can silence critics with relative impunity within Russian borders. The members of Pussy Riot are an exception, says my friend, because they took Putin by surprise, as did the subsequent international uproar. Navalny has been in jail before for protesting, and narrowly escaped more jail time recently for the theft of $515,000 worth of timber. Really? Only in Russia….

Spencer Irvine

Navalny was actually sentenced to five years for this nefarious wood-theft, but someone in Moscow reportedly made a call and the next day he was released–just in time to participate in the mayoral elections in Moscow. He ended up with 27% of the vote, which is unprecedented for a non-Kremlin candidate (in itself almost an oxymoron).

Perhaps this is less ominous than I am making it sound. Putin knows that young urban Russians are deeply unhappy with his presidency, and allowing Navalny’s candidacy was a way of appeasing the protest movement that sprung up after his 2012 election. Navalny is now facing more charges and has been banned from running for office for years to come. Navalny is most certainly a pawn in Putin’s game. But is he a willing one? The possibility had never occurred to me until my Russian friend voiced the suspicion that he was a co-conspirator of Putin’s. This certainly seems far-fetched and dramatic, but in a country whose ballet dancers mastermind acid attacks, it seems about right.

Wherever his loyalties lie, Navalny is the perfect Dostoevsky character. He possesses that characteristic Russian pride and passion for acting in the name of noble causes (loudly!). Efforts to categorize him will inevitably be frustrated, as I discovered. He also has a way with words and a dramatic flair. He had this to say about his suspended sentence:

But I shall not lie, the prospect of finishing this post and going to dine using a fork and not aluminium ware is far more pleasing than the prospect of finding myself in the iron tomb of a paddy wagon and then ‘at assembly’ again to give out sweets and teabags, later planning a war on mosquitoes in a cell.

That sounds straight out of From the House of the Dead, the novel Dostoevsky based on his four years in prison. But perhaps the most relevant Dostoevsky novel here is The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan Karamazov`s feverish parable about Jesus, Satan, and the nature of humanity. The Inquisitor chastises Jesus for giving humanity too much freedom: given the choice between sin and redemption, people will usually act unwisely and suffer greatly in the process. Putin is Russia`s Inquisitor, taking away basic freedoms because he doesn’t think people can handle them. It now remains to be seen if Navalny will succumb to the temptation to turn stones into bread.

The most badass Russian to have ever lived


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