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How Alexei Navalny got under Putin’s skin

The late opposition leader has inspired a new generation of Russian dissidents.

Mary Dejevsky

Topics Politics World

Earlier today, Russia announced the death of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. He died in one of the most remote prison camps in Russia, inherited from the Soviet network of Gulags. The report from the regional prison authorities says that he collapsed after a walk. Medics are said to have attended to him at once, but they had been unable to revive him. A separate Russian media report says that a fatal blood clot was to blame. He was just 47 years old.

Navalny’s death and its timing raise a lot of questions. His family and supporters had long expressed concern about his health, even before his recent transfer last December to the especially harsh camp inside the Arctic Circle, where he eventually died.

Some of Navalny’s supporters claim he was deliberately killed by camp guards, on orders from up top. Some observers suggest that his death was timed to coincide with an address by his wife to the Munich Security Conference. Indeed, Navalny had appeared at a court hearing via video link only the day before his death, when he was said to have appeared well and in good spirits. The only certainty is that his death will remain a matter of dispute and recriminations, whatever any post-mortem finds.

Russian authorities undoubtedly anticipated this. The report of Navalny’s death was made public with unusual speed – something that suggests Moscow’s keen awareness of the likely reverberations, both within and outside of Russia. News of his death was not something that could have been left to seep out, even though speculation of foul play began, as it was bound to, almost at once.

However dark these rumours are, they are unlikely to damage Russia’s image abroad any more than it already has been by the war in Ukraine. Next, the Kremlin is likely to try to erase all trace of Navalny – a continuation of Vladimir Putin’s refusal ever to name him in public – or to blacken his reputation in Russia by hyping the ‘extremist activities’ for which his prison sentence was extended. How far any of these efforts will succeed is hard to predict.

At least some of what Navalny achieved, however, will surely live on. The Kremlin may have had considerable success in dismantling Navalny’s network of activists before his death – by dint of arrests, beatings, trumped-up charges and threats. But it is not clear how far this has actually destroyed these opposition groups, rather than driven them underground.

In some respects, Navalny resembled the old-style Soviet dissidents. He was stubborn. He adamantly refused to compromise. And he was determined not to be driven into exile. After he was poisoned with a nerve agent, he returned voluntarily from his convalescence in Germany at the start of 2021, knowing full well that he was likely to be arrested. He appears to have got under Putin’s skin in a way other opponents did not.

In many other ways, though, Navalny was in a different and more modern mould to the Soviet-era dissidents and their direct successors. They tended to look for support from the West. They generally espoused what are classed as Western values, such as freedom and democracy, as exemplified in fair elections. They usually appealed more to intellectuals than the grassroots.

Navalny, on the other hand, began as a grassroots campaigner against local-government corruption. He understood how to use the internet and social media not just to spread his message, but also to start other local campaigns all over Russia. Earlier dissidents were based mostly in Moscow and St Petersburg. They communicated in secret and with care, and passed unofficial samizdat writings from hand to hand. Modern technology vastly increased the reach of opposition figures, but Navalny was among the first to realise its potential.

By concentrating on local corruption, Navalny made his movement more immediately and obviously relevant to people’s lives. Using modern technology, he could appeal across geography, age and class. Putin’s Palace, a film he made in 2021 about a luxury residence supposedly built for Putin near the Black Sea, was viewed millions of times – importantly, within Russia.

With this, as with similar projects, Navalny took a more grassroots ‘Russian’ view of his home country’s politics than Western-facing opposition figures. He was not, for instance, among those opposition figures who staunchly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, though he subsequently seemed to change his mind. His early brand of nationalism also had elements of xenophobia, which sometimes complicated his relations with supporters abroad.

Back in 2021, Amnesty International stripped him of his status as a ‘prisoner of conscience’. This came in response to xenophobic comments and videos he had made about immigrants earlier in his career. Navalny’s supporters said the accusations were part of a Kremlin-inspired effort to discredit him. But his comments were nonetheless on the record and had never been renounced.

Overall, Navalny certainly had more of the common touch and common language with a wider range of his compatriots than many Kremlin opposition figures do. In being as Russia-centred as he was, and in his masterly use of the internet, Navalny was a new sort of dissident. He has shown Russian oppositionists of the future a way to go.

It is noteworthy how many younger Russians are now steeped in social media. Many of them have circumvented the war-censorship regime imposed following the Ukraine invasion by using VPNs (virtual private networks). Either the authorities have been unable to prevent this, or have chosen to turn a blind eye to what might be regarded as a safety valve.

It would be easy to underestimate the importance of technology and social media in opening the outside world to young Russians. But it makes for an enormous difference between even the late Soviet era and now.

In using all the resources at his disposal, Alexei Navalny set a new standard for organising protest and dissent. And it cannot be ruled out that the networks he created could quickly grow back. He may ultimately have been defeated, whether by his health, the authorities or both. But Navalny had already shown how an effective opposition could be made to thrive – even in Putin’s Russia.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Politics World

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