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“They don’t like you to die unless you can die anonymously. If your name is known in the West, it is an embarrassment.”
This is what Alexander, an imprisoned and unlikely dissident, explains to his son Sacha, when he begins a hunger strike in the Soviet mental hospital in which he is being imprisoned, in Tom Stoppard’s 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. And it is clearly a lesson that Alexei Navalny has learned well.
Of course, the Putin regime, like the communist one which preceded it, is murderous, and even some dissidents who are known in the West end up dead or maimed, just as they did decades ago. But Putin generally likes to sit at one degree of remove from this, a place from which he can smirkingly deny any involvement, while everyone at home and abroad knows full well that he was pulling the strings. Take the case of Boris Nemstov, the charismatic critic and Yeltsin era politician who was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin in 2015, after years as a very vocal thorn in Putin’s side. Dmitry Peskov, the President’s Press Secretary, said that “Putin noted that this cruel murder has all the hallmarks of a contract hit and is extremely provocative”, acting at once as though the former KGB agent would care that his opponent’s death had been cruel, and that his murder was meant to incite anger against the government.
This is where Navalny began to be a real problem for Putin. When a dose of Novichok was slipped into his coffee in July, he managed to escape to the West, and recover. Then, he and his network tracked down the FSB agents who had done the job on him and exposed the governmental connection. While this might have presented a mere inconvenience had he decided simply to remain abroad, his choice to return to Russia gave Putin a whole new world of issues to contend with, in the middle of a pandemic that is exposing the country’s crumbling healthcare system and doing no favors to the already struggling economy.
Because Navalny had outstanding warrants, it was easy enough to arrest him, and then, after conviction, throw him into IK-2, a penal colony in the Vladimir Region, 60 miles outside of Moscow. IK-2 has a reputation as being one of the country’s harshest prisons, and, considering mass death and dehumanizing imprisonment are two of the things that Russia has managed continual excellence in over the centuries, it’s about as pleasant an experience as you would imagine. There is a particular effort, there, to wear down and isolate the activist prisoners, much like in Soviet mental hospitals of old.
But, with characteristic shrewdness, Navalny turned this into a disadvantage for Putin as well. He decided to take control of his own death. The penal colony, like quite a few in Russia, has been suffering a tuberculosis epidemic, and it would not have been looked at askance if a guard got a little too over-excited in handling prisoner Navalny and, either because of TB or his relatively recent nerve agent poisoning, ‘accidentally’ did him in. However, when he was denied access to civilian doctors to treat severe leg and back pain that started within a few days of his imprisonment, Navalny took a page out of the old Soviet dissidents’ book and started a hunger strike.
When the days started to tip into double digits, it became clear just how much this was panicking the Putin regime. Prison officials threatened to start force-feeding him, and, ultimately, caved to his demands, after thousands defied a ban on protests in cities across the country.
As an astute political analyst on Mikhail Sokolov’s Лицом к событию pointed out, the mass protests which Navalny’s imprisonment and mistreatment have brought about serve not only to show many people’s (especially the young and the educated) disgust with the Kremlin, but to break through the power of the ‘zombie box.’ Television in Russia is an exercise in propaganda, and is mostly consumed by older people, who often lack access to foriegn or online sources by dint of nonexistent language skills or poor access to computers and internet. Seeing thousands out on the street, though, especially young people from their own families is an impactful counterpoint to the brainwashing.
Throughout his ordeal, Navalny has not only maneuvered in his actions with the characteristic skill of a Russian chess master, but also shown a deep sensitivity to the image he presents, to the world, and to his people. During his first appearance in court, after his arrest, he laughed through the hearing, and pulled faces at his longtime allies, and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya. Similarly, during his sentencing, he drew a heart on his plexiglass cage, and, when the 2.5-year prison term was handed down, held his hands over his chest in a heart shape, smiling at his visibly upset partner as he did so.
In the early 80s, Avital Sharanskaya, the wife of imprisoned refusenik Natan Sharansky, traveled the world, appearing with and pleading with world leaders to help free her husband. The image of Avital in 1981, small and plainly dressed, her head covered in white lace, flanked by President Reagan and Vice President Bush, was meant to evoke sympathy and admiration, as well as to set her up as his representative in absentia. Likewise, Navalny’s very public displays of affection to Yulia, his wife of 21 years, serve to humanize the much-vilified opposition leader, at home and abroad, and show people that his struggle is about more than politics.
With his network shut down on charges of extremism, his court appearances, via video link, and letters from jail, have become a rallying point. At his appeal hearing on Thursday, Navalny began by acknowledging how he had deteriorated during his time in prison. “I looked in the mirror,” he said, after explaining how he had tried to tidy himself for the hearing, “Of course, I’m just a dreadful skeleton.” He went on to explain that he now weighs 72 kilograms (159 pounds), at 6’2”. When the judge began to rebuke him for his actions, and the appeal, he responded stridently, “Your naked, thieving emperor wants to continue to rule until the end. … Another 10 years will come, a stolen decade will come.”
Only time will tell if another stolen decade will come, but, with Navalny at the helm of the opposition movement, there is cause for hope.Published in