Journal

Aleksei Navalny

February 17, 2024By Evangelos TsempelisLeave your thoughts

Zurich, 17/02/24

Aleksei Navalny

The news of the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny yesterday reached the headlines of all major media outlets in Europe. Navalny, 47, had already survived a poison attack by a nerve agent by Putin’s regime in 2020. At the time, after being initially hospitalized in Russia, he was eventually transferred to Germany. Once in Germany, Navalny received treatment and was able to recover from a near death experience. The German government officially corroborated that he had been poisoned by a nerve agent. To most observers of Russian politics it came as hardly a surprise that Putin would attempt to exterminate a prominent critic of his regime, an eloquent and vocal advocate of anti-corruption who was gaining popularity in Russia and receiving increasing public visibility in the West.

The practice of exterminating opponents seems to be standard in the play book of Russia’s strongman-leader.  The timing of it just before the upcoming elections in Russia and the utter lack of scruples on the part of the Putin regime, which seems to be flaunting its readiness to use cruelty and murder as political means, should not be missed.  It is a surely a grim message of Putin’s reinforced beligerence, which given the stalemate at the war front in Ukraine and the potential wavering of the West in continuing to suport the war effort of the Zelensky government, is certainly intended to signal with reinfornced intensity Russia’s revisionist intentions not merely in Ukraine, but alse more widely in Europe.

The conditions of Navalny’s imprisonment – including protracted periods of solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in Siberia with poor sanitation, lack of medical care, torture and malnutrition (he was supposed to receive one loaf of bread per month) – simply defy any notion of what is an acceptable standard for any human being finding themselves in such a predicament.

As many others observing developments in Russia from a distance, Navalny’s story first caught my attention when in 2020 after his hospitalization in Germany following an assassination attempt which almost cost his life, he made the decision to return to his home country knowing full-well that he would be immediately arrested and incarcerated.

Upon his return, his organization boldly published a scathing report that revealed that Putin had built a secret palace. The report received more than 100 million views on YouTube. At his sentencing at 2021, Navalny suggested that Russians would eventually rise and prevail against Putin. He called the latter a “thieving little man” (https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/16/world/europe/aleksei-navalny-dead.html).

As I read the news of his death today, I found myself crying. In retrospect, I can see that my tears where not merely ones of sadness for the loss of a young man under such appalling conditions. In Navalny I saw a courageous man who stood without reserve for a high cause – freedom and democracy – ready to pay the highest of prices: loss of his own freedom and eventually his life. This morning, I also watched an interview with Evgenia Kara-Murza, whose husband, Vladimir, is also an imprisoned opposition dissident and friend of Navalny. I noticed the austerity of her facial expression as she crafted careful and thoughtful words to express her sorrow and solidarity to Navalny’s wife and daughter while of course not missing the opportunity to castigate the Putin regime for its crimes. I was humbled by the dignity of her appearance and the intensity of her concealed suffering. Inevitably, she must have been thinking of her own husband and what fate might await him.

Living in a country that affords the highest standards of rule of law, providing its citizens with all the remarkable rights and protections that stem from a well-functioning democracy, I am perhaps susceptible to the forgetfulness that comes to any situation of privilege. That forgetfulness seems to be a collective symptom of many citizens in western democracies. How else can one explain the rise of Trumpism in the US as well as the popularity of diverse populists in our time. They lead the UK outside of the EU a few years ago; they attempted to derail Greece at the years of the financial crisis; they have prevailed in Hungary; they threaten France; they are governing in Italy; they are a powerful force in Germany. Collectively, citizens of European societies seem to be (often) forgetful of the precious fragility of liberal democracy. One only needs to widen one’s perspective to realise how geographically limited this democratic experiment is in a world fraught with injustice, war and autocracy.

My tears at the news of Navalny’s death this morning brought home to me that scandalous inequality. They are also a reminder of the danger of becoming comfortably complacent. I have to humbly confess that the kind of sacrifice that these men and women make for their country is inconceivable to me living a life of safety and individual freedom. That complacency is indeed a grave danger for our societies as well as for our own individual sanity, conceived here not as an ability to live an adapted life, but as a capacity to sustain a soulful one. I have tried to explain to my son the meaning of a seemingly absurd act: to board a plane to return to one’s country right after having survived an assassination attempt by its leader-dictator: willingly going to one’s own demise in the hope of setting an example of fearlessness. This is how strong-men, these little men, rule. They instil fear; they render resistance a hopeless act; they convince their subjects that the only option is submission. That is why the world needs Nevalnys, men and women. His death is a dent to the invincibility of tyranny. A blow to cynicism and resignation, the favourite currency of little-men praying to power.

Asked about the prospect of being assassinated in an interview at CBS News in 2017, Navalny declared: “I’m trying not to think about it a lot. If you start to think about what kinds of risks I have, you cannot do anything”.

This audacious recklessness with one’s own well-being in the name of serving a higher cause is a powerful anti-particle to the meticulous and often neurotic self-centred preoccupation with our egotistical existence in the highly individualistic democratic societies in which (some of us) live. In our post ideological technological age we seem to be largely divested of higher causes. Life seems often centered on progressing along a procession of delineated milestones – education, family career- that comprise the imaginary of an enclosed, insular, middle class existence. Navalny’s story reminded me this morning of the stakes of my bygone youth against the concerns of my increasingly risk-averse (post) middle-life existence. His sacrifice is a powerful reminder that the human spirit lives on and that its capacity to find transcending cause and meaning is an enduring response to the realities of power and death.

In the documentary Nawalny (dir. Daniel Roher, 2022), Navalny left the following message to Russians for the event of his future assassination:

It’s simple: don’t give up. You are not allowed to do that.  If I’ve been killed, that means we’re incredibly strong right now.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have killed me. We have to use this strength.  Do not give up: Evil only needs one thing to win: the inaction of good people. Therefore, do not be idle.”

image tweeted by @ioannZH

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