The dissident’s dilemma

Dissent is not about the individual; it is about challenging an unjust system. Modern dissidents in authoritarian societies need not echo the West's assumptions to be worthy of support.
Graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg is painted over in April 2021. The inscription reads: "The hero of the new times". Credit: Olga Maltseva via Getty Images
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Alexey Navalny has served some seven months of his two-years-and-eight-months penal colony sentence; the punishment has not caused him to abandon his activism. On the contrary, he’s as vocal as ever. But even though the Western public is well-acquainted with Navalny, and pronouncements – from inside and outside prison – receive plenty of attention, the West struggles to understand the Russian opposition activist. That’s because many of us cannot conceive of dissidents who advocate for societies different from Western ones.

‘You need to imagine something like a Chinese labour camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching,’ Navalny told the New York Times in a written interview in August, referring to the maximum-security facility in which he is being held. Navalny, of course, knew that he was likely to be sent to a penal colony if he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been brought after nearly dying in a suspected poison attack last year. His decision to return baffled many of his Western friends and supporters. He could live in safety and comfort in Berlin, and enjoy Germany’s rule of law. In Russia, by contrast, it was clear he would not only face criminal charges but also sundry attacks on his character or even his life.

Navalny also knew he would face bogus criminal proceedings. Even so, he returned. He barely made it past the airport’s passport control before being arrested. Soon he was put on trial, accused of failing to report to his probation officer. Considering he was in a coma, caused by the suspected poisoning, during the period in question, the charges can only be called devious. During the trial, the man who came to be seen as an opposition leader after rising to fame unearthing government corruption, delivered an explanation of sorts: ‘I want Russia to be as wealthy as it has the potential to be. I want this wealth to be distributed more fairly. I want us to have normal health care. I want to see men live long enough to retire: these days half don’t make it. I want us to have a normal education system, and I want people to be able to get an education. I want people to make as much money as they would for comparable work in a European country,’ he told the court.

Navalny clearly wants to change his country for the better. Don’t we all want to change our countries for the better? Actually, no. Many living in oppressive countries would rather just go and live elsewhere. This is, of course, the reason thousands of people tried to get on the last flights leaving Kabul this August. It’s the reason East Germans risked their lives trying to scale the Berlin Wall –  at least 140 lost their lives doing so. It’s the reason North Koreans escape their country using exceptionally risky routes, knowing they’ll be killed if they’re discovered. It’s the reason Hong Kongers are leaving their rapidly deteriorating home city by the thousands. It’s the reason Russia, Belarus, and other authoritarian countries are plagued by emigration.

But if countries are going to change, brave dissidents need to remain, and communicate with their fellow citizens. This reality struck me in 2012. Back then, I was a journalist, and like many other reporters I wanted to interview Navalny. He’d already spoken with other Western media organisations, and spoke good English, so I expected a smooth ride. Navalny, though, was hesitant. He wanted to speak with Russian outlets, not foreign ones, he said. In the end he agreed to the interview, but his point has remained with me ever since. Why would a dissident trying to change his home country communicate through international media? Indeed, dissidents with a high international profile risk being seen simply as Western pawns by their home countries.

That’s the figurative kiss of death for someone aspiring to help their country improve – because no matter how miserable it is, we all (mostly) feel an allegiance to our homeland. Gerhard Gabriel, a pastor in East Germany, knew that people in his town reported on him for the Stasi, although he only learnt afterwards just how many had done so: fourteen. Even so, he never considered leaving. ‘I primarily felt like a Christian and a pastor, and a citizen of the GDR [East Germany],’ he told me. ‘It was my home country.’ Even after the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, he remained in his hometown.

That commitment to one’s home country is what makes the threat of forced expatriation such a powerful tool against dissidents. In East Germany, the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann – an East German by choice – was expatriated in 1976. East Berlin revoked the citizenship of others, too, forcing them to live in West Germany. Similiarly, when, in 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he could not attend the ceremony, as doing so would likely have prevented him from returning to the Soviet Union. Four years later, the Soviet authorities expelled Solzhenitsyn anyway. He retreated to a quiet life in the small town of Cavendish in Vermont, but for as long as he remained in America, he struggled to adjust to life there.

Plenty of Warsaw Pact citizens would have been ecstatic to receive their governments’ help to get to the West. Dissidents, though, are different. Because they feel so strongly about the fate of their home countries, they are unlikely to aspire to live in the West. Indeed, they may not advocate that their home countries emulate the West’s political system and consumption-dominated culture. Consider what happened to Navalny last year – Amnesty International removed him from its list of prisoners of conscience. The human-rights organisation did so after ‘Katya Kazbek’ (a pseudonym for Ekaterina Dubovitskaya, a Russian writer and sometime contributor to RT) had accused him of being a racist and a nationalist. It seems Kazbek made the allegations knowing the West detests such opinions, and Amnesty seems not to have reflected either on the situation in Russia or Kazbek’s motivation for launching such explosive criticism before removing Navalny from its list. At any rate, a person can be a prisoner of conscience whether they’re a nationalist or not: ‘prisoner of conscience’ simply means they’re in prison for their political convictions, not as punishment for crimes.

And what about Sergei Tichanovski, Nikolai Statkevich, and Igor Losik, three Belarusian opposition activists who went on trial this summer on various spurious charges? Do they have the right opinions to warrant Western support when they are inevitably given lengthy prison sentences for the crime of opposing authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko? One might ask the same question regarding the many pro-democracy activists in Myanmar who have had to go underground. Do they hold opinions the West considers desirable? If they do not, they too would face the prospect of neither verbal nor financial support. As for Hong Kong, do newspaper owner Jimmy Lai and a group of recently arrested teenagers meet our standards? Or how about the twelve Muslim Brotherhood members sentenced to death in Egypt in June this year for having participated in an Islamist protest? Germany’s July 20 plotters risked their lives trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, and dozens of them paid for the attempt with their lives. But despite their immeasurable courage in the face of an extraordinarily brutal regime, the 20 July plotters are today often judged by contemporary norms. Commentators criticizing the plotters for not being true democrats conveniently forget that in 1944 nary a German dared to think of liberal democracy, and exceptionally few dared to criticise, let alone try to assassinate, Hitler.   

Indeed, the reality of being a dissident is that it requires those involved to be exceptionally courageous. Dissenters suffer discrimination and punishment, sometimes loss of life. And even if they manage to ultimately achieve victory, they are unlikely to be thanked for it or crowned in glory: Czech dissident turned president Václav Havel was an exception. On the contrary, when the wind turns, many of those who harass dissidents quickly switch to the winning side. If you haven’t seen the 1996 film Kolya, do so, and you’ll quickly meet the turncoats, just as you’ll find them in every country that has emerged from dictatorship. Koyla is the story about the opposition-leaning (and thus underemployed) cellist Louka and Kolya, a little boy he’s ended up raising after marrying the boy’s mother in a sham marriage to earn some money. Toward’s the film’s climax, the Velvet Revolution brings down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime – and among the suddenly extremely numerous protesters Louka discovers the two secret-police officers who’ve been harassing him. Like countless other cowards, they’ve quickly switched sides.

But dissidents are not applicants for sainthood. Their immense task is instead to dislodge authoritarian rule in their country through the sheer power of their will. Whether Navalny has a nice character does not matter, as it mattered little whether Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Lech Wałęsa, Adam Michnik or any of their fellow dissidents behind the Iron Curtain did. And it certainly doesn’t matter whether their struggle against their countries’ regimes includes the canon of Western values. Indeed, dissidents who seem to be parroting Western beliefs are unlikely to win the support of their fellow citizens, most of whom will still feel a certain affinity for their country. ‘The middle class alone can’t topple a government,’ Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a Polish mathematician and spokesman for the anti-communist Solidarity movement in the 1980s, told me. ‘That’s what we’ve seen in Belarus and Russia. You need the working class.’ Cosmopolitan democracy activists in Egypt managed to bring down Hosni Mubarak, but because they lacked widespread support democracy did not last.

So what if Navalny is a nationalist? He lives in Russia, wants to make a difference in Russia, and should be judged by standards set by his fellow Russians. Indeed, in assessing dissidents Western governments and observers perhaps unconsciously display a superiority complex. Too often, they assume all countries inevitably want to become like them, and that any opposition to an unjust regime must also be based on the desire for that country to become more like the West. Unsurprisingly, we therefore take to the dissidents who sound like us. But what if the dissident in question wants it to become more Muslim (as was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood during Mubarak’s authoritarian regime), more traditional (as was the case with Solzhenitsyn), or any other variation on more religious, more traditional, and so on? Is their brave battle against an authoritarian regime less worthy of support? The West gets confused to the point where it rescinds Navalny’s prisoner-of-conscience status.

In his 1978 commencement address to Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn remarked on the peculiar Janus-headed nature of the West’s attitude towards other countries:

How short a time ago, relatively, the small, new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered people’s approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success. There were no geographic frontiers [limits] to it. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden in the twentieth century came the discovery of its fragility and friability. […] Relations with the former colonial world now have turned into their opposite and the Western world often goes to extremes of subservience. […] But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that the vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems, which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive.

The majority of people in authoritarian countries may at some point conclude that the Western way of life is superior to all other forms of societal existence – or they may never reach such a conclusion. What most people living under authoritarian regimes seem to want is instead a voice in shaping their countries’ destinies. All the same, lots of people put up with authoritarian regimes, indeed become part of the oppressive system, because they think it will outlive them. No oppressive system, though, lasts forever. As citizens behind the Iron Curtain showed in the 1980s, the people can shorten the oppressors’ reign – but most will only have a go if they think they will succeed.

Onyszkiewicz, who served several prison sentences in communist Poland, recalls a conversation as he was to begin yet another penitentiary sojourn in 1983: ‘I was arrested again and was waiting to be transferred to the prison. The police officer said, “Tell me, when your side wins, what will you do with us?”’ The police officer’s fears illustrate a larger reality: ‘At some point people will develop doubts about what will happen to them when the system is no more,’ Onyszkiewicz said. ‘You have to communicate to the people in authoritarian countries that the system they live under is not eternal.’ The reason Warsaw Pact countries’ peaceful revolutions succeeded is that the citizens felt they were fighting for themselves, not for values imposed on them by self-declared superior countries.

Today, authoritarian regimes are advancing. Freedom House’s latest index had a -45 rating, meaning the difference between the countries that have become more democratic and those that have become less democratic is -45, based on the aggregate scores each country is assigned by the non-profit organisation. That’s the highest number of any year included in the index, which began in 2000, with a +31 rating. Democracy is reversing in India, Belarus, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Belarus, Peru, Thailand and other countries. China, of course, remains severely undemocratic, and Russian democracy continues its decline.

Amnesty eventually reinstated Navalny’s prisoner-of-conscience status. It only did so, though, because of a public outcry, and because Navalny’s comments were several years old. ‘We recognise that an individual’s opinions and behaviour may evolve over time. It is part of Amnesty’s mission to encourage people to positively embrace a human rights vision and to not suggest that they are forever trapped by their past conduct,’ the organisation declared. This stance clearly means that even the bravest dissidents will be denied prisoner-of-conscience status if their comments are unacceptable to Amnesty. How such dissidents are perceived by their fellow citizens is apparently of secondary importance.

During Poland’s leaden years in the 1980s Onyszkiewicz deservedly got attention in the West (it helped that he spoke English). After the fall of Communism, he became defence minister in one of Poland’s first democratic governments. But would support have been as enthusiastic if he had advocated a return to monarchy, rather than a transition to a democracy and market economy? Similarly, would Havel have enjoyed immense popularity in the West if he had advocated a political system fundamentally different from that of the West? Biermann failed to win much support abroad because what he wanted in East Germany was proper communism. The case of Solzhenitsyn was even more dramatic. When he, after the fall of the Soviet Union, returned to Russia and quickly expressed support for Vladimir Putin’s efforts to strengthen the country, his Western support evaporated. All of a sudden his record as a courageous dissident became tarnished too.

‘You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society,’ Havel wrote in the 1970s.

You do not even need to be a particularly kind or agreeable person. Dissent is not about the individual; it is about challenging an unjust system. If we outside observers viewed dissidents from that perspective, we would discover many exceptionally brave people. We might also learn that they have ideas for the future of their societies that are as valuable as ours.

Elisabeth Braw

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence and deterrence against greyzone threats. She is also a columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy. Before joining AEI, Elisabeth was a senior research fellow at RUSI, whose Modern Deterrence project she led. Prior to that, she worked at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. Elisabeth is also a member of the steering committee of the Aurora Forum (the UK-Nordic-Baltic leader conference), a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission and an associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. Elisabeth started her career as a journalist, reporting for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the international Metro group of newspapers, among others. She regularly writes op-eds, including for the Financial Times, Politico, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (writing in German) and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of 'God’s Spies', about the Stasi (Eerdmans, 2019) and 'The Defender’s Dilemma' (forthcoming).

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