The founding father of a future Russia

  • Themes: Russia

Alexei Navalny represented a new generation of Russians who understand the unsustainability of Putinism and its corrupt leadership.

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia board the plane prior to flight to Moscow, 17 January 2021.
Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia board the plane prior to flight to Moscow, 17 January 2021. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Among the many indelible images of Alexei Navalny confronting the Russian authorities since he became the focus of the country’s political opposition more than a dozen years ago, those from his final flight home in 2021, from a haven in Germany to almost certain imprisonment and probable death, come to mind for evoking the threat he posed President Vladimir Putin.

It was not only in his display of unimaginable bravery, belied by his blithe responses to the reporters accompanying him on the plane – he was just ‘a Russian citizen who has every right to return home’ – or the staggering personal sacrifice he was about to make, leaving behind his two children and beloved wife Yulia, who he embraced for the last time in a Moscow airport during his final minutes of freedom.

His courage was shown by his out-of-hand rejection of remaining abroad, even once his miraculous cheating of death by poisoning several months earlier had made exile the eminently logical choice.

Navalny was not the only opposition leader to reject exile, where he might have ultimately been more effective opposing Putin. His colleagues Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin are the most prominent of hundreds of political prisoners who refused to abandon Russia no less bravely (Kara-Murza after having survived two near-fatal poisonings) – or rashly, as many argue.

Navalny’s stance also reflected a general defiance of typecasting and archetype, on top of his reservoirs of talent and charisma, that made his appeal to Russians more effective than any other Kremlin critic since Putin’s rise to power a quarter of a century ago. He employed it to turn his political and personal lives into compelling real-time narratives of opposition that laid bare in the starkest emotional terms the cruelty of the regime oppressing his country.

Rejecting political exile flouted a traditional role that has played a central part in the history of Russian dissent not only under the Soviet Union – with its waves of émigrés fleeing industrial-scale murder and repression in the 20th century – but from the beginning of Russia’s tradition of secular dissent in the late 16th century.

It arose during bitter political infighting under Ivan the Terrible, when defeated courtiers were sidelined with banishment, along with their families, to remote northern monasteries, where some of their sons became steeped in the Russian Orthodox Church’s intellectual traditions, including religious and regional dissent against Moscow. They later brought the ideas back to Moscow.

Those strains informed the so-called revolutionary movements of the 19th century, starting with the Decembrists, opponents of Tsar Nicholas I, many of whom he banished to Siberia after their revolt in 1825. They and later dissidents and revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, imported Western ideas. Their ethos was always informed by exile, both internal and abroad. From Pushkin, briefly exiled to his mother’s estate near St Peterburg, to Alexander Herzen, the great Russian philosopher, who spent his last 24 years based in Paris and London, few leading intellectuals escaped one or another form of exile.

Navalny was also no typical Putin-era dissident. The son of a Soviet army officer and economist mother who later started a basket-weaving cooperative together, his relatable persona explained part of his appeal when many other opposition figures came off as members of the intellectual elite. He looked and spoke like many of the new generation of flippant professional Russians who had disposable cash, vacationed abroad and wore Lacoste and Ralph Lauren. Except that he took an interest in liberal politics, unlike the vast apolitical majority that accepted the Faustian bargain Putin foisted on the populace. And he went for Putin’s jugular.

Starting as a minority shareholder in the natural gas monopoly Gazprom, the vast patronage and laundering machine central to the functioning of the Kremlin’s kleptocracy, he made headlines attempting to hold crooked executives to account. That went straight to the aorta of Putin’s regime, the corruption against which most Russians rail, if only in private.

Navalny’s inclinations defied ideological clarity. He supported Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, although he later criticised it. Many Georgians will rightly never forgive him for once calling them rats, using the slang grizuny, which sounds like the Russian word for Georgians, Gruziny. Even supporters in the West worried that a President Navalny might have developed into another form of Putin. And his staunch refusal to join any opposition coalition – as his supporters continue to do in the face of international pleas to unite –evoked the kind of aversion to dialogue and compromise seen in Lenin and Solzhenitsyn, who lambasted what he saw as Western decadence and later embraced Putin.

Navalny’s flirting with nationalist themes may have reflected his inclinations, but also represented a shrewd political attempt to undermine Putin’s appeal to his base. His point was that the president is actually driving the Motherland into the ground.

That, and no ideology, was his message to Russians. He drove it home first in blogs and then expertly produced YouTube investigations detailing evidence of massive corruption among Putin and his circle in the form of estates, yachts and bank accounts, all detailed in elaborate paper trails.

Navalny was a highly savvy modern politician, with a genius for plainly spoken wit. He imported Western retail politics to Russia, building a grassroots political organisation across the country’s vast regions. He devised the tactic of ‘smart voting’ – casting ballots for any candidates who would dilute the ruling party’s haul. When he took to the streets, handsome and defiant, chanting his trademark characterisation of the ruling party United Russia – the party of ‘crooks and thieves’ – tens of thousands, sometimes more, risked beatings and arrest to join him.

Navalny has now been silenced for good by a dictator who models himself on Stalin in cruelty if not yet in the scale of his repression. The heartbreaking, incalculable loss is deeply distressing. The opposition is severely disheartened, but it is also more resolved. It understands Putin and Putinism is ultimately unsustainable. If and when Russia returns to democratisation, Navalny will be seen as – if not fully in the words of the writer Mikhail Zygar, who last week called Navalny ‘the founder of the future modern Russia’ – then certainly one of its founding fathers.

Another indelible picture of Navalny, the haunting last recorded image of him a day before his death, gaunt but defiant, in a grainy video from his Arctic prison, evokes a Dostoevskian acceptance of suffering as a path to redemption – his country’s, not his. Standing behind bars joking with prison officials who couldn’t suppress admiring smiles demonstrated that even exiled as far from civilisation as the Kremlin could send him, he still got through to the common man.

Navalny’s death is a clarion call to the West about the nature of Putin’s threat to life and liberty, in Russia and around the world, and the need to do everything to end it, starting with his war in Ukraine.


Gregory Feifer