February 18, 2024

Sudden Death


Sudden Death
Alexei Navalny in 2008. Russian Life

Perspective is important.

When we look at the 1162-year span of Russian history[1] with a wide-angle lens it is hard not to see a pattern: the utter absence of political alternatives, direct democracy, and free speech.

It could be argued that only for 39 of those 1162 years (between about 1905-1923 and 1987-2008), was there even a remote possibility of building a national political opposition to challenge the party of power. So, 3.3 percent of the time.

With few exceptions, any time in Russian history where there was some form of rebellion or serious opposition (1606, 1671, 1689, 1707, 1773, 1825), it was short-lived and localized. And only in the city-state of Novgorod (1132-1478) have historians seen even a tiny measure of a political culture that might be called democracy-adjacent.

It is against this backdrop that one must consider this week’s death (reported by a prison official as caused by “sudden death syndrome”) of Alexei Navalny.

Numbed by current events since 1987 – thinking we were witnessing the Arc of History bending toward greater democracy and openness in Russia, we can be excused for not giving the horrific weight of Russian history its due. It has shown itself to be an indomitable force, crushing all those brave enough to speak out, to organize, to dissent.   

This is not to attribute some sort of supernatural or deterministic power to History, as if it were a Norse god or a principle of physics. Instead, it is to say that, given the realities of Russian psychology, culture, geography, economics, etc., the odds for democracy are very long in the casino of Russian history. And it is always unwise to bet against the house.

But that is exactly what Navalny did, knowing full well his chances and where he would likely end up. Looking back on the interview we did with him in 2008, it is remarkable how prescient he was about Russia’s opposition (too soft, leftist, and impractical), and about the most reasonable form of opposition (exposing corruption, while building a national democratic opposition). In both of Russia’s noted interludes of permissible opposition, there has been a tendency of those out of power to embrace idealistic ambitions that would be unrealistic even in a more mature, pluralistic democracy.

“And the Powers that Be, and most people,” Navalny said in our interview, “look at it all with, basically, a kind of sad smile...”

This reality, Navalny said, called for concrete action, for setting forth a position that was easy to explain and hard to refute: that the basis for the Putin regime "is corruption in exchange for political loyalty. That is, if you declare your political loyalty, and you do not get involved in politics, then you can steal all you want.”

At his core, Navalny believed that accepting an anti-democratic fate for Russia was, in fact, Russophobic. And so, starting in 2008, he became an activist investor to expose crimes of major Russian companies with ties to the Kremlin. He also made political moves, attempting to run for Moscow mayor and the presidency. But what he did that truly threatened the Powers that Be was his fact-based exposure of their base corruption. His organization published superbly researched and well-produced videos that have become touchpoints for the rising generation of Russians, specifically He Is Not Dimon to You, and Putin's Palace. He also (as captured in the Oscar-winning documentary of his life, Navalny, caught taped confessions of the perpetrators of his 2020 poisoning.

In the end, wondering at Navalny’s bravery, at his satirical, irrepressible humor in the face of such horrible odds, at his persistence, and at his righteous bullheadedness, it is impossible not to wonder how he lived so long. Why did the Kremlin go to such lengths to conspire in his death? The trials, the poisonings, the beatings, the arrests, the imprisonments.

Only two interlocking explanations seem to make sense: they wanted to make him suffer, and they wanted to make an example of him.

This is how Russian tsars and Soviet commissars have presided over their nation for 1162 years. When your power derives from sources divine or historically-determinist, opposition is therefore either of the devil or anti-historical. Or both. The only logical response from the Powers that Be is therefore that sort of “sad smile” that Navalny described. And a sadistic, cruel fist.

And yet, giving up or giving in to such a regime is not thinkable. As Navalny said, when asked in the documentary what he would say if he died, it was simple: “Don't give up.”

Alexei Navalny’s death on February 16 was to be expected, given the regime involved. Yet it is also completely unacceptable.

Despite the odds, it is better to be on the right side of history, to do whatever one can to bend its arc toward more justice, more human rights, more democracy.

Rest in Peace, Alexei.


[1] Dating Russia’s founding to 862, when Rurik was elected the ruler of Novgorod.

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