Bohdan Nahaylo: Is Navalny a case of buyer beware?
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny bravely returned to Russia on Jan. 17 and was promptly detained at a Moscow airport on his arrival. He had successfully completed treatment in Germany after an attempt by the Kremlin to poison him.
Navalny’s heroic act of re-entering the Vladimir Putin regime’s proverbial “lion’s den” deserves our recognition and respect. We salute his seemingly quixotic readiness to head Russia’s democratic opposition, lead by example and face the consequences.
On his arrival, before being detained at the passport control, he told his supports that he was not afraid, and urged them to also overcome their fear.
Before sharing my thoughts on his case with you, let me say that in the present circumstances it is not so easy to be forthright and be critical of such a figure. For, understandably, Navalny inspires hope and represents an alternative.
In some ways, his case reminds me of that of the Russian writer and former political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
We admired Solzhenitsyn for producing the classic works exposing the bitter truth about the Soviet system, particularly its repressive infrastructure, in works which have become classics and which in 1970 won him the Nobel Prize for Literature -“One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” “Cancer Ward, and of course The Gulag Archipelago.
Under great pressure from the West, Solzhenitsyn was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1974. But then, unperceived by most of his admirers in the West, he began to reveal his true colors. For me, a Brit of Ukrainian origin seeking at the time to defend Ukrainian and other pollical prisoners in the USSR, and other non-Russians, his views and recommendations smacked of Russian imperialism.
Exactly 35 years ago, I tried to warn delicately in my review of essays about Solzhenitsyn, published in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 10, 1986, that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
Solzhenitsyn’s Slavophilism based on Russian Orthodoxy and sense of Russian messianism led him to speak out against the West and its ways, exemplified in his controversial address at Harvard University in June 1978. On returning to Russia after the dissolution of the USSR, he came out with his thoughts on how “Russia” should be reconstituted, seeing it as encompassing eastern Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan.
Today I’m not comparing Navalny the political activist to Solzhenitsyn, the great author and embodiment for many of the enduring “Russian soul.” But the caveats that applied then, are in order again today.
The problem for Russia’s neighbors and which is still not properly understood in the West is how deeply Russian imperialism still permeates Russian thinking, in fact, the mentality of the nation. And the issue here was acknowledged even before the Bolshevik Revolution when the saying was coined: “Russian liberalism ends the moment you raise the issue of Ukraine.” Or, for that matter, today of Belarus as well.
Yes, there have been the great Russian liberals and democrats such as Alexander Herzen and Andrei Sakharov and his colleagues, or even Galina Starovoitova and Boris Nemtsov, both of whom were victims of political assassinations during the Putin era.
And unfortunately, even self-declared Russian democrats still fall into the trap of Russian imperialism and chauvinism, conscious or otherwise. Navalny, for all his declared good intentions, has yet to show that he also is not a captive of this mindset.
What we know so far about him in this regard suggests that his understanding of democracy for Russians is not particularly reassuring for Ukrainians, Belarusians, and even Russia’s non-Slavic associates in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Well-educated and having even had a scholarship at Yale University in 2010, Navalny’s experience in Russia’s booming oil sector apparently turned him into an opponent of the corrupt system in Russia. But his Russian “nationalism” and anti-immigration stance was one of the reasons he is reported to have fallen out with Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the Yabloko democratic party and been expelled from it.
Ironically, both Yavlinsky and Navalny have connections with Ukraine and speak Ukrainian. Yavlinsky was born and raised in Lviv, while Navalny’s father is a Ukrainian from Zalissia on the Ukrainian-Belarus border, in the Kyiv region.
In 2013-2024 Navalny supported the EuroMaidan Revolution in Kyiv and the ouster of kleptocrat President Viktor Yanukovych. But when Russia occupied Crimea, the opposition leader refused to challenge Putin’s “Crimea is Ours” line and thereby risk losing popular support among Russians.
On Oct. 15, 2014, Navalny told the Russian Ekho Moskvy radio station: “I think that despite the fact that the Crimea was seized with outrageous violations of all international norms, nevertheless, the realities are such that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation.”
He added. “So, let’s not kid ourselves. And I advise the Ukrainians not to kid themselves, either. It will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future.” Asked if he would return Crimea to Ukraine in the event he became Russia’s president, Navalny, answered: “No, I don’t believe so.”
He agreed that “there is nothing more damaging to the interests of the Russian people” than “imperial chauvinism.” It should turn its energies to fighting corruption, alcoholism – solving internal problems.”
And here, while agreeing that Russia should stop “sponsoring the war” in eastern Ukraine, he nevertheless effectively downplayed the significance of Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine.
Navalny had been calling for the introduction of visa requirements for migrant workers from other former Soviet republics. “The issue of illegal immigration is 100 times more important than any Ukraine,” he argued.
But there was a more shocking statement in the interview which left no doubt as to what Navalny actually thinks. “Russian and Ukrainians are one people,” he insisted, parroting Putin’s position. “I think such a view provokes strong indignation in Ukraine, where it’s a matter of principle to show we are different peoples. I don’t see a difference at all between Russians and Ukrainians.”
One wonders if Navalny views Belarusians any differently. It would seem not.
Since his recovery, Navalny has supported the democratic movement in Belarus, called for stronger Western sanctions against Putin’s “clique”, and sought to reenergize its opponents in Russia.
Clearly, the Kremlin see Navalny not just as a nuisance, but as a real threat. As an alternative to Putin, and someone not afraid to risk his life carrying the fight to him, the oppositionist deserves our attention and support.
But we should always remember that democracy for Russians, as even many Russian liberals understand it, is not necessarily what we expect from it. Cautiously, we should hope for the best and for the moment give the crusading leader of the Russian opposition the benefit of the doubt, but be prepared for possible complications lurking in the background.