Alexei Navalny in 2013: on trial again and again

Navalny’s sticky end

Paul Demarty looks at the death of a persistent critic and irritant to Vladimir Putin and the FSB regime ... and a hero of the west, who showed undoubted courage in the face of cruel persecution

We were already going through a rather Russia-heavy news cycle last week - what with the Tucker Carlson interview of Vladimir Putin, the defenestration of Valerii Zaluzhnyi from the Ukrainian army’s top job, and the fall of the Donetsk city, Avdiivka. And then Alexei Anatolyevich Navalny was reported dead on February 16.

Navalny was a long-time political opponent of Putin, from a roughly liberal and definitely pro-western point of view. Though a thorough examination of his political record must leave communists sceptical of him, you cannot deny his courage. He was a participant in several waves of anti-government protests, and repeatedly jailed for various technical breaches of Russia’s burdensome public order laws. He suffered a chemical attack with a caustic chemical that left him mostly blind in one eye. Later poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, he was lucky to survive.

Finally, in 2021, he was arrested upon his return to Russia on charges of corruption and money-laundering, of which he had been convicted years earlier. A suspended sentence was suddenly converted into a custodial one, and in due course he was packed off to a series of increasingly inhospitable penal colonies. His health is well known to have deteriorated over this period and, while no reliable determination can be made at present as to the specific cause of his death, it seems reasonable to place the blame on Putin and the securocrat regime, who have - in the most ‘innocent’ possible version of events - hounded him into an early grave.

This is so obvious that, for once, it is genuinely difficult to find people spinning elaborate theories that make out it is anyone else’s fault. The Russian state’s communications on this have been bland and bureaucratic. Western far-right admirers of the Putin regime are keeping a discreet silence. Those misguided leftists who suppose that principled disloyalty to one’s own state entails running cover for its state’s nominated adversaries have likewise chosen instead to highlight the west’s hypocrisy - as well they should.

Leave alone

We will return to that later. The death of this man, however, gives us a certain opportunity to survey the state of the Putin regime. Though he was never much more than an irritant in electoral terms, even allowing for the ludicrous abuses that undoubtedly attend elections in Russia, the Putin regime seemed unable to leave him alone. It tossed him into jail; it (in all likelihood) concocted an elaborate set of fraud charges against him and made them stick; it poisoned him; it brought the fraud charges back from the dead and threw him into a series of grim penal colonies. Why?

The obvious answer is that he was the chosen avatar of the United States and its various more-or-less distant agencies in global affairs - from the secret state to coopted arms of civil society - NGOs, human rights courts and Nobel committees. Despite the hysteria of the Trump-deranged liberal media in the US, Russia has no comparable machinery. The crudity of its methods - nerve agents and barely plausible lawfare - follows from this weakness.

Putin is generally credited with steadying the Russian ship of state after the disasters of the 1990s. Compared to those years, that much at least must be conceded to him. The bonanza of shock-therapy privatisations made a few well-connected men spectacularly rich, with some of that money accruing to the mobsters who dealt with various little obstacles to this process. It is not clear that any president could have made a success out of that - even if he had sent Jeffrey Sachs and friends packing. Boris Yeltsin’s public collapse into dipsomania, however, made the whole process especially humiliating for the average Russian.

Upon inheriting the top job, and backed by a largely-intact Soviet-era security state, Putin acted swiftly to stabilise matters. He attacked the class of oligarchs, throwing the book at some pour encourager les autres. Those who were loyal could enjoy their fortunes in peace; those who played politics would find themselves in the dock for crimes which, in fairness, they had almost certainly actually committed.

Putin’s succession was initially welcomed by the west, which had cultivated him to some extent: he was, at least, a cynical operator with whom they could do business. He even asked to join Nato (but was refused). Yet his very success in stabilising the home front was its own kind of problem. The aim of many in American foreign policy circles - more than ever, under the triumphant neocons of George W Bush’s first term - was a weakened and ideally further fragmented Russia.

In 2008, Nato’s Bucharest conference proposed to invite Ukraine and Georgia into the club. This was a bridge too far for the Russians, who took advantage of a separatist conflict in Georgia to support two breakaway republics, thus creating a border dispute that prevented Georgia from joining Nato by default. This dirty work done, Putin stepped down in favour of the more emollient Dmitry Medvedev, among whose gestures of goodwill to the west was Russia’s decision to allow a UN security council resolution in favour of a no-fly zone over Libya to pass in 2011. But, when this ‘no-fly zone’ became a straightforward Nato regime-change operation, an infuriated Putin decided to take back the top job.

It was that year that Navalny was propelled to international fame - the exact moment that the breach between the Russian securocracy and the US world order became irreparable. Since then, Russia has defended its perceived security interests both by revenge attacks against individuals - Navalny, but also notoriously the spy, Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in Salisbury in 2018 - and by military means, as in its intervention in the Syrian civil war and, of course, the whole saga of Ukraine. It was a bad time to be the figurehead for a potential colour revolution. The more he was lionised by the west, the more inclined the Russian state was to make an example of him.

Here is, perhaps, the time to look at Navalny’s politics, such as they were. His campaign against the dominance of Putin’s United Russia party was partly one of exposing corruption, of which - despite the domestication of the oligarchs - there continued to be a great deal. He also denounced interference in elections, and made the right sort of west-friendly noises about the “rule of law”, etc. So far as all that went, he seemed a fairly typical colour-revolution liberal. Yet he was also a stringent nationalist, occasionally given to xenophobic rhetoric that would be quite unacceptable to his backers in the west, comparing migrants from the south Caucasus to cockroaches and implying that the right to bear arms was essential for ‘defence’ against them.


These things are hardly incompatible in Russia, of course, since it is not dedicated to a legitimating ideology of liberal human rights. (Perhaps the west will not be for much longer either.) They produce some cognitive dissonance among those for whom the Putin regime is the nerve centre of the global authoritarian right (or is it Hungary nowadays?). Some, like Amnesty International, felt compelled to distance themselves from him when his anti-migrant rhetoric was publicised (though they of course backed him when he was imprisoned in 2021). Many chose to pass over it in silence. In that respect, Navalny served as a sort of training exercise for the mental contortions that would later be necessary when Putin started his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, and the “defenders of freedom and democracy” there included many thousands of outright neo-Nazis and Banderite fascists.

It is this sort of thing people denounce when they speak of western hypocrisy over Navalny. He has a record of rhetoric at least as malignant as Donald Trump’s - so why is Trump the great Satan, and Navalny a brave freedom fighter? There are more serious comparisons. All sections of the Russian anti-war movement continue to suffer. For example, Boris Kagarlitsky, a fairly well known Marxist intellectual, has recently been jailed for five years (longer than Navalny got!), to more or less no publicity outside of leftwing circles - surprise, surprise.

The most embarrassing comparison is, however, with the case of a certain Julian Assange, who is imminently - barring a spectacular loss of nerve on the part of the British state - to be extradited to the USA, to face charges still more grotesquely unjust than those hurled at Navalny. As I write, his final hearing, at which he seeks leave to appeal, is taking place at the high court; if he is turned down, only a rapid intervention from the European Court of Human Rights will save him from extradition.

The contrast between the treatment of these two men could not be more obvious, and supporters of Assange have not been shy of making that point. Moreover, at least fraud should be illegal, however dubious the charges against Navalny. The same could not be said of probably most of the vast range of activities implicitly criminalised under the Espionage Act. Assange’s ordeal, when it has not been passed over in silence, has been cheered on by the same bien-pensant liberals so affronted by the treatment of Navalny.

Is this hypocrisy in the strict sense? Yes, in the case of many particular individuals, no doubt. As a matter of policy, of course, it is no such thing: it is perfectly consistent. So far as America is concerned, Assange is a foreign agent, because his habit of embarrassing Uncle Sam really does redound to the benefit of America’s enemies. Navalny played the same role for the west, albeit on a smaller scale. There is no inconsistency at this level - we punish enemies and avenge friends. Putin understands well enough, as was clear enough from the Carlson interview.

As the Baltimore hoodlums of The wire US TV series always put it, “It’s all in the game”.