Navalny Walks in the Footsteps of the Great Russian Dissidents
A month ago, Alexei Navalny was global news. After months recuperating in Germany from a botched assassination attempt by his own government, he bravely returned to Russia to stand trial for, of all things, failing to report his location to the police because he was in a coma after Vladimir Putin’s security services tried to kill him. Last week, Navalny stood trial again.
Yes, that’s right: No sooner did one Navalny trial end than another began. While serving his three-year prison sentence handed down in January after what Europe’s top human rights court deemed a politically motivated prosecution, Navalny again stood trial, this time for supposedly slandering a World War II veteran. This prosecution was as farcical as the previous one, and Navalny was again found guilty.
Unfortunately, hardly anybody outside Russia seems to have noticed. Google searches for the term “Navalny” in the United States peaked between January 17 and 23, but have since declined to just 11 percent of their high. Amnesty International even stripped him of his “prisoner of conscience” status, which, while largely a technical distinction, doesn’t help his cause. As Navalny suffers his latest persecution-by-prosecution, news media in the free world must not allow their audiences to forget him.
His name should become synonymous with the Russian struggle for freedom—both so that the cause can have a symbol and so that Navalny can know that his struggle is not in vain.
Once an obscure politician, Navalny has become the de facto leader of the Russian opposition. He has given the democracy movement in Russia what it has lacked since the murder of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov in 2015: a name and a face. Thanks to his relentless focus on corruption, his charisma, and his media savvy, Navalny has galvanized and united the Russian opposition more than any figure in the Putin era. And now, Putin’s regime has elevated his status. Navalny is not just a minor politician, a protester, an activist, or an agitator. He is a dissident.
While dissidents exist in every autocracy, they are an archetype in Russia. During the Soviet period, individuals with the courage and moral fortitude to contradict, criticize, and confront the Communist Party became household names, both in the Soviet Union and in the West. Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became international celebrities while giving a human face to Soviet repression.
It was, in many ways, the fact of their repression that made the dissidents into quasi-martyrs (another powerful archetype in Russian culture). Sharansky spent years doing hard labor in the gulag. Sakharov spent years in internal exile. Solzhenitsyn endured both years in the camps and exile abroad. Navalny’s persecution, like that of his Soviet forebears—or of such figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela—should lift his prominence.
Even Putin recognizes the power of prominence and name recognition. He and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, have long refused to pronounce Navalny’s name in public, referring to him instead, when necessary, as “this person” or “the Berlin clinic patient.” Yet, thanks to the large-scale protests Navalny has organized (or had organized on his behalf) and his viral corruption-investigation videos, millions more Russians have learned about him in recent years, according to a series of polls by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent political polling organization. The polls show that levels of disapproval for Navalny among Russians have risen from 50 to 56 percent since September, and that support for him has remained constant—about a fifth of the Russian population approves of him. The polls also show that younger Russians, who get more of their news from social media and the internet, are more likely to support him than older Russians who watch state-controlled television.
Of course, it was almost entirely thanks to support and attention from the West that the Soviet-era dissidents became famous and even influential. If Navalny becomes an afterthought, we have ourselves to blame.
It’s worth remembering the kinds of effects even just a few dissidents can have on the world. Solzhenitsyn’s first published work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published in the Soviet Union during the “Khrushchev Thaw,” the period after Stalin’s death in which restrictions on speech were temporarily relaxed. The book, a classic of the “camp literature” genre, drew the ire of the Soviet authorities. In the Brezhnev period, Solzhenitsyn was forced to turn to publishers in the West after Soviet authorities became hostile to the author for his writings on the gulag and forced labor under Stalin’s regime.
By 1970, Solzhenitsyn even declined to travel to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature out of fear that he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union. Three years later, the first parts The Gulag Archipelago were published in Paris.
By this time, Solzhenitsyn was well admired and covered widely by the Western press. His international fame may have afforded him gentler treatment by the Soviet repressive apparatus. When he was arrested and charged with treason in 1974, he was sentenced to exile and stripped of his Soviet citizenship—but not locked away in a “mental hospital” or killed, as other dissidents were. In 1976, he moved to the United States, where his writings on the Soviet forced labor system influenced generations.
That same decade, Natan Sharansky became an international sensation and face of the refusenik movement. In 1973, when Soviet Jews were finally allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union, mainly to Israel, Sharansky was denied an exit visa ostensibly on national security grounds.
After years of tireless advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, he was arrested in 1977 on accusations that he had given the West a list of the names of 1,300 refuseniks. Sharansky was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in 1978. Like so many other dissidents, he became an international human rights cause célèbre only after he was repressed. His wife, Avital Sharansky, had already been granted exit to Israel, where she advocated tirelessly for her husband’s case and helped make his cause an international movement. After nine years in a forced labor camp, Sharansky was finally released in 1986.
Sharansky was the first political prisoner released under Gorbachev’s rule, immediately receiving a hero’s welcome upon entry to Israel. His memoir, Fear No Evil, was published in the United States in 1988 and immediately became an avatar of Soviet repression.
Before his imprisonment, Sharansky had worked for the paragon of all Soviet dissidents, Andrei Sakharov. In a 2018 opinion piece in the New York Times, Sharansky himself reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of the Times’s publication of a Sakharov essay that had been secretly circulating around the Soviet Union.
Sakharov’s original essay, wrote Sharansky, “championed an essential idea at grave risk today: that those of us lucky enough to live in open societies should fight for the freedom of those born in closed ones.”
Those of us in free societies should, when remembering Navalny, also keep in mind Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer after whom “Magnitsky laws” across the free world are named. As a lawyer for the American financier Bill Browder, Magnitsky unearthed one of the biggest corruption scandals in history, was framed for it, and suffered a long imprisonment before being beaten to death in captivity in 2009. The American Magnitsky Act mandates targeted sanctions on human rights abusers—and reportedly “infuriated Putin,” who responded by banning American adoptions of Russian children, including orphans. When a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer offered to discuss “adoptions” with members of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, she was euphemistically referring to the Magnitsky Act.
Magnitsky, like so many other dissidents, didn’t set out to become an icon of human rights. He was just a lawyer who refused to lie. It is thanks to a campaign for justice waged in the free world by Browder and Vladimir Kara-Murza—a Russian democracy activist who has survived two poisoning attempts—and others that “Magnitsky” has become a byword for accountability.
As “Navalny” should now become a byword for bravery. Whatever his flaws and shortcomings, he has the opportunity to become more than a mere politician. He can become a moral symbol. But for that he will need our help.