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21 February 2024

Alexei Navalny’s fatal devotion to truth

The dissident’s death is another chapter in Russia’s descent into violence. Yet no state can survive on violence alone.

By Bruno Maçães

In 2021, after five months in Germany recovering from a poison attack with a military-grade nerve agent, the dissident Alexei Navalny returned to Russia. I vividly remember watching the video of his plane taking off, stunned by a display of courage I was certain I had never witnessed before: a man voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of his assassins. He knew they were his assassins. Everyone did. He must have known that his death in a Russian jail was inevitable. Why, then, did he return?

For many years, Navalny looked invincible, infuriating Vladimir Putin, who never seemed to know how to stop him or even how to slow him down. Using social media and the internet, relying on a small team, and often speaking to Russians in the provinces, the lawyer turned activist became famous for his exposés of Putin’s inner circle. Despite years of threats and arrests, Navalny was thought of as a leader-in-waiting, the man destined to save Russia from Putin against the odds. In 2018 a series of orchestrated court cases prevented him from running in the presidential election; three years later the Kremlin attempted to assassinate him. In the 2022 documentary Navalny, about the Novichok plot against him, he confesses that he once believed his fame would save him from danger, before smiling to the camera and adding: “That turned out to be very wrong.” Navalny died on 16 February 2024 in a penal colony in the Arctic where he was serving multiple sentences for a succession of outlandish charges, which Russian authorities had levied with dismaying regularity since his return to the country. He was 47. 

Back in 2021, on that plane to Russia from Berlin, Navalny was still buoyant. Video footage shows him and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, amusing themselves watching cartoons, a display of sangfroid. Then, she turns to camera, takes off her face mask – this was while the Covid pandemic was still at its height – and addresses an imaginary first-class steward: “Young man, bring us vodka! We are flying home.” It is a famous line from the popular movie Brat 2, recognisable to every Russian.

If you want to understand contemporary Russia, Brat 2 (Brother 2 in English), directed by Aleksei Balabanov and released in 2000, is a good place to start. The film follows a young Russian man, Danila Bagrov, as he travels from Moscow to Chicago to find an American gangster he believes killed his army buddy Kostya. Balabanov seems to use the journey as a metaphor. The disintegration of social order following the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russian society with no alternative but to make the US a scapegoat for all its struggles. Bagrov’s journey is a psychoanalytical response to Russia’s trauma.

It is hard to overstate how popular Brat 2 was in the country. It captured something fundamental about how Russians saw the decade-long transition from the old Soviet Union to what came to be known as Putinism. In 2000, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda ran an advertising campaign with billboards on the streets: “Danila is our brother, Putin is our president.” It was an appeal to Russian chauvinism. The movie also portrays the Russian contempt for Ukrainians, and was often quoted in Russia to justify Putin’s invasions in 2014 and 2022.

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In the end, Bagrov returns to Russia, even though he is a wanted man there, disillusioned by what he saw in the US. As Bagrov tells the American gangster in their final armed confrontation: “Where is the power? Is it really in money? I think that power is in truth. The man with truth on his side has the power.”

There is an obvious ambiguity in Bagrov’s statement: does power follow truth or do the powerful, by virtue of their power, have truth on their side? Viewers might reach different conclusions on where Bagrov stands. In fact, it seems that Navalny and Putin have opposite readings of Balabanov’s parable of Russia. “Truth is on our side,” Navalny told the reporters assembled at Sheremetyevo airport when he landed back in Russia in 2021. Putin, also quoting Bagrov, has repeated several times since then: “The truth is with us.”

The prospect of international conferences and coffee with foreign leaders never appealed to Navalny. Making grand statements about democracy and Russia’s future while in exile must have felt impossible, due to the distant comfort from which they would have been issued. Pious truths divorced from action become lies. When Western leaders gathered at the Munich Security Conference on 17 February, the day after Navalny’s death, they repeated that there would be terrible consequences for Putin and seemed to vindicate Navalny’s decision to return, though not in the way they would have imagined. Their words felt empty because they were divorced from action.

Truth for Navalny was never a matter of saying the right things; it was a matter of acting out his beliefs. He may have believed there was a small chance his return would set in motion an unstoppable revolution. It has happened before, in Russia and elsewhere. In any case, there was no alternative. There was no higher power he could appeal to in order to overthrow Putin’s tyranny.

Navalny’s assassination is one more chapter in Russia’s descent into violence. Yet no state can live on violence alone. For Putin, the political problem is that the more he is forced to rely on violence as his only method of rule, the more violence has become the only metric by which he is judged. Has he become weak if a month passes without a high-profile assassination? Political history teaches us that no regime survives for long if it cannot appeal to a powerful idea. Putin is now engaged in a perilous experiment to prove that violence is enough. He appears ruthless at home, but two years ago this month that reputation pushed him to a war of conquest in Ukraine – he had to appear ruthless abroad – where victory remains doubtful and where defeat will dictate his destruction.

There are two reasons, I think, Vladimir Putin had to eliminate Alexei Navalny. First, Navalny remained defiant, like the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, who flouted Putin’s authority even after his coup attempt was thwarted last June. Defiance is intolerable for a regime based on violence. It suggests that the ruler is weaker than it seems, not to be feared. In this sense, Navalny’s murder, like Prigozhin’s in August 2023, reveals Putin’s vulnerability. The second reason Navalny had to die was that Putin, now 71, is being forced to contemplate his own mortality. Leaving Navalny alive could well have meant allowing his nemesis to outlast him.

Putin needs to win in Ukraine in order to survive. For that, full political control at home is indispensable. He must ask more and more of Russian society in order to vanquish the fierce opponent next door. Unlike Stalin, who rediscovered Russian patriotism in order to defeat Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War”, Putin has no resources of patriotism or idealism left to use. There is only violence, in Ukraine and at home. The two arenas feed on each other and they grow from each other.

Had Alexei Navalny stayed in Germany, he might have escaped Putin’s violence. But he would have let the Russian president rob him of the truth. By returning and dying, he saved what he found most precious.

[See also: The year of voting dangerously]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation