For the early Bolsheviks, internal exile under tsarism “was the ultimate test – a test of one’s character and convictions by life when reduced to its essentials”, wrote the historian Yuri Slezkine in The House of Government (2017). The Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to two and a half years in a prison colony this week, looks likely to spend the next few years facing that same test.
None of it had to happen. Navalny was flown to Germany in August 2020 for treatment after being poisoned with a nerve agent, likely by a team of Russian state assassins. He could have chosen to stay abroad, enjoying a life of relative comfort, touring the Western lecture circuit to plead for a democratic Russia, shaking hands with presidents and prime ministers, receiving prizes from the European Parliament.
Criminal charges against Navalny dating from a years-old conviction were resurrected by the Kremlin while he was in Germany, probably in order to pressure him to stay outside Russia. But failing to return would have made him “ever more fêted abroad, ever less relevant at home”, as Felix Light wrote for the New Statesman last month.
Instead, Navalny chose to return to the state which very nearly killed him, knowing that in all likelihood he would face years of jail time. Putin has long refused to even name Navalny, calling him a mere “blogger” and latterly accusing him of being a stooge of Western intelligence for his role in exposing the security services’ involvement in his poisoning. Navalny’s return makes the Kremlin’s favoured line of attack, that the opposition leader is unpatriotic and a traitor, more difficult to argue. Few traitors would willingly return to the country they betrayed.
The dry pseudo-legalism of the court’s proceedings, recited in a monotonous tone by the judge, contrast uncomfortably with the lawlessness of the jailing itself. The ruling found him guilty of breaking probation while he was in Germany recovering from being poisoned. The original 2014 conviction of Navalny for fraud was later ruled “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights.
It has perhaps never been clearer that Russian law is a tool of political reprisal, to be manipulated by those whom Navalny terms “crooks and thieves”.
Deciding to face certain prison cements him as the pre-eminent opponent to President Vladimir Putin. The contest between the two men will be one of the defining features of Russian politics for years to come, even though Navalny will likely not be permitted to run for either the Duma elections due later this year, or presidential elections in 2024.
Navalny’s speech at the hearing, a plea for a democratic Russia, is a kind of manifesto for his movement. “I want to say that there are many good things in Russia now. The very best are the people who aren’t afraid — people who don’t look the other way,” he said. “[These court proceedings] are what happen when lawlessness and tyranny become the essence of a political system.”
Indeed, the brutality with which riot police have treated peaceful protestors demanding Navalny’s release suggests a dark turn for Russia. Under Putin, the Kremlin has generally allowed opposition activism and politics, within certain parameters. But recent police tactics, such as the apparent use of electric shock guns on demonstrators arrested at protests and the beating of journalists (wearing clearly labelled fluorescent vests) covering the protests, suggest a new authoritarian approach from the Kremlin, more reminiscent of neighbouring Belarus than the “managed democracy” of Putinist Russia.
“For the first time in 20 years, [Putin] faces a completely new situation: Not just a high level of social discontent, but also the absence of mechanisms to channel oppositional sentiment,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst considered well-connected to the Kremlin, wrote on Telegram, a social media app. “There [will be] no bargaining with the real opposition – only a war of annihilation.”
Close to 10,000 demonstrators have been arrested, meaning the protests were likely the largest in close to a decade. Protestors have been motivated by politics but also falling living standards and the extravagant corruption that Navalny exposes. Escalating police brutality will have deterred many others from participating. But in its own way, the violence illustrates the Kremlin’s weakness.
“The Kremlin has historically tried to minimise its reliance on coercion. It has plenty of tools beyond brute force at its disposal which it has used fairly effectively. It has now lost faith in its ability to use those tools – and it will be difficult to pivot away from that,” Sam Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, told me.
With Navalny now out of the immediate picture, the prospects for his movement – and what Russian political scientists call the “non-systemic opposition” more generally – are unclear. He is a charismatic but deeply divisive figure, who has never fully renounced a disturbing history of racist and xenophobic comments and has few fixed political convictions beyond opposition to Putin’s kleptocracy. His movement may prosper with a more unifying figure fronting it, such as his spokeswoman Lyubov Sobol.
The formidable regional organisation Navalny has built up with his political campaigning will continue to operate without him at the helm. It will face harassment from the authorities but will continue organising, including far outside the metropolitan centres of Moscow and Saint Petersburg – traditionally the centres of the liberal opposition, but not the only place where residents came out to support Navalny last month. (Over the past few weekends protestors have braved temperatures of close to -50°C in the Siberian city of Yakutsk and there have been unauthorised gatherings in cities as far afield as the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, and Khabarovsk in the Far East region of the country.)
“One thing that was always missing from Russia’s managed democracy was that there weren’t many opportunities for people who didn’t like the regime to get involved in politics, even at a low level. What Navalny did with his branches, even though he wasn’t allowed to actually run [for office], was allow them to get experience working in activism and politics,” Lincoln Pigman, a risk and compliance analyst, told me.
Alternatively, the movement may flounder without its leader. One thing is sure: Navalny played Putin on his own terms. He returned to Russia on his own schedule, aware of what that would entail personally and forcing the Kremlin on to the back foot. He now faces the ultimate test – and will have plenty of time to reflect on the future of his country during it.