đź”’ Filatova: Navalny’s death shakes Russia, but ‘Liosha’s’ hopes live on through protesters

By Professor Irina Filatova

Soon after the news of Alexei Navalny’s death broke, I started to receive messages from Russian friends: “I am shaken”, “I am shaken to the core”, “still shaking”. “Shaken” was repeated from letter to letter, even a day later: “My wife put flowers on the memorial – she feels a bit better. I could not go, still shaken”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As of today, more than two hundred people were detained when they laid flowers for Navalny at different memorials, which were usually in one way or another connected with victims of political repression. Police often check documents and sometimes take pictures of those who do this. These flowers are immediately cleared away. But people still go. 

What makes them do this, although they know that the risk of getting detained or arrested is very real? What is it that Navalny gave them that is so precious that they go to these memorials with flowers, overcoming fears? And why did Navalny’s death so shake them? After all, he is not the first of Putin’s opponents or enemies to die, from Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov to Yevgeny Prigozhin. And Navalny himself was already poisoned once before. According to the investigation by a team of independent journalists and by Navalny himself, this was the work of a special unit of the FSB (former KGB). The government, of course, denies any such connection.

Navalny gave people hope for a better Russia – “The beautiful Russia of the future”, as he called it.

Navalny was a lawyer and a born leader. He felt what people needed to hear and knew how to say it. In the first decade of the 2000s, he went through several liberal parties, finally reverting to a more nationalist and populist agenda. By 2010, he had found the main direction of his political path: the fight against corruption.  On it, he became one of the most prominent organisers of the 2011–2012 mass protests against Putin’s return to power for a third term after the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

Even before this campaign, Navalny came up with the slogan describing Putin’s United Russia Party as the “party of crooks and thieves”. It became hugely popular. By then, Navalny and his team had already organised his Anti–corruption Foundation and started to investigate corruption and uncover patronage networks leading right to Putin’s closest circle.

Yet it was not the fact of these investigations that made Navalny popular, nor even the engaging way the findings of his team were presented on social media. It was Navalny’s manner. He was unique. Passionate, fearless, entertaining, handsome, full of optimism, energy, and humour. His sarcasm was caustic, his smile contagious. To understand why so many Russians are so deeply upset about Navalny’s death, one should watch one of his investigative films – ten minutes’ viewing would be more than enough to see the captivating power of Navalny’s persona.

Watch BizNews’ interview with Professor Irina Filatova below

Navalny was there for his audience daily on his YouTube channels, “Live Journal” and “Alexei Navalny”. He did not speak to high-minded intellectuals but to ordinary folk in their language, and they identified with him. Even after his death, when people left notices with their flowers, they did not call him “Alexei”, but rather “Liosha”, or even “Liokha”, an endearing you can only use with a close friend.

Of course, the findings of Navalny’s team were silenced, denied, denounced, or shrugged off by the authorities as sheer nonsense. But the real problems started after in 2013 Navalny stood for the position of Moscow mayor and ended second with 27% of the vote, despite all the put in his way. Given the way the Russian elections are rigged, 27% was a striking score.

The authorities never allowed Navalny to participate in any elections again.

Already in 2013 and 2014 he had two embezzlement charges hanging over him. The state continued the case even though the plaintiff called off the charges. Navalny’s brother spent three and a half years in prison on what the opposition always called politically motivated and trumped–up charges. Alexei got the same sentence – suspended, no doubt due to his popularity.

Navalny’s party, “Russia of the Future”, was never registered. Members of his team came under more and more pressure. Some had to leave Russia, but then the state turned on their relatives. Yet in 2016, Navalny announced that he would stand for president in the 2018 elections and began his campaign.  

His 2017 election campaign in 2017 turned him into Putin’s public enemy number one.  He did not shy away from calling Putin any rude name he could invent and said that the United Russia Party was “sucking the blood out of Russia”. His programme was irresistible in its simplicity. In 2017, he led marches and organised campaigns and mass meetings through social media.

His team’s 2017 YouTube film about the unimaginable riches of Dmitry Medvedev, the former president, brought out mass protest demonstrations throughout Russia, in which anything from 50 to 90 thousand people participated. Navalny toured the country and spoke at dozens of meetings. His main message was: don’t be afraid. Come out and demonstrate. There are many of us – we have the power.

This could not be allowed to continue. Navalny often told his supporters that he was followed by the FSB. At some stage, somebody threw a green substance at his face, as a result of which he partially lost his vision in one eye. This was a warning, but Navalny continued to organise and campaign. He even managed to turn court cases resulting from his multiple arrests and detentions into a show.

Of course, Navalny was not allowed to stand for the presidency. But his investigations and anti–Putin campaigns continued. He organised his followers against the 2020 referendum, which changed the constitution to allow Putin to stand for another two 6–year terms and to incorporate Putin’s vision of Russia’s “core values”. The proposed amendments were formulated in such a way that Putin would have achieved the desired effect even if the vote were not rigged, but the government still reverted to flouting all the election rules and norms required by law and, on top of that, stuffed the ballot.

There seems to be an element of mysticism in Putin’s perception of Navalny. Neither Putin nor any of Russia’s top officials ever pronounced Navalny’s name. When asked about him directly, Putin would say something like “that person”, “that gentleman”, or, after Navalny was poisoned, “that patient”, or, later, “that prisoner”. It was as if by pronouncing this name, Putin would unleash unknown but powerful forces that could harm him. Or he may have been simply worried that by calling Navalny by name he would somehow legitimise Navalny’s brazen opposition.

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent “Novichok”. The main question here is why Putin allowed him, though unconscious, to be transferred to Germany for treatment. Navalny’s wife, who demanded such a transfer, was told that if she wrote a letter asking for it, she would be given permission. And, indeed, she received it. Why? My guess is that the authorities were certain that nobody would discover the traces of the poison and that Navalny would probably die whatever the Germans did to try to save him. Even if Navalny survived, it was clear that he would be powerless once he was outside Russia.

And this is the answer to every foreigner’s question: why did Navalny return? Why did he not stay out of trouble like many of his colleagues? But Navalny knew perfectly well that had he stayed abroad, by now he would be a nobody. He was not even a leader of the opposition in exile, for his strength was in his ability to bring people into the streets. You can not do this from the safety of a foreign country. The rift between those Russians who left the country and those who stay or have to stay is insurmountable, and it can only grow.

Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet whose first husband was executed by the Bolsheviks and whose son spent decades in the Gulag, nevertheless proudly wrote in 1961:

No, not under alien skies,

Nor under the protection of alien wings,

I was then with my people,

Where my people, unfortunately, were.

At one of his meetings in 2017 Navalny said: “I have only one country. I have only one family. I have only one people. You”. He knew that he would be arrested and perhaps even killed – his wife spoke about it in one of her interviews. But Navalny also knew that returning to Russia was his only possible option. He may have misunderstood how quickly the political atmosphere was changing in the country and how much more difficult it would be to bring people out into the street.

His film (put together with a team of investigative journalists) about his poisoning was watched by millions. His team’s investigation, “Putin’s Palace”, released immediately after his arrest at the airport, was seen by far more, two dozen of millions in its first few days alone (and over 130m now). But these figures no longer translated into the number of people prepared to risk their lives. Dozens of thousands protested against Navalny’s arrest in Moscow. But the protests were poorly organised, and the numbers were far from enough to have any effect. The brutality with which the protests were suppressed was aimed at preventing any such actions in future. For now, this tactic has had its effect.

But it was exactly Navalny’s poisoning and particularly his return to Russia that made him a hero and an undisputed leader of the opposition whose courage inspired anyone still willing to challenge Putin and his regime. Until his poisoning, many among liberal intellectuals had doubts about Navalny’s values. For some he was too much of a populist, for others, too much of a nationalist. When, in 2008, Russian troops came to the rescue of a separatist part of Georgia after Georgians tried to return it under their rule, Navalny supported the Russian army. He vacillated on the Crimea but considered its incorporation into Russia irreversible. That was how his followers felt, and he followed them. Only last year, Navalny saw where such territorial “adjustments” led, changed his position on the Crimea and apologised to the Georgians and the Ukrainians. His poisoning, his return to Russia, his imprisonment, and now death have made any discussions of his views irrelevant. Navalny paid the ultimate price for his dream of the “beautiful Russia of the future”, which, after all, is the goal of any Russian opposition, except those ultra–rightists who think that Putin has not gone far enough.

The flowers to Navalny that the Russians lay on memorials throughout the country are the flowers on the grave of their dream.

Ironically, just as Navalny’s death was announced, an ANC delegation headed by Fikile Mbalula, Secretary–General of the party, was in Moscow, fighting against neo–colonialism together with representatives of like–minded parties from such countries as Algeria, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Syria, North Korea and the Central African Republic.

The ANC expressed not even the least commiseration with Navalny’s family. Just silence.

Yet, this party itself fought for freedom and democracy, for the “beautiful South Africa of the future”. It even took up arms to do so, something Navalny never did, relying only on mass campaigns instead. ANC activists suffered in exile and prison for its ideals, and some also died “under mysterious circumstances” – Ahmad Timol, for example.

Is the ANC incapable of seeing Russia for what it is now? There must still be some honest people in the ANC. Or are they all ready to betray their old ideals in the name of their friendship with Russia, which imprisons and kills its opposition? The answer, apparently, is that the ANC, like Russia, is fighting against “Western imperialism” and that to achieve this greater goal, the ANC is ready to forget its old slogans of democracy, freedom, and human rights.

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*Prof Irina Filatova is a Russian academic and author who taught at Moscow Unversity and the University of KZN. She has written numerous books about Russia and South Africa. She now lives in Cape Town.

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