The massive street protests in support of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny have taken a turn for the sentimental. Tens of thousands of Russians have been out in the streets in recent weeks to cheer the man who has emerged as Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken and prominent critic and whom authorities arrested on his return to Russia last month on charges of having violated the terms of his suspended sentence for alleged embezzlement. Now, Navalny ally Leonid Volkov urged demonstrators to arrange candles in the shapes of hearts on Valentine’s Day, to transmit images of the symbols over social media, and to shine their mobile phone torches in solidarity.
It’s political pageantry calculated to tug at the heartstrings.
The iconography championed by Volkov implies that Navalny is a figure on whom decent and kind people should lavish affection, and that doing so shows one’s heart to be in the right place. To back Navalny in public is to show support for human rights, decency, free speech, and the liberalization that has — in theory if not always in practice — been underway in Russia since the fall of communism.
To be sure, Navalny is a charismatic figure: a relatively young 44, well-spoken, direct, and energetic. And much of what he publicly opposes in Russia today is odious indeed. Severe high-level corruption under Putin’s predecessor Dimitry Medvedev and under the current regime, the dubious 2020 constitutional amendments extending Putin’s reign, rampant police misconduct, attacks on and jailings of journalists and demonstrators, and the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny and others allegedly orchestrated by the Federal Security Service (FSB) hardly present a flattering picture of post-communist Russian officialdom. Navalny has repeatedly put his life on the line to oppose abuses of power, violations of free speech, and associations that one would deem unthinkable in a putatively non-totalitarian state.
Here is the kind of dissident you can get behind, or so it appears.
Big Shoes to Fill
For those who were attuned to Russian affairs in the early 1990s, Navalny may call forth memories of Boris Yeltsin, who enjoyed wide sympathy and support in the West for his affable public persona and his advocacy of a moderate pro-market alternative to the hardline communism then in its dying days. Yeltsin was a complex, flawed man — an editor I worked for once referred to him as “a demagogue with a drinking problem” — but for some people back in those days, he represented bright hopes for the future of a society that had been so miserable and unfree for so long.
The rampant violations of human rights taking place currently are of a piece both with Soviet-era abuses of power and with misrule in earlier eras of Russia’s history. Navalny is on record saying that Putin has conducted himself like a tsar.
That is true in a more literal sense than even Navalny may realize.
Putin has acted like a tsar, and one tsar in particular: namely the erratic and malevolent Paul I, whose brief reign began in 1796 and was cut short five years later by his assassination. Putin’s territorial aggression during Russia’s long dispute with the former Soviet republic of Georgia hearkens back to the foreign policy of Tsar Paul, who added Georgia to the Russian empire by official decree in January 1801.
Today, it is easy to overlook the fact that Navalny — the dissident for whom thousands of Russians arranged candles into hearts this Valentine’s Day weekend — has a background in nationalist politics not wholly in keeping with his enlightened forward-looking public persona. Navalny has expressed support for Russia’s intervention in Georgia and declined to retract that support when given the opportunity. It is more than a bit curious for Navalny to accuse Putin of acting like a tsar when both men’s views on the Georgia question are aligned, to an extent, with those of Tsar Paul.
Perhaps time will tell whether Navalny is an earnest reformer or simply a rival of Putin seeking ever greater power. It would hardly be the first time in modern Russian history that someone who had ideological affinities with the central authorities mounted a challenge making use, publicly, of the language of moderation and reform. Incidentally, next month will mark the 100th anniversary of a dramatic event that shook the young Bolshevik regime in 1921, the uprising of sailors at the Kronstadt naval base.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
In his brilliant work Kronstadt 1921, historian Paul Avrich describes a state of affairs in Russia eerily similar to the present, with the difference that it was communism rather than capitalism that supposedly represented the glorious new age. A populace that had gone through the Great War, the civil war between the communists and the White Russians, and the privations of War Communism expected a better life that had been promised for so long, but came to see that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. “For the past three years the people had waged a desperate struggle to preserve the fruits of the revolution and achieve a freer and more comfortable life,” Avrich writes. “Once the enemy had been defeated, they believed, the government would promptly release them from the rigors of wartime discipline, and before long the system of War Communism would become a fading memory of a troubled era which had passed into history. But nothing of the sort took place.”
The defeat of the White general Pyotr Wrangel and the end of the civil war led neither to the reversal or easing of War Communist policies like limits on bartering or grain requisitioning — a rationing system favoring some sectors of the population of the supposedly egalitarian society over others — nor to the adoption of broader civil liberties for the long-suffering people, Avrich recounts. Although Lenin did roll out his New Economic Policy in February 1921, the regime did not abandon the heavy-handedness and contempt for individual liberty that had made life unendurable for so many. “The overriding thrust of Bolshevik policy, rather, remained in the direction of compulsion and rigid control.” In the state of affairs described by Avrich, which is like 2021 in a distorted mirror, a populist uprising against the rulers who had so disappointed the nation was predictable, and it arrived soon enough in the form of a revolt by Baltic fleet sailors based at Kronstadt.
Inflamed by bogus reports that government troops had fired on demonstrators and that the Cheka was summarily executing strike leaders in basements, the crews of the vessels Sevastopol and Petropavlovsk on February 26, 1921, held emergency meetings that led to the adoption of a revolutionary charter. Its many demands included freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of assembly for peasant organizations and trade unions, the freeing of political prisoners, the ending of roadblocks, the equalization of the skewed and unfair rationing system, the ending of political departments within the regime, land reform, and the election of a commission to review the cases of people held in prisons and concentration camps.
Such a commission, if it existed in 2021 and looked into the Navalny matter, would no doubt find that trying to rub out a vocal critic of the regime by putting a lethal toxin in his underwear is one of the lowest blows imaginable.
Many of the other demands in the Kronstadt charter remain unfulfilled today and are very much on the minds of the tens of thousands of Russians clogging the streets and huddling in detention in police vans. With the poisoning of dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2004, of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and of opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. in 2015 and 2017; the recent treatment of Navalny; and many other well-documented cases over recent years, civil liberties and freedom of expression aren’t faring much better under the post-communist government than under the regime of Lenin.
The parallels do not extend indefinitely. The street protestors and Kronstadt rebels of 1921 did not arrange candles in the shapes of hearts or make any other such sentimental ploy. They understood the adage that Malcolm X would one day articulate, that power never takes a step back except in the face of more power. But the brutal military repression of the Kronstadt revolt, and the killing of 600 sailors and taking of some 2,500 captives, followed by the shooting and jailing of hundreds of the survivors, has an analogue today in the Putin regime’s reaction to the protests. So far, the police have reportedly arrested more than 11,000 pro-Navalny protestors on dubious legal grounds.
Like most historical analogies, this one is more than a bit inexact, but is nevertheless striking. The Kronstadt sailors were not in any sense pro-western, pro-market reformers. They had cheered Lenin’s calls for “All power to the soviets,” had proven their mettle in the war against the Whites, and were proud of their revolutionary pedigree and devotion. The revolt was an internecine struggle fueled by deep frustrations over the course of life in the supposedly glorious revolutionary dawn. Today, it is hard to see in what sense Alexey Navalny could credibly claim to be an ideological opponent of Vladimir Putin, given their backgrounds in Russian nationalism. It’s not that Navalny fundamentally disagrees with Putin on critical issues of the day; it’s simply that Putin, like rulers before him, has been misusing his political power.
Was Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler Predictive?
So, what exactly is Alexey Navalny?
It seems unfair to call this underdog an embryonic authoritarian. In his present guise, he evokes a personage in Russian literature who captures something of the rogue wild card in the Russian character. Alexei Ivanovich, in Dostoyevsky’s short novel The Gambler, takes enormous risks in an effort to win money to help him woo a young woman, Polina, the general’s niece with whom he’s smitten. But the psychology at work behind his borderline-pathological self-exposure to risk is complex. Early in the novel, Alexei expresses to his fellow Russians his sensitivity to how people in other countries view the motherland and the near-impossibility of living and dining in polite company when abroad, all because of the perceived backwardness of Russia.
“If you are a person of any self-respect…you are sure to expose yourself to abuse and will have to put up with extraordinary slights….We sit here without daring to utter a squeak, and are even perhaps ready to deny that we are Russians,” Alexei says.
If one substitutes another form of risk-taking — political engagement in the Russia of Putin — for literal gambling, then Dostoyevsky might well be telling the story of Alexey Navalny.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His short fiction has appeared in Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, New Orphic Review, Stand, Obelus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Weird Fiction Review, Weirdbook, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Nomadic Sojourns, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and many other publications. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.