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Alexei Navalny and Russian Intelligentsia


Alissa Ordabai

“He fought for the Baltic states like a lion. He fought for Jewish refuseniks like a father and a brother. He fought for East German prisoners as the bravest soldier,” Israeli and Lithuanian newspapers wrote about Vladimir Bukovsky in their obituaries in October 2019. “He, a Russian, became fast friends with Ukrainian partisans who throughout their 25-year prison terms have never warmed to the nation which had conquered them,” seconded a Kyiv newspaper commemorating Bukovsky’s life and friendship with the Ukrainian people.

Words and sentiments of a different kind, however, are reserved for Alexey Navalny among the critics of the Kremlin in Russia’s neighboring ex-Soviet countries. Their list of objections to Navalny is extensive: from his ambiguous stance on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and his verbal abuse of the Georgian nation (whom he had called “rodents” during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 ) to his calls to vote for communists, and his continuing emphasis on corruption with little mention of human rights. But perhaps the ire he draws from commentators in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan wouldn’t have been so persistent, if not for the haunting comparison which looms large in a lot of people’s minds: the contrast his figure draws with the heroes of Russia’s human rights movement of the 1960s.

In addition to his other far-reaching achievements, such as exposing Soviet punitive psychiatry and standing up against abuse and torture in Soviet prisons, Vladimir Bukovsky — the founder and of the human rights movement the USSR — was also known for supporting numerous national liberation campaigns in the Soviet Union: not only in words, but in deeds. He organized Jewish refusenik sit-ins in the early 1970s in Moscow, rallied in support of Ukrainian independence in Kyiv in 1992, spoke out against the massacres of civilians in Chechnya by the Russian troops, condemned the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and continually brought to President Reagan’s attention the plight of the Crimean Tatars.

Bukovsky’s panoramic vision of human rights as a global issue which is inseparably tied to foreign and domestic policy both of the East and of the West, made him unique among other Russian rights defenders. “Whenever the Soviet Union commits an act of aggression abroad, it is always a message to its own population,” he would famously say, and this vision of interconnectedness of the Soviet economic decline at home and aggression abroad informed, by President Reagan’s own admission, his administration’s policies throughout the Cold War.

It wasn’t just Bukovsky’s intellect, but also his background and unique placement in history which gave him this all-embracing frame of reference. On par with intelligence, he also possessed first-hand experience of both the harshest of Soviet realties and the most elevated company one could find in the West: working with the State Department, serving as an unofficial advisor to Margaret Thatcher, guesting at the table of Queen Elizabeth II, and — most importantly — leading the anti-communist alliance called Resistance International where he collaborated on ideas and initiatives with some of the most illustrious intellectuals of his generation: Eugene Ionesco, Michel Foucault, Alain Besançon, and Bruno Bettelheim to name just a few. A far cry from the intellectual and political isolation of the current Russian opposition.

So it becomes understandable why Russia’s modern-day opposition figures — such as Garry Kasparov — continue to feel uneasy in Bukovsky’s shadow, despite their worldly-wise demeanor and intercultural savvy. None of them have managed to come close to advising Western superpower leaders or been able to cooperate as equals with the world’s eminent intellectuals. In a telling gesture, Kasparov’s website back in 2020 chose to delete mentions of Bukovsky’s advisory role to Reagan and Thatcher when publishing a press release listing Bukovsky’s accomplishments.

However, regardless of whatever feelings the former chess champion may harbor toward the now-dead legend, it hardly matters now in 2022. Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment a year ago had instantly turned him into a leader of the Russian opposition and Vladimir Putin’s number one enemy — at least in the eyes of the Western media.

But while lauding Navalny as a hero who selflessly chose to return to Russia following his poisoning only to find himself jailed, many in the West overlook a flaw in his modus operandi which remains glaringly obvious to observers in Russia’s so-called “near abroad” — a term often used by the Kremlin to describe the neighboring countries to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. And it is in these countries that Navalny’s name draws if not outright acrimony, then deep skepticism.

Examples of Navalny’s disengagement from the suffering imposed by the Kremlin on nations of other post-Soviet countries are numerous. The first — which constantly gets cited in online discussions — is his famous insult of the Georgian nation whom he had called “rodents” during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. It keeps haunting almost every debate about the sincerity of his stance on civilized society. His wife quoting Russian cult movie “Brat-2” on a flight from Berlin to Moscow (“Kiddo, bring us vodka, we are flying home”) also keeps drawing sarcasm. In the finale of the famous “Brat-2” movie, a female companion of tough-guy Danila Bagrov delivers this line onboard of a Moscow-bound flight after Bagrov’s killing spree in the United States. The fact that Yulia Navalny had chosen this quote to emphasize the nature of her husband’s plight is viewed by many as a deliberate nod to the cruder part of the Russian nationalist voting segment. Others, however, see it as a spontaneous utterance of a particular kind of Russian nationalist who found the most natural way to express her patriotism.

But the most serious criticism being waged at Navalny by the Kremlin’s critics from the “near-abroad” is his stance on the Russian occupation of Crimea. Instead of condemning the annexation, he called it “reunification” in his 2014 New York Times opinion piece, and lamented not the fact of it, but the way it was done: “at the end of the barrel of a gun.” Not once did he mention the suffering of the Crimean Tatars — the indigenous people of the Crimea who are staunchly opposed to annexation — but did claim the existence of a “consensus” “in both Russia and Crimea that the peninsula has historically been closer to Moscow than to Kiev.”

A wavering “Crimea is not a sandwich” response he later gave when interviewed on the subject by the Ekho Moskvy radio station was meant to convey that Crimea can’t be passed around back and forth like a piece of insignificant property. But instead it underlined Navalny’s refusal to engage with the issue which calls for a clear display of vision and principle. This is the main grievance of Navalnhy’s Ukrainian critics and the one he fails to set straight to this day.

But Navalny is viewed with mistrust not only by opponents of the annexation of the Crimea or those who see his nationalism as vacuously boorish. Many grassroots nationalists — those who do not belong to any associations, are deeply pained by Russia’s social decline, and claim to bear no ill will toward other ethnicities of Russia — view Navalny’s populist nationalism with a great degree of disdain. “For a person of Asian origin to support Navalny equals to having zero self-respect,” wrote one Russian nationalist in a recent blog post.

There are also others — neither nationalists, nor those particularly concerned with Russia’s military escapades abroad — who intensely distrusted his calls for the so-called “smart voting” plan which encouraged people to vote for the communists in the State Duma elections of 2021. In a country where a vast number of people still remember having a family member perished either in the Civil War, or the collectivization, or the terror waged on the nation by the communist secret police organizations, and where the crimes of communism have never been fully exposed or condemned by the leadership, this felt like a particularly bad maneuver, albeit the one touted as a tactical strategy to deprive the ruling United Russia party of votes.

Among those, however, who have had a lifelong experience of either observing or actively participating in Russian politics, Navalny rings another alarm bell: the suspicion of him being in cahoots with one of the fractions of Russian’s top elite. The main question such analysts ask is whether it is possible — without having a source among the elites — to get hold of the highly sensitive information which Navalny and his team have regularly been making public. Vladimir Bukovsky was one of such doubters, speaking of Navalny in 2018:

“I don’t believe that he is doing what he is doing without any contacts with the government. I always keep suspecting that he is being given this information by the authorities, that this is part of a struggle between different clans, and he is being used. He is crafty. He had managed to use the situation well to ignite some sort of noticeable action. This is certainly to his credit. But I view such things with a great deal of caution.” Bukovsky made this comment at the time when Navalny was still a free man, and while his brother was in jail. “It’s the usual practice,” Bukovsky explained. “Тhey cover all their bases. Making sure he doesn’t abscond.”

A lot of the old hands of Russian politics also know that nationalist movements have been traditionally overseen by the KGB / FSB — ever since the inception of the ultranationalist “Pamyat” society back in 1980. And nationalism first featured in Navalny’s curriculum vitae in 2006, when he appealed to the Moscow City Hall asking it to grant permission to conduct the nationalist Russian March — an annual demonstration of several Russian nationalist organizations, some of them neo-nazi, although in 2006 a flag showing what some reporters later described as “a conventionalized swastika” was raised by just one participant — the Head of SS-Slavic Union Dmitriy Demushkin. A quick parting of ways with the Yabloko Party (where Navalny at the time served as the regional council of the Moscow branch) followed the Russian March of 2006 with Yabloko condemning “any ethnic or racial hatred and any xenophobia.”

Another thing that the old-timers also remember well is the impenetrable wall of silence which often surrounded those of political prisoners who had been most feared by the Soviet regime. At one point in 1975 Vladimir Bukovsky’s mother could not get any information from prison authorities on whether her son was dead or alive for eight months, despite constant petitions to the Soviet leaders and appeals to international human rights organizations. By contrast, Navalny’s interviews and articles are a constant feature on the Ekho Moskvy website, which is owned by the majority state-owned oil and gas giant Gasprom. Many point out that a true enemy of the Kremlin would never be afforded such an opportunity. After all, one such enemy — Bukovsky — now has his name more or less blacklisted from mentions by all Kremlin-linked media.

Some would argue that the penitentiary system of today’s Russia is much milder than the death-dealing cells of the Vladimir prison where Bukovsky was barely surviving on punishment rations in the 1970s. But recent research by the human rights group and its revelations of endemic torture in Russian camps and prisons shows that given the hypothetical choice, one would perhaps choose Soviet confinement over a Russian prison of today. At least chances of getting raped by the prison guards were next to zero in the USSR.

One thing, however, that unites both supporters and critics of Navalny, are their calls for his release — be it coming from liberals, nationalists, his associates, or even those who actively criticize him. The inhumanity of his arrest and the trumped-up charges against him turn the stomach of all thinking people — both in Russia and abroad. Although Russia finds itself not without some select few conspiracy theorists who believe Navalny is not actually doing any time in prison at all — a far-fetched theory for which evidence is non-existent.

However, whether Navalny is popular or unpopular among the ordinary Russians is a difficult matter to gauge. A great number of young people certainly find this anti-corruption calls laudable, and some see him as the only visible alternative to the Putin regime. But the question is perhaps not how many of the regular folks support Navalny, but how many would be willing to take risks for him. And when viewed in those terms, the support for him clearly wears thin.

Given the now-illegal status of his organization and persecution of his associates who are leaving Russia in droves, few and far between are prepared to declare their support for him publicly. His imprisonment did not draw as many people out in the streets as had been expected, and his former co-workers prefer to immigrate rather than fight for his ideas in Russia.

There is however, a small chorus of well-known voices of the Russian human rights landscape, which offers constant — and very enthusiastic — support for Navalny. Those are not the generation of the old-guard dissidents whose nonconformism was forged in confrontations with the KGB in the 1960s and to whom Bukovsky remains an authority above exception. It is the generation after that — those who never suffered the burnt of the Soviet labor camps or punitive psychiatry, but who began to speak out about rights and democracy after it became safe to do so — during Gorbachev’s reforms and Yeltsin’s leadership. Where Navalny is crude, they are sophisticated. Where he is boorish, they are sarcastic. But they — remarkably — hail him as an almost Christ-like figure, viewing his prison time as “martyrdom” and his decision to return to Russia after being treated in Germany for poisoning — “a heroic act”.

These supporters of Navalny now find themselves on the receiving end of some cruel appraisals by a number of critics in the ex-Soviet countries, particularly in the Ukraine. Viktor Shenderovich — a charismatic humorist and social commentator — has back in 2018 been vilified by Ukrainian observers for piling praise on his mentor Oleg Tabakov following the latter’s passing. Tabakov was a distinguished theater director, “trusted representative” of Vladimir Putin during the 2012 elections, and an avid supporter of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

These days Shenderovich continues to be derided for failing to condemn Tabakov’s xenophobic views on the Ukrainian nation. Another accusation waged against Shenderovich is, however, more recent and is more of an aesthetic than moral kind. The matter in question is his practice of placing a notice on all of his social media posts notifying his readers that he is a “foreign agent.” Russia’s Roskomnadzor — the country’s federal agency which supervises communications, information technology, and mass media — assigns this status to anyone who, in its view, receives foreign funding while engaging in “political activity,” studying and reporting crime, corruption, or issues of the military and security industries. And, by law, any such person, media organization, or NGO must preempt their public messages with notices of their “foreign agent” status.

Many find these labelling requirement degrading and aimed to sow mistrust among the general public toward the country’s most outspoken journalists and activists. And many find the fact that Shenderovich continues to adhere to this labeling requirement not only unnecessary but also somewhat unpalatable, given the fact that he had recently emigrated from Russia and no longer lives there. Yet others defend him, pointing out that Roskomnadzor’s fines are still applicable to him and could result in depletion of his Russian assets.

The grievance, however, runs deeper than the bizarre “foreign agent” self-description or panegyrics to dead chauvinists. What vexes many commentators is the fact that while Shenderovich is widely admired among the Russian liberals, he chooses to avoid some deeply important topics. Many feel that the plight of the Crimean Tatars or the deployment of the Russian troops to suppress protests in Kazakhstan require serious scrutiny by prominent liberal opinion leaders, as do some moral issues which go right to the heart of the human rights discourse in Russia.

One such issue is Vladimir Bukovsky — the only Russian human rights activist who went to prison again, and again, and again, and again in order to speak the truth about the human rights abuses in the USSR, and the only one who organized prisoner resistance while in confinement. The fact that Shenderovich is unable these days to speak of Bukovsky and of his example while having previously — when it was relatively safe to do so — showered Bukovsky with lavish accolades, to many looks like a clear indication of one thing: That the Kremlin insists on the line being toed even by the most outspoken of its Russian critics. Which depletes their “credit of trust” as the popular phrase goes in the post-Soviet space.

Lacking the credentials of the Soviet dissidents who proved their convictions by sacrificing their freedom and risking their lives, Russian liberals such as Shenderovich find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position from the attacks of the Kremlin’s critics in Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia. Whether they are driven by fear, or a particular kind of myopia, or by plain indifference toward the plight of other nations who find themselves bullied by the Kremlin, is a finer point their critics not often discuss.

Some kinder analysts point to the fact that Russian opposition — as well as the Russian society as a whole — still, for its larger part, finds itself lacking vital English language skills. This means that it remains not only cut off from important conversations taking place in other countries, but lacks crucial tools for understanding the current Western political discourse and its genesis, as Alain Besançon used to point out as far back as the early 1970s. What follows, according to Besançon, is the nation’s isolation which often leads to chauvinism which, in turn, impoverishes it and “dries it up.”

Others express themselves in blunter terms and attribute the Russian liberals’ caution in the face of important ethical issues to them sharing the same kind of “empire mentality” as the rulers in Kremlin. Yet another opinion draws attention to the shapeshifting character of Soviet (and now post-Soviet) intelligentsia which had historically been forced to exist in a symbiosis with the government in order to survive.

Eminent political scientist Ilya Zemtsov wrote about the Soviet intelligentsia in his 1989 seminal tome “Realities and Facets of Perestroika”:

“The intelligentsia had first been ridiculed, then bullied and brought to heel, and then put in the dock in its entirety. In essence, all the political trials inspired by Stalin were reprisals against the intelligentsia. So the communists have achieved their goal. The intelligentsia has been fettered by fear — so much so that even its most independent and proud representatives began to serve them.”

Those who are still more forgiving, excuse those of the Russian intelligentsia who do not condemn their country’s war crimes in Syria, persecution of the Crimean Tatars, and the deployment of troops in Kazakhstan by drawing attention to the horrific crackdown on civil society within Russia itself: “People comment only on issues they can afford to comment on — they cannot do or say more without risking jail”.

Be it myopia, indifference, or, indeed, fear, many in Russia who before had been seen as “liberal opinion makers” are now doing things they themselves perhaps couldn’t imagine doing just a year ago. Some former human rights activists vilify and discredit political prisoners. Others — once fearless — keep off political topics and post pictures of kittens on social media. It helps some to stay safe from persecution, and it helps others to make it easier for their children to receive government funding for elegant art history documenters sponsored the the Russian Ministry of Culture — the one which had recently declared the United States “a threat” to Russia’s “traditional values.”

But all hope is certainly not lost. The older generation may succumb to government pressure, but Russian schoolchildren (those, who — according to Dostoyevsky — "when seeing a map of the night sky for the first time in their lives will hand it back to you with their own corrections") quietly wonder why Navalny — this 45-year-old man with expressionless eyes — spends hundreds of hours describing еach fine point of furnishings inside Putin’s new residence, but omits to tell them in any substantial detail about human rights, parliamentary democracy, political freedoms, Russia’s aggression abroad, and sovereignty of neighboring states. And seeing that Navalny’s videos do not offer this kind of information, they quietly switch to channels that do.

Bukovsky was well-aware of this phenomenon, and called it “the law of generations”: “Some generations take great interest in material things, while other generation take great interest in political ideas.”

New York, January 2022.

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