David Herszenhorn is the Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe editor at The Washington Post and was a correspondent for Politico Europe and The New York Times. He is the author The Dissident: Alexey Navalny: Profile of a Political Prisoner.
It’s impossible not to admire somebody who is willing to stand up for their country, for freedom and democracy, for the idea that Russians should be able to chart their own future and have a say in what their government looks like,
- Introduction – 0:44
- Navalny as a Political Figure – 3:13
- Navalny and the Russian State – 21:26
- Navalny and Russian Repression – 34:41
- Politician or Dissident? 42:45
Alexey Navalny is a rockstar of democratic politics. He is brash and confident and has actual swagger. Putin tried to kill him and he not only survived but came back to Russia after he recovered. Since then, he was arrested, tried and imprisoned.
Recently, I came across a new biography on Navalny called The Dissident: Profile of a Political Prisoner. The author, David Herszenhorn, is the Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe editor at The Washington Post and was a correspondent for Politico Europe and The New York Times.
I reached out to David to discuss Navalny as a person, a politician and a political prisoner. David provides many details about Navalny’s life, but I wanted to keep the big picture in mind. The question in the background of this episode is – What does Navalny teach us about politics and democracy?
I don’t ask David this question directly, but I think you’ll walk away with some ideas of your own. Please share them with me on social media. My handle on Facebook and X is @demparadox. But you can also share them as a comment on Spotify or a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m still looking for institutional partners for the podcast, so please reach out if you belong to a university, nonprofit, company, or foundation. But for now… This is my conversation with David Herszenhorn…
David Herszenhorn, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
David, I usually start out by introducing the book, but I’d like to kind of break from that just to congratulate you on the new position with the Washington Post as their Russia and Eastern Europe editor. Congratulations. It’s an amazing position.
Well, thanks so much and a challenging one given the war situation.
No, definitely, definitely. And obviously all of us are impressed with the efforts that the Washington Post has been doing. Their international coverage is just very impressive. But you also have this new book coming out, which was a great read. It’s called The Dissident: Alexey Navalny, Profile of a Political Prisoner. It’s a fascinating read because Navalny is somebody who’s captured just about everybody’s imagination who pays attention to Russia, but didn’t know him even as well as I thought I did. I thought I knew more about him than I did. So, when I read your book, I felt like I got a much more complete picture of who Navalny is and what he means. So, why don’t we kind of start there from like the big picture view? What do you think makes Alexey Navalny so unique and captivating as an opposition figure within Russia?
Thank you, Justin, so much. You know, it’s exactly what I was hoping people would say when they read this book, because in fact, Navalny is a media creature and a media expert. He’s really talented and has been and his team has been at shaping his image in curating and cultivating that. In fact, there are many reasons why certain aspects of Navalny are quite well known and other aspects are not so well known. Some of that is about a Western-Russian divide, but some of that is because of really careful image shaping that they’ve done. That’s partly why they weren’t excited about this book and weren’t cooperating with this book, putting aside that Navalny himself, who I’d met previously as a correspondent in Russia, was already in a prison colony when the book project started.
But Navalny, as some of his very closest political associates and longtime friends told me, is a political animal. I mean, what makes Navalny so fascinating in many ways, and he describes this as being part of this bridge generation between the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, people born between 1976 and 1982 who really have vivid memories of what the Soviet Union was like, but then were part of this transition and somehow in all of that mix. So, when Russia really in the early nineties became this freewheeling, almost too free democracy, Navalny caught the politics bug. He always wanted to be in politics and he wanted to see himself as a future candidate. He still does. For that reason, the dissident title does not sit well with them. They don’t like that at all. We’ll talk more about that.
But in terms of who Alexey Navalny was and is and, of cours, he’s been evolving over these years, but he got his start working in local politics in Moscow for Yabloko, a liberal progressive political party. He ended up getting ejected from that party, expelled because he was flirting with far right and nationalist forces in part, because again, for the real political motivation of trying to find a viable coalition, to forge a viable alliance, between anti-Putin forces, anti-establishment forces that might be able to take on this Kremlin and it never worked. All he did was get grief for it and he complains about that. But in the end, it caused him nothing but grief. But he does share some of these Russian nationalist views, but he’s not an extremist. He’s not a far right guy. He’s never called for violence.
But Navalny has always worked in politics. Then he took up this crusade against corruption that really touched a nerve. There again, it’s not that he started out necessarily as an anti-corruption gadfly, although he was perfectly trained for it it turns out having trained as a lawyer and having a background in finance. He liked reading the stock prospectuses and all the fine print, that kind of stuff, but what I think really appealed to him as this got going in the mid to late 2000s was that he touched a political nerve. That he was suddenly hugely popular with this following online with a blog. LiveJournal was the blogging platform in Russia.
He had tapped into this frustration, this anger, this sense among Russians that so much was being stolen from them starting with the privatization excesses of the early nineties, but then continued as what had been a democracy, market reform, capitalism project run amok turned into a kleptocracy where Putin and his cronies and people who are in his regime and authorized by him were basically grabbing and stealing everything they could and Navalny would go and put a spotlight on this. Really, that’s when people started talking about him as a future presidential candidate.
Now, in other countries, you don’t start with people first saying you’re going to go for the top job. But in Russia, everything is so focused on that strong executive presidency, what we now know of as managed democracy, but it’s really autocracy. You know, Navalny started to be seen as someone who could be an alternative to Putin. Certainly, that’s how the West embraced him. That dream looks more and more unrealistic now that he’s in a prison colony with sentences stacked up totaling 30 years at least with no sign he’ll get out. In fact, he may lose his life in these harsh conditions.
If we want to start there with the ‘who is Alexey Navalny?’ He is a Russian politician or that’s what he wants to be. Someone who believes that Russia is not destined to be this autocratic, repressive state, but in fact could be a thriving democracy if only there was a free and fair court system, if only there was a free and fair press, if only there were free and fair elections, he was absolutely convinced that Russia was capable of that kind of a future. That it could head in that direction. It has not happened. In fact, we’ve seen a much darker turn as Putin has not only pursued this kind of revanchist Soviet imperialist route, but begun a ruinous, awful war in which thousands of people are dying.
So, when I look at other countries that are autocratic, countries that we’re hoping will become democracies in the future, it seems like in the West, particularly in the United States, we grab on to a singular opposition figure that we can put our hopes into. So, for instance, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar was one example. I think Nelson Mandela in South Africa is another perfect example. In Russia, for a long time, that person was actually Boris Nemtsov. I mean, he was the original opposition figure that many of us were pinning our hopes on as being the future of Russian democracy.
And Alexey Navalny is interesting because he starts to make a name and appear within the West before Nemtsov is assassinated. He exists within the same timeline and exists within many Russian experts’ consciousness within that same timeline. What makes Navalny different than Nemtsov as an opposition figure and as somebody that we think of as a leader that could transition Russia into a democracy one day?
So, it’s a really interesting question and a great point. Indeed, Navalny and Nemtsov were colleagues. They knew each other. They were on friendly terms. Navalny had seen him shortly before he was killed on a bridge right near the Kremlin. One thing that Navalny pointed out then is because they were talking about a demonstration, a protest they had planned, Navalny knew it was impossible that Kremlin agents were not following Nemtsov and watching what was going on. They had to have been on his tail, watching everything that happened, even if they weren’t directly responsible and the Kremlin wasn’t directly responsible for his assassination. They had to have known.
So, in Navalny’s case, one thing is that he’s younger. Nemtsov actually had served in government as a deputy prime minister, as a governor. A different profile there because Navalny, in fact, and some would say this has been a flaw and a gap in Navalny’s resume, really has not served in government. At one point he became an advisor, but an outside advisor to Nikita Belykh, who was made the governor, the appointed governor, of Kirov region that turned into a lot of headaches for Navalny because he was accused of all kinds of things. Some of the court cases that were brought against him stemmed from that time when he was working as an advisor, outside advisor, to a governor seen as a reform minded liberal figure. Belykh himself ended up in jail in Russia.
Again, you see anybody who has presented a challenge or an alternative to Putin and United Russia, which is his party now, but also the Siloviki who were known as the security agents, Putin, of course, being a KGB officer himself. But for Navalny, he was trying always to forge a new type of political party and a movement partly based in this idea of the anti-corruption work that he’d done. In his view, Nemtsov and others who had gone into politics immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union were part of these initial opposition parties. They had failed. They had never been able to gain a foothold. Obviously, there were issues there with Yeltsin and Yeltsin’s reelection. But Navalny had this idea that Russia really could build a new system.
Now, a lot of complications come into play. But one thing that as you bring up Nemtsov, I think it’s important to keep in mind is just how in that again, politician kind of way, Navalny thought he was exceptional. He’d come to believe he was something special because if you recognize that this guy you’re working with was just shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin, you would think Navalny would have a little bit more foresight about just how dangerous the work was that he was doing. A lot of people were asking him, ‘Why are you still alive?’ He’d say he got kind of tired and bored of the question.
But certainly, at that moment, after an attempted assassination, when he was poisoned with a chemical weapon and had to be medevaced to Germany, when he was thinking about going back to Russia, which he insisted on doing, one would think he would have paused then and said, ‘Wait a minute, these guys aren’t fooling around.’ This is not, you know, one of these animated adventure shows that he loves so much like Rick and Morty. You don’t just come back to life after you get poisoned by an FSB hit squad. It takes months, as it did for him. He was in a medically induced coma. He could not envision himself ever living outside of Russia and he did not want to be seen as a dissident.
First and foremost, that label really didn’t sit well because of the Soviet legacy. Also, he did not want to especially be seen as a dissident in exile. He thought that would be the end of his political career. In hindsight, he probably would have had a better chance fighting for the future of Russia had he stayed out of the country, given that Putin was already, we now know, preparing to go to war in Ukraine and that the fate of one man compared to a country of 40 million that’s about to be invaded with thousands dying, vastly underestimated, as maybe all of us did, the extent that Putin was willing to go to try to fulfill this neo-imperialist Soviet revanchist vision of Russia as a restored superpower.
Yeah, before we get into the way that the arc of Navalny’s life really kind of showcases the way that the arc of Russia’s descent into authoritarianism, like, I feel like those two really parallel each other. I do want to kind of get a better sense of Navalny himself, especially as a politician. One of the things that you just noted was his involvement in the state, I guess I would say, Kirov where he was a consultant there. You mentioned how his time there created some complications with the law that the Russian state tried to bring up corruption charges and stuff that you demonstrate in the book are just a joke that they’re even trying to pursue those charges.
But one of the things that you brought up in the book that was really fascinating was that he really went after corruption in that area. But he upset a lot of just average people in the region that for somebody who thinks of himself as a politician, he didn’t really endear himself with the people when he was actually in charge of public policy. I just wonder what that experience really tells us about Navalny’s strengths and his weaknesses as a politician and as a public figure.
It’s a great point. I mean, this is one of the contradictions and all aspiring politicians, I think, have them in some ways. But there was this idea that he was going to succeed where others had failed before him and I think the difficulty of governing… Again, he wasn’t the governor, he was an outside advisor, so he didn’t have ultimate responsibility for decision making. He was advising, It’s important to keep in mind and Kirov, I spent time there when he was on trial, and you get the sense of this place in the spring is just full of mud. This is a region that really relies on the timber industry. It’s heavily forested. Russia, as many of us know, is an extraction economy, but when we think about that we first think gas, Gazprom, of oil, Rosneft, Yukos before that.
But in fact, another aspect of Russia’s extraction economy is the pillaging of its forests and its timber and its wood. So, the entire region lives off of this. When you have a system where essentially this is the whole economy and the whole economy is built on corrupt schemes, but everybody is living off of this venture, this corrupt venture, when you start to tinker with it and try to reform it, you will encounter huge obstacles and pushback. That’s exactly what happened. There were folks who were extremely angry because he looked at this and said, ‘Wait a minute, none of this makes sense. If this thing is built to make money, how can it be losing money for the regional government and for Russian taxpayers?’ And yet, of course, those entrenched interests pushed back immediately, very hard on him.
So, he quickly realized he needed to get out of there. That this was not going well. But again, to your point about how far-fetched some of these cases were, at every level, the allegations were essentially being thrown out and rejected. Local law enforcement prosecutors didn’t want to touch it. Then they tried to push it with regional prosecutors. Not interested. Finally, Moscow, the investigative committee, insist on bringing this case, accusing him of, it wasn’t even actually embezzlement, it was causing harm as a result of embezzlement. These were really quirky, strange charges that ultimately were brought against him, but they ended up sticking in the sense that they were able to trail him and then with a conviction that did bar him from running for office, even as the European court in Strasbourg, human rights, throws it out and says this was not a legitimate conviction.
To me what was most striking actually about the initial trial in Kirov was that there was a judge, he’s mentioned in the book, named Sergei Blinov. This was a guy who was exactly Navalny’s age. They’re both born in 1976. Both part of that post-Soviet generation bridging over to the Russian Federation. They’d gone to law school, followed similar paths in their academic pursuits. Yet one of them became this crusader trying to take on the system and dismantle it. The other was the servant of the system. He had something like a 100% conviction rate and he’d been a small village kind of judge and then moved up to Kirov, which is the regional capital based on this because of course, in the Russian system, if you’re indicted, if you’re charged with something, you must be guilty. Therefore, you’re convicted. End of story.
It really became quite a case study there in how politicized the justice system was already at that point and it’s gotten worse. Where Navalny and a co-defendant were convicted, then there are protests in Moscow, and the next day it’s basically taken back. It’s going to be a suspended sentence with an appeal, just sort of ridiculous. At that point, part of why Navalny’s conviction was set aside briefly was to allow him, because somebody in the Kremlin thought it was a good idea, to allow him to run for mayor of Moscow. Create the appearance of a real competitive election, even though he was running with this threat of jail time hanging over his head, plus no access to media as candidates, of course, in a democracy need, you know, access to free media and paid media.
Absolutely overwhelmed by the benefits that the Kremlin was able to bring to the official Putin approved candidate, Sergei Sobyanin. Interestingly, in a virtual election about a year earlier that was conducted by two news organizations, Navalny won in a giant landslide. They asked, ‘Who would you vote for mayor?’ And Navalny won and Sobyanin, who became the mayor, was a distant fifth or sixth. I can’t even remember at this point, but the point is Sobyanin ended up winning with Navalny getting 30 percent or so, much more than was ever expected.
But of course, the minute that defeat was locked in and the Kremlin had done this kind of kabuki theater election show, he was in court. Demanded that sometimes he be in the court in Kirov and a court in Moscow on the same day and the courts had to deconflict their schedules because his legal troubles were already getting that bad.
Just this week we saw he appeared at a hearing by video. They won’t let him out of the prison colony even to attend a court hearing that he had. He had no legal representation because now three of his lawyers were arrested themselves. Two others have fled and are out of Russia. I mean, it’s a complete dismantling of the justice system in Russia just to prevent Navalny from having a platform and an ability to speak to the outside world. So, that tells you a little bit about how much he is still hated and feared.
One of the things I got from the book that I find very heartening about Navalny is that he seems very committed to institutions within Russia. For instance, many people thought he shouldn’t have run for mayor within Moscow, because it wasn’t a fair race. It wasn’t a fair election and in many ways he was being played. I mean, he was being used so that the Kremlin could claim that they were having a free and fair election when really, they weren’t. By saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to allow Navalny to be in the race, but we’re not going to allow the circumstances for him to actually have a fair vote and for him to actually win.’ And even if he did win, we’re going to stuff the ballot box, whatever it might be to keep him from actually gaining office but we’re going to make it look like we can let him run.
Navalny sincerely believes that he wants to be able to get people to participate in the political process even though it’s corrupt, even though it’s not legitimate. He wants there to be involvement. He wants to play a role in that process, wants to get people to believe in it. Even within the court system, not only does he go through all of these trials and was willing to come back to Russia to do that, but he looks for every single opportunity to be able to use those institutions to his advantage, such as the many speeches that he gives after he’s sentenced. He tries to be able to use those institutions to be able to move them in a way that if Russia was to democratize that the institutions aren’t completely tossed aside. That hopefully they can be democratized in the process.
He has no choice, because there’s no other platform. But it wasn’t always that way. Let’s be clear. There were times when Navalny was calling for a boycott of elections and he turned against that. He decided that that was a mistake. This was a conscious decision of recognition that, as you’re saying, in a country where there are limited opportunities for public engagement that it was a mistake to tell people not to participate. So, the better course he decided was to go forward campaign as best you can even when all of the deck is stacked against you.
In 2018, he was running for president, even though his convictions on these trumped-up charges barred him from being a candidate. Eventually the court refused to allow him on the ballot. But he was opening campaign offices all over the country, traveling all over Russia, which is not a small place, city to city, opening these local offices, building a team of volunteers mounting this campaign and telling them, ‘Okay, if you’re going to shut me down, you’re going to be forced to shut me down.’ He wasn’t going to do it for them. He developed this system together with his longtime top political aid, Leonid Volkov called smart voting.
They were using an app. I mean, the Kremlin has done everything to dismantle this, where it was basically vote for anybody but United Russia, which is Putin’s party, the party that is in control of the Duma, the lower house of parliament and the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament – anybody but. Some of those anybody buts were pretty unsavory characters. Navalny has been asked about this, ‘What about the ethics?’ You know, we need to break the monopoly is what he was saying. You have to break this monopoly and show that these people staying in power is not inevitable. That there is a way to defeat them. At one point, they had supported a guy who was old and ill, knowing he was going to die.
Navalny is asked this in an online interview, YouTube interview, about the kind of ethics of this, ‘Why do you support this guy only hoping he would die and then you can replace him?’ In fact, that is what happened and Navalny admitted that this was not the most pleasant strategy at times. You do have to hold your nose, but that in fact they wanted to show that if all of these opposition forces could band together and fight against this stacked system, it was possible to win. They have had some success before it was completely shut down with people chased out of the country or thrown in jail, you know, a miscalculation there of underestimating how far Putin and the machine were willing to go to prevent any challenge and crush any dissent whatsoever.
So, while I’m giving Navalny a lot of credit for working within institutions. I’m still struggling, because I don’t necessarily think Navalny was able to truly build the institutions necessary to be able to challenge Putin, to be able to challenge the Kremlin. The part of your book that really sticks with me is his relationship with Yabloko where he really struggled to find a place within that political party. As you said, he was eventually forced out of it, they actually kicked him out of that political party.
It definitely feels that at times Navalny struggles to be able to play well with others. That if he’s not in charge, he’s having a hard time actually working with other people within their programs. Let’s say that he needs to be the star of the show. That’s the impression that I’m getting. Is that fair? I mean, is there something I should know about Navalny that’s different?
It certainly became fair. It certainly became truer as he grew in fame and stature and he became seen as the leader of the opposition that he wanted to be first among equals. Masha Gaidar, the daughter of the former acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, has talked about this. She’s known Navalny a very long time. She said she’s heard of those times when he was really insisting to be front and center. But she remembers when he was just starting out in politics and he was a nobody. It didn’t help him at all to be doing these jobs and working within Yabloko and within a civic group they called the Committee to Protect Muscovites, you know, really retail grassroots local politics. There was not a lot of fame, certainly not a lot of money to get out of it.
Navalny had high hopes for Yabloko, but he quickly became very frustrated. What he realized, and I don’t think he was wrong about this, I do think he had a strong point, which was that these opposition forces had become very fatalistic. They were not going to be successful. They sort of accepted the fact that they were not going to be successful and they were living off the financial flows, the money that would come to being an officially recognized party. He really got disillusioned with Yavlinsky who was the head of Yabloko who was a big figure, in many ways a bigger figure outside of Russia than he was inside of Russia. You know, constant appearances at Harvard and other places in the US, recognized as this voice of a more liberal, progressive, democratic mindset in Russia.
But in Russia, he was gaining no traction. In fact, from the polling results, which we recount in the book only kept going down and down and down the number of seats they were supposed to win in the Duma, et cetera. He’s looking at this and saying, he didn’t want to be part of a losing proposition. He wanted to win and he does have an issue, this is a personality quirk where he doesn’t back down from fights. This is partly growing up as a military brat. You know, a lot of scuffling, nunchucks. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big hero as Schwarzenegger, Austrian bodybuilder, later California governor was for many in Navalny’s generation. But he’s a fighter. He is a fighter and if he’s challenged to a fight, and that is a bit of a danger there, he doesn’t know how to walk away.
That has gotten him into trouble at times where he really wants to go nose to nose, no matter how unsavory his opponent might be, no matter what the political cost might be. One example was when Igor Strelkov, the former KGB officer involved in the annexation and invasion of Crimea and convicted in a court later in a court in the Netherlands for the downing of MH-17, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine, challenged him to a debate. Now, this is a guy who already was being accused of war crimes. Even some of Navalny’s supporters were like, ‘Why would you give this guy bandwidth? Why would you get on TV or on video with him, on YouTube, and give him any credibility?’
And when he was asked, ‘Is he a war criminal?’ Navalny said, ‘Well, that’s for a court to decide.’ Well, in short order, a court in the Netherlands did decide that indeed Strelkov was a war criminal, but challenged to that debate, Navalny was not going to turn it down or walk away from it. But again, starting out he went with the party that he thought was going to be the one that he could really find common cause with and that he thought had a chance to win something. But very quickly became disillusioned and realized if he stayed with them, he would lose. So, what he needed to do was form his own party and get out on his own.
That prompted a flirtation with nationalism and the far right. He does self-identify as a Russian nationalist, not an extremist, but was part of founding a movement called “Narod,” Nation looking to see could there be a mainstream liberal, progressive nationalist movement that would pose a challenge to Putin. It never came together and never quite worked out.
But yes, you know, retail politics once upon a time and then later, indeed, wanting to be, and then this is part of the image control, seen as the leader of the opposition. After Angela Merkel visited him in his hospital room, he said that that was only natural. He’s the leading opposition politician. Why shouldn’t the chancellor of Germany pay him a visit in the hospital? Others look at that and say, ‘Well, you’ve never actually been elected to anything. That doesn’t happen for everybody,’ But certainly, skilled enough in his messaging to have achieved that stature and recognition and have world leaders constantly looking after him and asking about him.
So, he obviously left Yabloko because he wanted to be able to build a larger, more massive movement that could potentially win a majority within Russia. How successful has Navalny been at that? At his height, what has his popularity actually been with the Russian people? And of course, I want to add in the caveat that Putin and the Kremlin and United Russia have done everything they possibly can to be able to tarnish his reputation and to be able to make it so he doesn’t have as large of a microphone, but I mean, Navalny has been very successful at getting his name out there. What’s the reaction from the Russian people to Navalny?
So, his anti-corruption work, which began in the mid to late 2000s was a sensation. He touched a nerve and he loved it. It was because of the political benefit there where he realized he’d found an issue that resonated with many everyday Russians pointing out this awful graft on an astronomical scale in some cases. The shareholder rights that he would fight for, it turned out he was perfectly trained for this as a lawyer with a degree in finance. He liked to read company prospectuses and all the fine print, get into that sort of stuff. He traveled out to Siberia to attend the annual meeting of one of the energy companies. So that work in anti-corruption really did strike a nerve.
What we can point to in terms of how was the public reacting to him was when he was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow, he got nearly 30 percent of the vote. Much more than was expected. That was without any access to free media where it’s to such an extent, not only do they deny him access to the federal channels, but when his name is on the federal channels, it’s always in the context of being prosecuted for some sort of malfeasance. So, the portrait that’s painted for the Russian public of him is quite distorted on mainstream television – one of a criminal, basically, when he’s the guy who’s been crusading against criminals. If there were free and fair elections, if there were access to media, we have every reason to believe that his popularity would be much higher than it has been.
But in fact, Putin doesn’t even say Navalny’s name. There’s only one point where we know that he spoke Navalny’s name. When he was asked why he never says his name, he responds. Navalny is a leader of the opposition, but in fact, it’s always this gentleman or the defendant or the figure you mentioned or these euphemisms in the same way and to some degree that it’s called a special military operation instead of a war. He’s doing everything he can to never even acknowledge Navalny’s existence. Sometimes he’s referred to him as another Saakashvili, likening him to Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president who led the Rose Revolution. Putin actually does seem to believe this stuff. He’s convinced himself that these are all revolutionaries who are going to lead popular uprisings and the country’s going to spin out of control.
There was a lot of fair criticism of Saakashvili, but he ran Georgia as a country, as a responsible leader welcomed in the West and then stepped away when his party lost. There was a peaceful transfer of power in Georgia. One of the few that’s happened in the post-Soviet space. So, from that perspective Navalny has tried his best to present himself as a credible alternative helped by his media savvy, YouTube channels and all the like to make up for this gap. But he has expressed frustration in the past of the fact that he cannot get the attention that you would need, that is essential, to mount any kind of successful campaign, certainly a national campaign in a country geographically as large as Russia is.
So, we mentioned earlier that Nemtsov was assassinated, and it was close to 10 years ago now. I mean, it’s been a long time, and Navalny’s really been the face of the opposition since then and he was well known even before Nemtsov was assassinated. Why wasn’t he put into jail earlier? Why wasn’t there an assassination attempt earlier? Why hasn’t there been a successful assassination attempt? Why has Navalny been allowed to do all the things that he’s done for so long?
So, there are many theories about this. One is that the failed assassination attempts, and there were several, we believe, were actually failures on purpose. The attempt was to scare him, to force him to leave the country, to avoid making a martyr out of him. I’m not sure I buy that. I think certainly in August 2020 with the poisoning attempt, it seemed they were out to kill him at that point. He’s not the only one. Let’s keep in mind, Navalny is also not the only one in jail: Ilya Yashin, a longtime colleague of Navalny’s and of Nemtsov, also in jail; Vladimir Kara-Murza. I mean, the level of repression that’s going on in Russia is quite alarming. Navalny though was very successful.
In some ways it was deceptive, even for himself thinking that he had gotten too popular, too big for Putin to really try to kill or eliminate, put in jail and then throw away the key. But that in fact is what has happened. There was an underestimation of what he was up against. That the Kremlin has always done this dance of not wanting to, again, create a martyr. It would accelerate his popular support. So always this back and forth. Let him out. Push him back. Now, in the case of the assassination attempt in 2020, once he came back, the idea was he wouldn’t die. So, now he’s going to be put in jail forever. There are many ways to take a life. I put this out in the book. If poison failed, it would be prison.
I mean, you’re right that there’s a lot of opposition figures that have been put in jail and there’s been a lot of repression in Russia going back even before 2020, obviously. But at the same time, the trajectory of Navalny’s career definitely parallels the trajectory of Russia moving from a repressive state, something that a lot of people would consider to be competitive authoritarian, still having some democratic aspects to it, even though elections were not free and fair.
It’s definitely moved over the course of the past few years, particularly since 2020, probably highlighted by Navalny’s arrest and his attempted assassination has really descended into something that’s a much darker form of autocracy during that period highlighted by the war in Ukraine and the repression against the press and everything else within Russia. I mean, can we kind of connect the dots in terms of a real shift within Russia that happened in terms of the shift that they began treating Navalny differently at a certain stage.
Sure, but you’re also reminding me why you’re called the democracy paradox. I mean, this is the democracy paradox. Democracy is our greatest strength and it’s also our weakness. The fact that Putin can look at photographs of the G7 or the G8 and he’s the only one left standing because all those other bozos have to face elections or term limits. You start to see how democracy creates an Achilles heel for societies and allows someone like Putin to create this managed democracy and also a false bargain. When I lived in Moscow, the parks were beautiful. The Moscow subway stations are like museums, you know, art exhibits, each and every one of them. The train comes every 30 seconds. It’s amazing.
I’ll go back home to New York and I’m in midtown Manhattan waiting for a train five minutes, seven minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. It’s the middle of a workday. Where’s the train? This is the false deal that’s made. Living in Moscow can be really nice and pleasant. In exchange, you don’t have free and fair elections for the mayor or for the president. Navalny’s trajectory indeed matches this growing authoritarianism on Putin’s part, this tightening of the authoritarian fist over time. No question about it. He’s also a creature, as you say, of the aspects of freedom that folks who had lived in the Soviet Union really enjoyed. This is part of the problem. It explains Putin in many ways.
I mean, there are folks in Russia who remember how bad it was during Soviet times, who remember how the country was practically starving, literally starving at some points in the 1990s and Putin rode this wave of rising oil and gas prices. Now you go to a supermarket in Russia and you can find everything you can find in an American big box store plus more. You know, stuff from Asia, imports that you don’t get so easily in the United States and people say, ‘Okay, life is not that bad and it’s actually pretty good.’ But it is a false bargain where you can content yourself to a nice life and yet you’re not truly free.
Indeed, here’s one example, it’s a tiny small detail, but some folks point to it as a reason why the white ribbon protests in Moscow, which in Russia followed the end of 2011 going into 2012. Putin announces he’s coming back to the presidency. He’d swapped with Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev who’d been prime minister becomes president. It’s called the tandem switch and is just this complete disrespect for the democratic system where there’s supposed to be an election. Putin announces not only is there not going to be a free and fair election, but he’s just coming back. After that there was a parliamentary election that was rife with fraud and with cell phone cameras suddenly everybody could see the fraud happening. I mean, the stuffing of the ballot boxes and everything else.
Navalny starts to skyrocket to fame at some of the protests that followed that election. But at one point, having been arrested in a protest, he spends two weeks in jail, comes back out, attends another protest. This is in December of 2011. A week or so later, we’re at the New Year holidays in Russia, Christmas, New Year holidays and Navalny is doing interviews from Mexico where he’s on vacation. He’s part of this generation. He met his wife at a resort in Turkey. You know, this is a generation of Russians who became accustomed to going out and being able to travel the world and enjoy the sights, et cetera. So, there’s Navalny in Mexico logging onto LiveJournal and blogging and talking up the ongoing protests.
But as some people, including Masha Gaidar said, those protests in those months, as impressive as some of them were as there’d been nothing like it for years, they were too happy. That in fact, the protesters were going out and picketing and denouncing Putin in between hanging out with each other at a trendy bar, going to the movies or whatever it was. Life was just too good to sustain a real uprising that would potentially topple the government. And in that sense, Putin has been very crafty in keeping the quality of life, at least in the big cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, high enough that Navalny trying to make the case that life is miserable in the further regions of Russia hasn’t been able to get as much traction as he would have if they’d let the subways fall apart or the parks.
Gorky Park that I wrote about the makeover is one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Now it creates this very strange and from folks that I’ve talked to have been back sinister situation where there’s this awful horrific war going on. Then you’ve got still these trendy, beautiful restaurants and life going on as normal in Moscow, except when some drone is attacking. It’s a very good point that in fact, Navalny and Putin have been sort of in parallel with Putin really keeping his foot on Navalny’s throat, so to speak the entire time. Even saying at one point, ‘Navalny had a choice. He could have stayed out. He could have stayed out of the country. He came back, so he was arrested. There’s nothing to talk about.’
You call the book, the dissident. You’ve mentioned the fact that Navalny’s people don’t like that word. Navalny doesn’t like that term. Being called a dissident implies that there isn’t really a next step for him. So, let me ask you, being a dissident what is the next act for Navalny? Does he have a political future?
It’s looking very, very bleak, to be honest. Let’s talk a little bit about this dissident label, which he really disdained and did not ever want. Leonid Volkov, his closest advisor, long time head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and his campaign manager for all the campaigns and almost all the campaigns that Navalny’s ever run. When we talked about this, Navalny and his people viewed the Soviet dissidents, as admirable, honorable, and brave as they were, Navalny and his people saw them as losers. Not losers in the colloquial sense. They really admired them, but losers in that they never won anything. The lucky ones were able to get out of prison. They were able to escape to the West, to the United States or to Israel where they were greeted as heroes. They were able to speak out.
But in fact, they never were able to change Russia in the way that they wanted. Navalny never wanted to be seen that way. He wanted to be seen as a politician, as a candidate, as a future leader of his country. He especially never wanted to be seen as a dissident in exile. He thought that would spell political death. That’s why he went back after confronting almost real death in being poisoned. He insisted on going back, thinking that if he stayed out of the country his political career would be over. In hindsight that might not have been true because what Putin was about to undertake with the war in Ukraine might mean that a very different type of transition would need to take place and that perhaps a government, a future government forming an exile would be one of the only paths forward.
Right now, the way things look and what we see is Navalny has got these sentences of 30 years stacked up, Putin in office, potentially until 2036 or beyond. If Navalny survives prison, it’s very hard to see how he has a political future in part because his evolving views and evolved views on Ukraine have now brought him in direct opposition to many of the people that he would need to vote for him for president of Russia. Navalny has now come out very forcefully against the war, declaring that Ukraine’s 1991 borders need to be respected, though he’d waffled a bit on Crimea in the past. that Ukraine is due compensation and Russia should pay compensation using its oil and gas revenue.
It’s hard to see how that catches on with a public that at the moment are losing husbands, brothers, sons, fathers in this war that Putin has convinced them is just and necessary as much of all of us realize it’s a war of aggression. There was no need for this. So, in that sense, it’s hard to envision a political future for Navalny unless there is the kind of reckoning in Russia that there was in Germany after World War II. But that would only come about with a total defeat of Russia. We don’t see that as likely in part because Russia has the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal and Putin and his allies have threatened that if there’s an existential threat to their state, they would detonate a nuclear bomb. Now that seems crazy given it would have to be next door.
But in fact, that is the threat and it’s hard to see how there would be that kind of defeat and that kind of reckoning. So, Navalny’s challenges at this point are to survive the very harsh conditions, and they are extremely harsh conditions, in a Russian prison colony. If he survives, then to see whether he could build a political movement with everybody who has been in opposition in Russia now either jailed or exiled. I mean, dissent has been completely crushed. A sort of corollary to this, that we haven’t talked about, is that Navalny has at times and he’s very distrusted if not despised in Ukraine at the moment, because he’s viewed as a Russian nationalist and also as a Russian imperialist.
But what many people don’t know, and this is part of the carefully managed profile and image, is that Navalny himself is half Ukrainian. His father was born in Ukraine. Navalny is half Ukrainian. So, when Navalny has said things that seem to echo Putin’s view that Russia and Ukraine are brother nations, he said he thought it was inevitable that one day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus would all live together as one country again. When Navalny looks in the mirror, a Russian and Ukrainian being the same person, that’s him. That’s true. That’s his reality. That’s how he grew up. He spent all of his summers as a kid until he was eight years old in this village where his grandparents lived near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where his father was born before the plant even existed.
Then one spring comes and they said, ‘Don’t send Lyosha this year. There’s been an accident. There was a meltdown.’ His family had to evacuate. They had to leave. He’s gone back and seeing his grandparents abandoned house in the exclusion zone inside on the floor, a jacket that he used to wear as a kid when he was there for these summers. So, this war has been quite a personal tragedy for Navalny and also presented him with this incredible political quandary, which is how, again, do you as a politician walk this tightrope? I mean, in 2014, and let’s remember this war started in 2013-2014 when Ukraine was on the brink of signing a political and economic agreements with the EU and Putin pushed back on that. The Maidan revolution happens because Yanukovych has broken his promise to sign those agreements. He’s not going to sign.
Then Putin invades after Yanukovych flees. Putin invades Crimea and annexes Crimea in violation of international law. But at that point, and I was living in Russia then, the taking back of Crimea was hugely popular. I mean, Crimea is a place that so many Russians know as a summer vacation destination. When I try to explain it to Americans, I say, ‘Look, you have to envision that by some work of history, the United States lost South Florida and not just South Florida, Orlando. What would happen if then some president grabs it back? Would people say, ‘Oh, that’s a violation of international law or would they say Disney nash? Disney is ours. That’s what Russia was saying. Crimea nash. Crimea is ours.
Again, violation of international law, but a genuine public sentiment, so Navalny tries to have it both ways. He’s a politician recognizing to be against Crimea as part of Russia or to be against the idea that Crimea is Russian, a place where most people are native Russian speakers was untenable. Yet at the same time saying, this was a violation of international law. The referendum should have been done differently. There was no legal way to carry out the annexation that Putin carried out. In fact, it was very much an invasion. Some folks like to say there was not a shot fired. I was there. There were shots fired. I can play the video where you can hear the gunfire in the background.
But the point being that Navalny then goes on the radio and he’s pushed on this and even is asked, pressed by Venediktov, the head of Ekho Moskvt Radio, ‘Would you give Crimea back if you ever became president?’ And he says, ‘What is Crimea a bologna sandwich to pass back and forth?’ Of course, this infuriated Ukrainians and they also are infuriated by this idea of Russia and Ukraine as brother nations, especially now after the big invasion in 2022. For Navalny, this was sort of a natural thing. This is how he grew up as Russians and Ukrainians being one and the same.
But since then, because of the war and because of his own persecution, Navalny has evolved and clarified his views coming out very forcefully against the war. He has come out very strongly for compensating Ukraine, withdrawing the troops, immediately calling for Russia to eventually be a parliamentary republic, and weakening the overly strong presidency choosing that as the way forward. But the political quandary is that he is not trusted by Ukrainians who see him as a Russian nationalist and a Russian imperialist. They don’t realize that he’s half Ukrainian and don’t even care because they say Putin has this concept of the Russian world, the Russkiy mir.
Navalny’s complaint was never about that sort of Russian superiority, that Russia should lead this Slavic coalition. But in fact, he was mad that Putin was undermining it. That Putin was screwing it up. What Ukrainians would like is for him to recognize Ukrainians have their right to self-determination. They are a distinct nation with a distinct history. On some levels, Navalny has admitted that, even expressing envy that Ukrainians twice rose up and took to the streets for democracy in the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 and the Maidan Revolution in 2013-2014 showing how much they want democracy and Navalny asking will Russians ever do this? There has not been a sign of that kind of push in Russia.
But if you think about Yanukovych, who was president of Ukraine when the Maidan revolution happened, things were tough. He was facing sustained protests on the streets, some violence, including police shooting at protesters. But at some point, Yanukovych fled. He decided for legitimate reasons or maybe imagined reasons, he was going to run and he fled and took refuge in Russia. He had the military and the police at his command. Fast forward to Zelensky in 2022 who’s got the world’s second biggest military, the largest nuclear arsenal, bearing down on him and refuses to leave his capital when he’s offered a ride famously by the West to get him out. So again, for Navalny there’s much to admire in Ukraine, but for Ukrainians, there’s much to suspect and worry about in Navalny.
So, not well loved on the Ukrainian side and on the Russian side distrusted because he’s portrayed over and over again as some kind of traitor, some kind of extremist. I mean, it’s laughable because if Navalny is an extremist, it means that demanding free elections and democracy is extreme. He’s never been one to call for violent protest. All he’s done is make a lot of jokes and poke fun at the horrific, ridiculous theft and graft by Putin and his cronies and then later complaining about this murderous war of aggression.
Whenever I read a biography, I find that the biographer either admires the person that they’re writing about or they portray them as a villain and they very much disrespect that person. Reading this biography, I get the impression that you greatly admire Alexey Navalny. I mean, it comes across that you have a very supportive vision of him and that you admire him a lot. Do you see him as somebody that you think of as a hero just on a personal level?
It’s interesting you say that because I think that people close to him would very much object to some of the spotlight on his nationalism, even on his racism. He’s somebody who’s used racist language in the past, in a personal context with a coworker at Yabloko at one point. Even though he denied it, it’s fairly well established that in fact, he’s used these slurs. I would say that what I hope we’ve achieved in this book is a news driven biography that portrays Navalny in a realistic way, not overly heroic as some of his supporters do portray him.
He does see himself as kind of leading a band of superheroes. It’s funny, but also true that they’re on these adventures. One day they’re going after Medvedev and his palatial estates that he’s got. Another day. tackling the prosecutor general’s family who’s grown rich with owning a luxury hotel in Greece or whatever it is. Navalny, no question, is extraordinarily brave. As journalists, we try not to take sides, but we do side with the truth. We do side with the rule of law. We do side with civilization against these forces of repression. So, in that sense, there is a lot to admire in Navalny’s bravery, in his persistence, in his optimism for Russia.
There was a former Russian television broadcaster, Yevgeny Kiselyov, who had left Russia because it was obviously uncomfortable and lived for many years in Kiev and then had to leave Kiev because Kiev became uncomfortable for Russians to be there. I saw him recently at a forum, a conference in Vilnius and Kiselyov said, ‘Navalny is extraordinarily brave and his bravery is absolutely senseless.’ I think that sums it up. There’s a bravery that at some point is no longer serving his because he’s now unable to fight the fight that he needed to fight. Now, his folks hope, and his family especially, that he will emerge as a Mandela. It may take decades, but that he will emerge. able to lead his country.
I’m not sure that the circumstances exist for Navalny to lead that kind of reconciliation. I’m not sure, given his inherent personality as a fighter, that conciliation is his strong suit. I think he is someone who given a foothold would be able to lead Russia toward a democratic future if all of Russia was behind him. But if Russia is divided and fractured, broken and broke, which it may be depending on how long this war goes on, I’m not sure that Navalny is the one who can bring the country together. Certainly given the opportunity he would try. So much to admire about Navalny as with any aspiring politician or active politician, a lot to scrutinize, a lot to hold to account. There should be tough questions.
I think there are times when you see the very carefully managed image. His wife, Yulia, does interviews when she knows there’ll be published as a Q and A kind of a transcript form. They like a TV format or a video format where he knows his voice will dominate. It’s less fun or less interesting when you have print journalists who are going to filter what’s said and hold them up to a spotlight. There, I think like every politician he will stretch the truth. Sometimes he’ll take credit for things that other people deserve credit for. Some of his early successes, even in anti-corruption fighting, he’s had tips from other people about targets to go after. And very quickly that original source gets brushed aside. Navalny is presented as the hero in that episode of fighting Russian corruption.
But there’s no question, I mean, it’s impossible not to admire somebody who is willing to stand up for their country, for freedom and democracy, for the idea that Russians should be able to chart their own future and have a say in what their government looks like and have a right to know that their country’s not being pillaged of resources whether that’s oil, gas or timber being stolen, or it’s straight out of the treasury in a fake tax refund as happened with Magnitsky.
Well, David, thank you so much for talking to me today. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s called the Dissident: Alexey Navalny Profile of a Political Prisoner. It’s a fascinating read for anybody who’s interested in Russia. This is a great read because it has a very specific focus on a person who we read so much about and we learn a lot about, but this is the first great biography that I’ve come across on him. So, it was a great read, very informative. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you for writing it.
Thank you and for anybody who’s interested in the paradox of democracy, because Navalny is one of the paradoxes of democracy. You don’t get the perfect candidate. You get the ones that rise and certainly he’s found a way to rise and he represents the paradox. So, I’m really glad we got to talk about it here on this show that is so aptly titled for a subject like this.
The Dissident: Alexey Navalny: Profile of a Political Prisoner by David Herszenhorn
“Alexey Navalny Never Wanted to Be a Dissident” in Politico by David Herszenhorn
“For Putin foe Alexey Navalny, Ukraine has long been a volatile issue” in The Washington Post by David Herszenhorn
Democracy Paradox Podcast
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