Death in Russia: Navalny, morality, and politics by other means

A man holds a poster with a portrait of opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a protest in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Markus Schreiber
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Alexei Navalny is dead. Russia’s most famous political prisoner was probably better known in the West than he was popular in his own country. But in recent years his movement had mobilised large numbers of people – mostly young Russians, spread right across the country – to protest against the ruling elite.

Navalny’s moral gauntlet

The death of Navalny deprives Russia not of a potential future leader, but of a moral alternative. When he returned to Russia in 2021, Navalny knew what awaited him: arrest, trials, and years of detention, with perhaps no prospect of ever regaining his freedom.

His choice was a conscious one, and a fundamental challenge to a regime that would never allow him to gain elected office. By coming back to Russia, he nevertheless asserted his legitimacy to set the political agenda – through confronting the regime on the grounds of morality, rather than politics. In doing so, he rejected the basic principle on which the Russian system functions: that individuals prioritise their own personal safety over political rights and moral standards.

His cause – the fight against corruption – was always more popular than Navalny himself. His approval rating peaked at 20 per cent in September 2020, just after he was poisoned, but over the years most Russians consistently disapproved of his activities. This was probably down to the barriers he encountered in accessing a broader audience, as well as negative information campaigns in the Russian media. But by challenging the Russian regime on moral principles, he also projected an uncomfortable image to the Russian public: being brave in a country of passive conformists does not make you popular.

Duel with Putin

Navalny’s passing marks the end of a duel he had engaged with Putin himself. His attempted poisoning four years ago came to the backdrop of protests in Belarus, a twin regime of Russia’s, and it illustrated an under-estimated turn in Russia’s political trajectory. Ten years earlier, the regime made a conservative turn following protests about rigged state Duma elections. Russia’s repressive 2020 turn sought to squash any form of alternative discourse. Poisoning Navalny was one of the steps in this process, as were the extension of the scope of the law on foreign agents and the repression of historians investigating Stalin’s crimes.

A distant reckoning

In 2021, President Joe Biden warned Navalny’s demise in prison would have “devastating consequences”. There will be no independent investigation into the circumstances and causes of his death, but the Russian regime undeniably bears responsibility. Whether and how it will be held accountable will be crucial in how Moscow assesses the consistency of the West.

Navalny’s organisation, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has largely been dismantled over the last two years, after the Russian authorities declared it an “extremist organisation” in June 2021. A number of his supporters who stayed in Russia have been jailed or are on trial, but the organisation has been recreated in exile. It remains to be seen how much impact it will have without the personal charisma of its founder.

Navalny’s death is the symbolic end of an era when it was possible to express dissenting views in Russia. But he was not the only one to defend this, and other political prisoners should not be forgotten, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, and many others whose names are less well known. Nor should the brutality of the Russian regime and its determination to suppress any form of dissent be under-estimated.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Director, Wider Europe programme

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