March 15, 2021

Until recently I was under the impression that it was a bad thing for dictators to imprison their opponents on trumped-up charges. Indeed, I thought this was a principle that all right-thinking people could agree upon, even in these hyper-polarised times — that regardless of your beliefs, you shouldn’t be tossed in jail for opposing tyranny.

Then I learned that the moral philosophers at Amnesty International had discovered a distinction between “nice” dissidents and “not nice” dissidents, and that “not nice” dissidents do not deserve the title of “prisoner of conscience”. They are, it seems, simply prisoners — like people who get done for robbery or arson, presumably. I learned this, like so many others, when Amnesty stripped Alexei Navalny of the title of “prisoner of conscience” after it discovered what anybody who pays a modicum of attention to Russian politics has known for a really long time: that Vladimir Putin’s most indomitable opponent is a Russian nationalist who has used unsavory rhetoric when talking about immigrants. Not to worry, Amnesty explained in a rather desperate-sounding press release; they would continue to support Navalny, despite having just denounced him as an extremist and, in doing so, providing Putin with some rather excellent propaganda.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the good folks at Amnesty don’t read newspapers and know nothing about Russian politics. More likely, however (and despite their protestations to the contrary) they were caught off guard by a coordinated online campaign to discredit Navalny and panicked. Regardless, the fact that Navalny really is a Russian nationalist, and really did call for the expulsion of Georgians from Russia during the war in Ossetia, raises interesting questions. Who exactly do we in the West think we are cheering on when we venerate the opponents of despots we despise? And what do we think would happen if they ever came to power?

Navalny, unsurprisingly, is a product of his own culture, which makes it unlikely he would ever be a liberal democrat. Yes, the Russian opposition includes principled liberals, but most of us have not heard of them because their platform is incredibly unpopular within Russia. Anybody seriously looking to rally opposition to Putin is unlikely to latch on to ideas that were so thoroughly discredited by Yeltsin, the oligarchs and their Western enablers in the 1990s, when the president shelled his own parliament and male life expectancy dropped from 65 to 57.

At the start of his political career, Navalny joined what was possibly the “nicest” of all the liberal parties, Yabloko, which was led by Grigory Yavlinsky, a vocal critic of Yeltsin’s disastrous policies. Navalny was thus granted the privilege of drinking deep from the cup of abject failure: he was a member in 2003 when Yabloko fell just short of the 5% threshold that would have won the party seats in the Russian Parliament. He might still have been in 2007, when the party’s share of the vote fell to 1.6%, had he not been kicked out of the party a few months earlier for “nationalistic activities”.

Whether or not Yabloko were the victims of election fraud, as many argued, was beside the point: they were the poster children for the idea that nice guys finish last, especially in a system controlled by a ruthless operative such as Putin. And with the other opposition parties coopted by the Kremlin’s “managed democracy”, Navalny’s choices for political ideas around which to rally opposition to the corrupt elite were limited: either revanchist communism or some kind of nationalism.

Communism was a non-starter: not only was Navalny old enough to remember the rotted, senile variant of the ideology which had prevailed during his formative years, but the post-Soviet communist party was useless. Like Yabloko, it could never be mistaken as a serious vehicle of opposition, even if it was still able to rally armies of angry grannies to turn up for protests against the government.

Instead, he turned to nationalism. The field here was more open, with several parties vying for territory. Russia’s most famous nationalist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was a buffoon fully integrated into Putin’s corrupt system, and not to be taken seriously. Another nationalist, the scandalous author Edward Limonov of the National Bolshevik party, established his oppositional bona fides after a stint behind bars in the early 2000s for allegedly attempting to raise a militia to invade Kazakhstan.

Limonov, however, was too weird to become a mainstream phenomenon; he was a political provocateur who glamorised both Che and Khomeini, chanted “Stalin Beria Gulag!” at rallies and called for the introduction of polygamy to Russia. He also wrote lyrical memoirs, including one structured around his memories of bodies of water that had won a prestigious literary prize. Despite his weirdness, however, he succeeded in attracting young people to his party, and they won a reputation for their fearless opposition to Putin and his cronies.

Putin was also casting around for a founding ideology around this time, and likewise saw the attraction of nationalism. When he started to resurrect Soviet symbols, and “Volgograd” was replaced with “Stalingrad” at the eternal flame monument outside the Kremlin walls, this immediately led to anxiety among some Kremlinologists that Putin was out to restore the old USSR. This was naïve; Putin had no interest in taking back the Baltics or Central Asian Republics. He was, however, looking for a unifying idea that could inspire pride in all Russian citizens, and settled upon the USSR’s victory over Hitler in the Second World War.

Aside from the fact that “We beat Hitler” is always a winner, there was another appeal to this idea. Soviet propaganda had always stressed the multinational aspect of the Soviet war effort, that it was the combined forces of all the Soviet peoples that had brought down Nazism. If you visit the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, for instance, you will see that the war monument in Elista, the capital, features not Slav faces but Mongolians — and this despite the fact that Stalin actually deported much of the population to Siberia during the War for fear that they were untrustworthy. It was easy for Putin to take this pre-established model and apply it to multiethnic Russia as the successor state.

With Putin having annexed the “imperial nationalist” position, and all other positions discredited in the eyes of voters, that left ethnic nationalism as the last powerful idea up for grabs. And that is what Navalny began to advocate, and continues to advocate unapologetically, because his main constituency is not Amnesty or western liberals but people inside Russia who are disgusted by Putin.

If Navalny’s politics were transplanted to the UK or US, they would most certainly offend all good progressive people — and so it was that Amnesty suddenly found itself embarrassed to be associated with them. But is it so surprising that dissidents we admire for their bold opposition to tyrants also hold ideas that would not win them invites to dinner parties at Martha’s Vineyard?

Consider the most celebrated of Russian dissidents, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a man of ferocious principle and extraordinary bravery; but he was also a conservative Russian Orthodox nationalist who lambasted the West for its decadence and lamented the loss of Ukraine and Belarus following the dissolution of the USSR. Then there’s Lech Walesa, a devout Catholic and trade unionist who hated communism but may also have been a secret police informant. And this is to say nothing of the once-saintly Aung San Suu Kyi, or the once-upon-a-time heroic freedom fighter Robert Mugabe, or the Ayatollah Khomeini who was memorably described as “a Gandhi-like figure” by the US ambassador to Iran. We all know how well that one aged. In fact, with a few notable exceptions such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, great dissidents often prove to be disastrous national leaders, at least as bad if not worse than the system they overthrew.

This is not to say that Navalny would be worse than Putin. In fact, Yevgenia Albats, a Russian liberal who has known Navalny since 2004, argues that his main political goal was always to win over moderate nationalists, and that he has expressed regret for his past rhetoric. But there can be little doubt that ethnic Russian nationalism is a potentially destabilising force in the country. The multinational USSR died in ethnic violence, and multinational Russia was born in ethnic violence, and when Putin came to power, he inherited the war in the Caucasus. He bought off some separatist leaders and killed others, but their submission is not permanent, and it is almost certain that once he exits the scene there will be some in the regions who will want to test the new leader.

How would a president Navalny handle that? Amnesty, of course, has done its bit to help Putin and make sure we never find out. But the truth is that even were he to be released from jail, Navalny is unlikely to ever be leader of Russia, and not just because of his criminal convictions. According to independent polling, the Russian public’s trust in him remained at a lowly 3% between 2017 and 2020.

Yet Navalny keeps on going, despite harassment of his family, a poisoning attempt, and now imprisonment. His hatred and contempt for Putin’s regime is so all-consuming that it exceeds his concern for his own safety. To become a dissident — a real, outspoken, vocal dissident — is an extreme act. Navalny is not some keyboard warrior or posturing faux-radical; he is hardcore. And that is the role of the Navalnys of the world — to be hardcore, to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences, while the rest of us keep our heads down. And given all the suffering that being a dissident entails, perhaps it’s asking a bit much that they make us like them too.