Alexei Navalny is no liberal hero
A new documentary overlooks some of the campaigner's troubling history
Around halfway through Navalny, its star and subject is asked about his well-known history of attending far-Right rallies. Visibly irritated, Navalny suggests they consult his previous interviews on the subject, adding that the shouts of Sieg Heil at these rallies did not bother him; a broad coalition is needed to challenge Putin.
This is the one crack in the film’s framing of Alexei Navalny as a dashing campaigner-investigator extraordinaire. The film is a stylish piece of work, tightly structured around the activist’s courageous investigation into his poisoning with novichok where we see him hospitalised, fighting for his life and then resurrected. The final scenes show his return to Russia and subsequent imprisonment, serving as clear proof of Navalny’s personal bravery. But it also overlooks many of the details about his past that Western viewers may not want to know.
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To be clear — Navalny has called for protests against the Ukraine war from his prison cell, and condemned ‘the pseudo-historical nonsense’ of Putin’s casus belli. He has shown immense bravery in uncovering the oligarchic corruption of Russia’s elite — most recently in the film Putin’s Palace — and standing up for free expression. But Navalny’s foreign policy record is simply not as different from Putin’s as we might like to believe.
He said he did not support the returning of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, and previously supported the invasion of Georgia, saying that cruise missiles should be used on these ‘rodents’— a common term of ethnic abuse for Georgian people. (In 2013 he disavowed his use of the word “rodents” but stood by the rest of his statement.) And in the early 2000s, when he used to attend far-Right rallies, Navalny made a series of xenophobic remarks, including comparing migrant workers to rotten teeth while dressed as a dentist. He has not disavowed most of these statements.
There is no mention of these comments in the film. No doubt the documentary-makers did not wish to tarnish Navalny’s squeaky clean image, and these nationalistic views won’t sit comfortably with Western viewers. What’s more, it remains unclear what Navalny’s political ideology is beyond unseating Putin. Towards the end of the film, still in Germany, he is asked how a President Navalny would differ from President Putin. He has only the vaguest answer, saying that in Russia, politics is still a question of securing fundamental human rights, like freedom of speech.
There is an ambiguity about this film, never confident in portraying Navalny as a fugitive or a revolutionary, an envoy for Western liberalism or a hero of everyday Russians. Perhaps he is none of these things. Though his resistance is worthy of celebration (and his imprisonment indefensible), his eventual political programme may not be what the West had in mind.
This is like denigrating Claus von Stauffenberg because he wasn’t a metrosexual progressive. To challenge Putin, Navalny must have credibility in the eyes of ordinary Russian people. Like von Stauffenberg, Navalny is a lot better than the incumbent, and has taken extraordinary risks to his own safety to oppose a tyrant. That makes him a hero in my book.
He may be, but it is worth recalling that being brave in standing up to authoritarian governments and having very autocratic views oneself are not contradictory. The Ayatollah Khomeini was also for example a brave figure spending years in the Shah’s prisons for example before being exiled. And look how that turned out.
It’s true that Russia has only ever had a very weak liberal political class, and that became hugely discredited anyway in the 1990s economic disaster, but I don’t see how Navalny’s policies would differ in any essential way from Putin’s. That is the problem with all the western talk about ‘regime change’ – apart from the fact that it also tends to strengthen the autocrats, including Assad, who is still the President of Syria.
Assad still being president of Syria was probably the best outcome for the country given the alternatives
I guess you’re not Syrian.
Let us remember the Russian Duma had a liberal majority in 1914…
All the delusional people who believe that removing Putin somehow makes Russia into Western democracy have no understanding of Russian history.
And who says that? That said, it would be a start. Did not things improve once Stalin died?
How do you know that Navalny is better than Putin as far as Western interests are concerned?
Do we really need successful Russia?
Just look at China.
Unless you believe that Russia Imperialistic outlook will somehow change with Navalny in power?
Yes, we need a successful Russia, and a success which means a rise in living standards for all, rather than extreme wealth for a the regime and for weapons. As some one recently said, dictatorships eventually need wars, or at least, national enemies.
Agreed. It’s laughable when people use current values to judge historical figures, which many on Unherd have frequently condemned; and it’s ignorant when people use western values to judge non-western figures, which many Unherd commenters here have done in this case about Navalny.
Its interesting to see how intelligent and self-aware Unherd readers have blinkers, or blind spots, for different aspects of the same concept. Your comment and the responses to it highlight this.
So there we are again. Confonted by the mystical spectre of “ordinary (filll in the blanks) people”
I was aware that Navalny has said some unsavoury things in the past. The important thing isn’t his politics or what sort of person he is. What’s important is that he isn’t persecuted for those views.
Kudos to the author and Unherd for presenting a balanced assessment of this biographical film. I laugh when I read how Russian state media are accused of presenting a one-sided view of world events to Russians when the Western msm are doing the same thing in regards to Russia.
“his eventual political programme may not be what the West had in mind.”
There’s much talk of deposing Putin these days. I’m skeptical but maybe it will happen. My question goes beyond the issue of who Putin’s successor might be–I’d like to know what plans the US has made, and China has made, for a possible overthrow of Putin and the resulting political instability?
When the former soviet union dissolved there was anarchy and that gave rise to Putin. This time around I’m betting the US has plans for taking a much more active role in rebuilding an unstable Russian Federation, and I’m sure China wants to do the same.
What might the US and China do? Will China seize control of Eastern Russia and its minerals (I’ve read there’s already a stealth invasion underway where many Chinese are simply colonizing those vast, empty spaces)? Will the US attempt to impose some form of democracy on Russia? Those are stories Unherd might like to cover.
It has a form of democracy already, elections, parties, regional and local government. You msan, a la Ukraine, putting a favoured liberal oligarch in as President, maybe a Russian speaker from Canada, and breaking up Russia, something already trailed in the more bonkers comments in the papers.
Your grouping China and USA. The former may well be considering long term strategies, with the likelihood all remains secret, but the idea that the USA is doing so is laughable.
Often when it comes to politics in places like Russia you are talking about the lesser of two (or more) evils. It even happens in the UK, remember the 2019 election.
Ah yes. Well, before we merrily map our values onto the personalities of courageous opponents of unsavoury regimes, perhaps we should remember how we got our fingers burnt with Aung San Suu Kyi. There was embarrassment all round when that heroine of Burmese democracy calmly defended the army of Myanmar against accusations of genocide against the Rohingya.
Navalyn doesn’t need to meet western expectations, whatever they may be. He is a Russian patriot and a brave man.
Ah! My old mate False Equivalence seems to be entering the debate more frequently on Unherd articles.
The first thing to say is that whatever I think of Navalny, I cannot help him, see no way of doing so, and believe any help from outside Russia is dangerous for him or his supporters; Russia must heal itself.
That said, it seems there are both good and bad things about him, but if there’s one thing Russia needs, it’s freedom of expression. He seeks to further this, so from the sidelines, I cheer him on, in the absence of anyone else of whom I’m aware.
(PS Life’s not simple, and one is often happy to receive help without being too fussy. Between 1941 and 1945, we were great supporters of Soviet Russia. I’m sure Katyn was in Churchill’s mind when he met Stalin, but I’ll bet he didn’t mention it.)
Does the west really care about his views..? Doesn’t look like it. It is more likely the west is supporting an anti-Putin at any cost. Same as when it supported funny bourgeois “revolutions”, with profit and interest being the very only motives, though disguised as freedom rallies. Same in Ukraine, when supported the meidan “revolution”, same in Lybia when supported chaos and misery, same in ex Jugoslavia when supported a violent destruction of that country, same in Syria when supported a mix of jihadists and silly movements to the destruction of that country too, same in our minor country Greece, when supported banks and profits over truth and reality. Same and worse when it created the China super-power to the profit of a handful of westerners, while playing their power games against their own people in the West.
The western leadership is in deap decline. All of its wolf actions can not stand for long. We do not agree with the destructive actions of Russia. We cannot support the suicidal actions of the western great powers either. To our view, it is imperative that the people in the West and all over the world, understand the fatal stupidity of such actions. The sooner the better for the people of all the nations of the world, “developed” and “undeveloped” alike. I wish my words were mere bubbling. I wish I were ignorant and naive. Sadly I feel rather this is the only way out of madness. The world’s people turning back to self-righteousness and return to the simple ways of loving and sharing. May our God, and may all good people, regardless of their background and experiences realize it. And may we have leaders of hope who embrace peace over stupidity and murderous power games.
I Zthink you have captured Navalny well. Interesting his racist comnents corruption
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