With Navalny Headed to Prison, Russia’s Political Battle Enters a New Stage

The final outcome was surely preordained, but that didn’t make the proceeding any less dramatic. A little after eight in the evening in M...


The final outcome was surely preordained, but that didn’t make the proceeding any less dramatic. A little after eight in the evening in Moscow on Tuesday, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in a Russian penal colony. His ostensible crime was violating the conditions of a suspended sentence that he received in 2014, during an earlier, politically motivated trial. But his real offense in the eyes of the Kremlin lay elsewhere, and was as obvious as it was darkly absurd: he had managed to survive the state’s attempt to poison him, and, what’s more, had managed to unmask his would-be killers from the F.S.B., the K.G.B’s successor agency—and then had the temerity to return home, to Russia.

Before the verdict, Navalny addressed the courtroom. He is a confident, deft, and skillful politician, who has proven able to seize control of the narrative even from a position of weakness—in mid-January, held out of sight in pretrial detention, he released an investigation into a sprawling residence on the Black Sea, which he dubbed “Putin’s Palace,” forcing Putin himself to react; and this week, a defendant awaiting his sentence in a glass cage guarded by court bailiffs, he launched into a speech that was immediately posted, widely shared, and fervently discussed across the Russian-language Internet. Navalny has a talent for memes, and resurfaced several (calling Putin a “little man in a bunker,” a reference to Putin isolating himself for months on end during the pandemic), and he minted new ones (“Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” a riff on how Navalny’s killers applied novichok poison to his boxer shorts).

In his speech, Navalny barely addressed the court, instead aiming at Putin, turning what was nominally a probation hearing into a set piece in a far larger battle. “He’s simply going insane,” Navalny said. Putin, he went on, is a “bureaucrat who was accidentally appointed to his position. He’s never participated in any debates or campaigned in an election. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight.” He then made an appeal to Russians following the proceedings and the thousands who have joined protests in recent weeks. “They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions,” Navalny said. “This isn’t a demonstration of strength—it’s a show of weakness . . . You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”

Navalny, who surely knew he was not walking out of that courtroom a free man, was speaking for history—that may sound grandiose, and it is, but it’s also true, not to mention in keeping with his character. One could surmise that Navalny has a Messianic streak, a kind of compulsion to martyrdom: Why else would a person, after nearly being killed by a nerve agent, return home to certain arrest, or worse? But that gets things backward. It’s not Navalny who is most actively creating his heroic myth, it’s the Kremlin.

Listening to Navalny’s speech in court, I was reminded of a famous line from the poet Anna Akhmatova, who observed the trial of Joseph Brodsky, in 1964, in Leningrad. “What a biography they’re writing for our redhead,” she darkly joked. A relatively obscure lyricist was set on the path that would win him a Nobel Prize in Literature two decades later. Navalny has long been a divisive figure, far from universally loved, even for many opposition-minded Russians. (In a September poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, only twenty per cent of those surveyed approved of Navalny’s activities.) But the past six months have changed his profile, and that has more to do with the Kremlin’s actions than anything Navalny has done himself. Now he is a survivor and, as of Tuesday, a prisoner, marking a new chapter in his biography, one Putin may regret writing for him.

For most of the twenty years of Putin’s rule, he and his inner circle have operated on the principle that what was good for Putin’s own power was good for the survival of the Putin system. (This notion reached its apotheosis in 2014, when Vyacheslav Volodin, then one of Putin’s top advisers, declared to a gathering of international experts, “no Putin, no Russia.”) Putin served as the embodiment of the ruling edifice and the personal guarantor of its stability, maintaining the allegiance of disparate constituencies that stood to benefit: the neo-oligarchy, people who owe their wealth to their connections to Putin; the siloviki, powerful figures from the security services; young and ambitious technocrats looking to make their careers in government and business. But, in recent months, Putin’s handling of Navalny—and there should be little doubt that Putin’s approval was required for Navalny’s attempted killing and now imprisonment—shows that this logic may no longer hold, at least not as resolutely as it once did.

Writing in Proekt, an independent news and politics Web site, earlier this week, the political scientist Grigory Golosov described how “Putin has put his own personal security ahead of the survival of the overall system.” As both Putin and his rule have aged, Russian political calculations have shifted, and, when the interests of Putin the individual have diverged from the interests of Putinism the system, the former has increasingly tended to win out.

That was the case with last July’s constitutional referendum, which “reset” Putin’s Presidential terms, allowing him to run again in 2024, with the option of staying in power through 2036. From the perspective of the broader political system, a more subtle and elegant solution would surely have been preferable—but that would have meant less assurances for Putin himself.

A similar dynamic is at play with the state’s treatment of Navalny: in recent years, the system writ large managed to reach a kind of modus vivendi with Navalny, and, in his own way, the opposition leader had become part of the familiar political landscape. But Putin and the siloviki, now dominant in matters of domestic politics, have their own logic. After Navalny survived the attempt to kill him, and then unmasked his F.S.B. assassins, the standoff became personal, a matter of avenging public humiliation. “Navalny had to be put behind bars at any price as revenge,” Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the analysis firm R.Politik, noted. Protests, instability, sanctions, social fracture—all the things that can strain an aging governing system—are of lesser concern, or none at all, it seems, to Putin.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former presidential adviser who left the Kremlin in acrimony in 2011, said something similar this week. “Putin, as it turned out, is more afraid for himself than for his regime,” he told an opposition media outlet. If Putin was truly concerned with the durability of the system that he has created, he would have found some off-ramps or compromises, rather than steadily escalate. “He is afraid, for whatever reason—that’s a question for psychologists and psychiatrists to answer—for his own safety. He stopped fearing for the safety of the system,” Pavlovsky said. His diagnosis was that Putin had become a threat to Putinism: “He has turned into a bug in the system.”

Russian politics has been headed in this direction for some time—the path from simulated or “managed” democracy to unabashed autocracy has passed many waypoints—but the combined sagas of Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment serve as a clear marker. The fun-house postmodernism of early Putinism is long over; in its place is the paranoia and spite of an aging regime, losing the deft faculties it once enjoyed, but retaining the levers of force as a form of stopgap compensation. The politics of this age are far more crude than clever. There is no longer much appetite for or ability to co-opt, outsmart, or manipulate the opposition and its sympathizers—easier to throw the F.S.B. and the riot police at them.

On Tuesday night, shortly after the judge announced her verdict, Navalny’s supporters called on demonstrators to gather in central Moscow. Just as police had done in advance of an earlier protest on Sunday, they quickly moved to cordon off the streets and squares where people had planned to gather. Nonetheless, a crowd of several thousand protesters, mainly young people, made their way along the avenues and side lanes in the vicinity of the Kremlin.

They were met with a spasm of violence, the videos of which were shared on Russian-language social media in near real-time. In one, several dozen people are squeezed against a wall by a phalanx of riot police in body armor and black-tinted visors. They raise their hands and chant, “We are unarmed.” The police respond by pressing into the crowd and swinging their batons wildly. In another video, a police officer casually and seemingly without provocation swings his baton against the head of a journalist wearing a yellow press badge—exactly the sort of identification the Moscow police have taken to require of journalists covering protests. The journalist crumples to the asphalt and howls in pain. A third shows a gang of riot police rush a taxi after a passenger apparently yelled something disparaging at them. The officers force the car to stop, yank the passenger out of the back seat, and drag him to the curb. In total, nearly fifteen hundred people were arrested across Russia on Tuesday night, adding to the five thousand detained at Sunday’s protests.

In Ukraine in 2013, and Belarus last summer, viral scenes of police violence served as a radicalizing moment for society, bringing new and ever larger segments of the population into the streets. There are certainly many Russians who are not fans of Navalny or his politics but are disgusted by the violence perpetrated by the state. Yet an even larger portion of the Russian population remains disengaged and indifferent. The next stage of the political battle will be for their loyalties—the Kremlin will try to keep them on the sidelines, by playing up fears of chaos if Putin departs, and the threat of a police baton; Navalny and his supporters will make a populist appeal, as Navalny himself did in court on Tuesday, saying, “We’ve got twenty million people living below the poverty line. We have tens of millions of people living without the slightest prospects for the future.”

What the Kremlin is lacking is a positive message or agenda. Considering that it wields nearly all the formal power, it has been remarkably reactive. Ekaterina Schulmann, a prominent political scientist in Moscow, compared its condition to a “cytokine storm,” the process by which a person’s immune system goes into destructive overdrive in the attempt to defeat a harmful pathogen. (Many critically ill COVID-19 patients suffer from exactly this complication.) “What we are witnessing now is somewhat reminiscent of this excessive and extreme reaction,” Schulmann noted.

Putin’s rule is not in immediate danger; he commands an enormous administrative apparatus, and can dial repressions up or down as he sees fit. But the rules are changing. For a long while, dispatching or otherwise sidelining opponents and enemies was a way for Putin to further cement his own power. That could well again be the case with Navalny behind bars, at least for the immediate term. But, in the long run, the very thing that Putin imagines may keep him safe could mean the opposite for the system that he embodies.



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Newsrust: With Navalny Headed to Prison, Russia’s Political Battle Enters a New Stage
With Navalny Headed to Prison, Russia’s Political Battle Enters a New Stage
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