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Navalny’s investigative breakthrough fails to sway Russian public opinion

Despite the toxicological evidence and confirmation from the FSB itself that Navalny was poisoned with the use of a Novichok nerve agent, a majority of Russians believe the propaganda of the Kremlin.

January 18, 2021 - Kennedy Lee - Articles and Commentary

Aleksey Navalny and his wife Julia Navalnaya on the Nemtsov Memory march. Photo: Gregory Stein / Shutterstock

Late last month, chief Putin critic Aleksei Navalny released a scathing new video in which he posed as a Russian security official and coaxed a Kremlin agent into revealing incriminating details of the August 20th poisoning and attempted assassination. This event left Navalny in a coma. Despite this, a recent poll shows that nearly 50 per cent of Russian citizens believe that the poisoning did not happen at all or was a provocation by Western intelligence services.

Such detachment from reality is the result of various Kremlin propaganda and disinformation campaigns that have distorted truth in Russia for decades. This inability to tell fact from fiction among the Russian populace should serve as a warning. Even with free media and personal investigative journalism, such as in the case of Navalny, the words and actions of a country’s leader still matter and may have far-reaching implications for public opinion.

In the long run, a society cannot survive on lies. At the moment, however, it seems that willfully deceptive rhetoric and Kremlin propaganda campaigns are proving effective in swaying public opinion surrounding the Navalny poisoning and broader corruption in Russia.

Navalny, who was flown to Germany to receive urgent medical attention after he was poisoned aboard a domestic flight in late August, has been conducting his own independent investigation into the poisoning. For months, from Germany, he has called on the Kremlin to open a probe into the matter. This has been continuously refused by Putin. Of course, Navalny and many international observers have long suspected that the poisoning was not just orchestrated by the Kremlin but that the orders came directly from Putin himself.

German toxicology tests revealed that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a substance known for being used by the KGB and its successor, the FSB, to poison high-profile dissidents and opponents. In the video released on his personal YouTube channel on December 21st, Navalny tricked Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an FSB officer who was part of the elite team of Russian agents involved in Navalny’s poisoning, into revealing details of the attempted assassination. Kudryavtsev even discussed how the Novichok nerve agent had been placed in Navalny’s underwear.

Additionally, Kudryavstev named many high-level FSB officials and Kremlin allies as being involved in the planning and execution of the poisoning. He blamed Navalny’s survival on the fact that the pilots of the commercial airliner made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where Navalny was met on the tarmac with emergency medical care. The flight was originally scheduled to fly from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow.

Three days after Navalny published the video “I called my killer. He confessed,” which now has over 20 million views, the Levada Center released a public opinion poll showing that the majority of Russian citizens were not convinced by the recorded call.

The Levada Center is a well-respected independent Russian research organisation known for its reliable public opinion polls. The centre conducted the survey between December 21st and 23rd, immediately following the publication of Navalny’s investigative work and video.

Whilst the video, which has been dubbed a “sensation” by Russia’s liberals, garnered immediate attention and popularity both at home and abroad, a mere 17 per cent of Russians polled stated that they were following the events closely. This was down slightly from 18 per cent in late September.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, 30 per cent of Russian citizens in the December survey stated that there was no poisoning of Navalny at all and that it was all staged. Moreover, 19 per cent believed it to be the work of Western intelligence agencies. Only 15 per cent of respondents stated that it was an attempt by the authorities to eliminate a political opponent as admitted on tape by Kudryavtsev.

Russia’s president has repeatedly denied involvement in the attempted assassination. During a recent press conference, he even said that if the FSB had been behind the attack that Navalny would be dead.

Despite this, Putin’s story regarding the poisoning has changed many times. He has both confirmed and denied claims that Kremlin agents were following Navalny. The leader has also stated that it would have been legitimate for the FSB to follow the opposition politician. After all, Navalny supposedly poses a threat to national security.

Unsurprisingly, Putin and his allies were hard at work manipulating the information sphere following last month’s admission. Kremlin allies have taken turns lashing out at Navalny in the days following the video’s publication. Government spokesman Dmitry Peskov even said that discussions regarding Navalny’s underpants simply show that he has “a Freudian fixation on his groin area.”

Spokespeople for the FSB stated that the video is “a fake” and “a provocation” created by Western intelligence services. The Kremlin still argues that Navalny was not poisoned at all. However, the Russian government has simultaneously promoted the idea among the populace that the poisoning could have occurred only as an attempt by Western intelligence agencies to undermine Putin.

Moreover, Russia’s main investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, opened a criminal case against Navalny on charges of fraud, alleging that the Kremlin critic mishandled five million US dollars in private donations to his Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK). Navalny responded on his Twitter, stating, “I immediately said that they will try to put me in jail because I didn’t die and then later went looking for my killers, and for what I proved, that Putin is personally behind everything.”

This manipulation of public opinion by Kremlin officials, despite blatant evidence and even an admission, may seem like a Soviet era coverup. However, the fact is that this campaign has been successful. Years of Kremlin propaganda and information distortion have created a society in which it is hard for the majority of citizens to believe the truth, even when it is filmed on camera. This may be because of fear or apathy but it is nonetheless troubling.

A president and security forces who intentionally mislead their followers, promote proven lies, and knowingly twist reality so much that truth is near impossible to differentiate from fiction are a danger to any well-functioning society. One can only hope that this model of governance will eventually prove unsustainable. At the moment, however, it seems that Vladimir Putin and his allies still have the power to effectively sway public opinion in Russia, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

Kennedy Lee is a student in the Comparative Politics of Eurasia Master’s program at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. She holds a BA in Russian Language and Civilization and Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently lives in Washington, DC.

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