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Navalny and the Solzhenitsyn dilemma

The democratic opposition in Russia is facing difficult questions epitomised by Navalny’s poisoning and arrest. The Kremlin meanwhile, will have to decide between the line of Brezhnev or Khrushchev.

January 20, 2021 - Cyrille Bret - Articles and Commentary

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Keulen Germany in 1974. Photo: Bert Verhoeff wikimedia.org

His courage commands admiration and his fate is causing concern around the world. Arrested upon landing in Moscow on January 17th, the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny survived an attempted poisoning in Omsk on August 20th 2019. Why did he leave the protection and freedom of Berlin? Why was he arrested? Simply put, Russian political life today is caught up in a “Solzhenitsyn dilemma”.

Exile at the risk of impotence

Russian opposition figures today are faced with a dilemma commonly seen throughout the country’s history. Do they stay in Russia and risk losing their freedom or even their life just like Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, who were murdered in 2006 and in 2015? Or do they go into exile to freely criticise the government and risk losing political credibility? This second path was chosen by the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned from 2005 to 2013 before being forced into exile.

This was the dilemma also experienced by the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for criticising Stalin in his writing, the author of The Gulag Archipelago initially made the choice to stay in order to fuel “internal dissent”. Writing tirelessly and sometimes publishing his stories that criticised the Soviet regime, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, as well as the support of the West. However, in 1974 he was arrested, stripped of his Soviet nationality and expelled to the West by Brezhnev. After settling in Vermont, the exile was no longer a political actor but a moral conscience that had taken refuge in the old enemy of America.

Avoiding Solzhenitsyn’s fate is Alexei Navalny’s priority. He is already the subject of legal proceedings and has been accused of being a “foreign agent”. To remain in Germany any longer would have deprived him of any real political action in the run-up to the Russian parliamentary elections next September. He would have remained the “German patient”, as the Russian president calls him.

Repression at the risk of ‘heroisation’

The Russian authorities are also faced with their own version of the “Solzhenitsyn dilemma”. Do they arrest Navalny immediately at the risk of making him a martyr and bolstering his hero status? Or do they show leniency to an opponent, who has been recognised for his commitment against corruption and is supported by the European Union and Novaya Gazeta, at the risk of appearing weak?

Faced with the growing fame of Solzhenitsyn, Nikita Khrushchev had chosen the path of (relative) appeasement. In the name of ‘de-Stalinisation’, he had authorised the publication of the story A Day in the Life of Ivan Denissovich, which described living conditions in the Gulag. This obviously fueled internal dissent. As for Leonid Brezhnev, he took a hardline stance and put an end to these protests. Solzhenitsyn’s arrest marked the end of a thaw in relations with the West. Navalny’s return now embarrasses the Russian regime because it forces it to take sides. A few months before the Duma elections, the Michustin government is now forced to choose between appearing weak (letting Navalny go free) or a campaign of repression (arresting him) that will make him a hero.

Russia’s past and future

If he really is popular for having re-established the Russian state’s power both at home and abroad, President Putin has today placed the country’s public life in its own structural dilemma: on the one hand, the current political system is stuck and thus cannot achieve any significant change. And, on the other hand, the opposition is blocked and is deprived of the possibility of bringing about reforms. Russian political life seems to be facing a dead end. As a result, all of Russia is now caught in Solzhenitsyn’s dilemma. Caught between a government with little desire to change and an opposition with no access to power, it is clear that the country faces a challenging future.

Cyrille Bret is an Associate Professor at the Higher Institute for Political Studies (Paris).

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