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Alexei Navalny and the collective portrait of Russia

A book review of Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? By: Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, Ben Noble. Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2021

February 15, 2022 - Maria Domańska - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2022Magazine

This timely story written by three researchers of Russian activism about “Putin’s enemy” takes the reader on a fascinating journey. Whilst the book possesses the narrative flow of a gripping detective novel, Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? offers insightful analysis into the socio-political realities of Putin’s Russia. Overall, it is a tribute to both  Navalny himself and Russian civil society at large.

This comprehensive, must-read political biography paints a vivid portrait of a man who so often evokes conflicting emotions. It is very much a “everything you wanted to know about Navalny but didn’t have the chance to ask” story.

A hero or bad guy?

Navalny seduces and repels both in real life and in the book. Whilst he is a hero for many, others downplay his influence on Russian politics or even demonise him as an “autocrat”. The majority of Russians see him as an ambiguous, or even suspicious figure, while the ritualistic narratives of Kremlin-sponsored propaganda depict him as everything from an enemy of the nation to a foreign agent and extremist. The authors do not hide their affinity for Navalny and everything he has managed to achieve against the repressive machinery of the Russian state.  Nevertheless, their approach is quite well-balanced and their positive emotional engagement does not cover up the darker shades of Navalny’s political biography.

The authors skilfully dive into various nuances. Aiming to deconstruct the myths and controversies surrounding Navalny’s political identity, they repeatedly give voice to the man himself. Is he a revolutionary dreaming of barricades, a hard-line nationalist, or even a racist, as many of his critics fear? Others have claimed that he is a Great-Russian imperialist that should never be trusted, as well as a dictator disguised as a democrat. His populism also suggests that he may well be an opportunist, seeking plaudits wherever he can. Some of these labels are successfully debunked in the book, which, among other things, offers a convincing explanation as to why Navalny’s coalitions with other democrats proved to be so short-lived. While not trying to whitewash Navalny’s nationalist past and dominant style of leadership, the authors offer a pinch of sober criticism of the old-guard liberal-democratic leaders, who face numerous political challenges. However, the authors do not pretend that they know everything about Navalny’s real convictions and plans. This leaves some of the doubts and misgivings to the judgment of the readers. 

And still, the greatest value of this book is that Navalny’s individual evolution and career remain organically embedded in a broader context of Russian political developments over the last decade. Navalny finally turns out to be just one face in the collective portrait of Russians living under the authoritarian regime. Nothing is black and white there and many things cannot be measured with western yardsticks.

A person or a movement?

The authors tell us the story of “how the man became an institution”. They start from Navalny’s early years as a small entrepreneur and minority shareholder of state companies. They then analyse the reasons for his civic-political awakening as an anti-corruption activist, who turned into one of the leaders of the anti-regime protest movement in 2011-12. Finally, they paint a broader picture of his achievements as a mature politician, a man who managed to create a vast network of grassroots organisations across Russia and engage in both anti-corruption investigations and anti-Kremlin electoral campaigns. It is made clear that he is an oppositionist, able to inspire mass demonstrations throughout Putin’s subsequent terms in office. These events have drawn tens of thousands of participants who were not necessarily fans of Navalny but “fans of the rule of law”. Navalny owes his successes to a group of close associates, each of them a strong personality and political figure in their own right.

Navalny’s movement has been an example of optimistic civic-political activism, believing in national success when there are more and more reasons for deep pessimism. Since his social background and carefully built political image correspond with the mentality of many ordinary Russians, his support base has expanded well beyond the urban middle class.

In recent years, Navalny’s movement developed into a potential political alternative to the Kremlin. However, Russian rulers have always been merciless when it comes to those who defy them. Navalny was first poisoned and then imprisoned, while the organisations he had built were banned as “extremist”. Nevertheless, he still remains an agenda-setter for Russia’s domestic politics, even if he does it from behind bars.

A virus in the system

The book provides the readers with a solid understanding of Russia’s kleptocratic authoritarianism. The authors show deep understanding of how the state tries to manage the nation, as well as how complex the moods and attitudes of the wider public can be. They brilliantly capture the nature of the slow, difficult process of building civic awareness under growing repression. By doing so, they break stereotypes about the “dormancy” of Russian society, showing that there is great demand for an opposition agenda and political alternative. 

“Navalny’s aim has not just been to succeed in an unfair system, but to highlight the system’s very unfairness.” For years he has been doing a lot to empower citizens who still suffer from the syndrome of Homo sovieticus. His mission to challenge Putin did not boil down to scorning the president’s alpha-male political image and ridiculing him as a petty corrupt chinovnik (bureaucrat). In the first place, he kept reviving public politics, something the authorities have long tried to supress. We do not know whether this “thorn in Putin’s side” will ever become the president of the Russian Federation. However, in some way he has already become a virus, potentially challenging the authoritarian system from within for years to come.

Is Navalny Russia’s future?

After the September 2021 parliamentary election, Putin’s regime entered the long phase of preparations for presidential succession. Anti-government public opinions are on the rise. According to the opinion polls conducted by the independent Levada Center in late September 2021, Navalny’s political party, if it was registered, would have a chance to win seats in the parliament. Explaining the phenomenon of Alexei Navalny in the broader socio-political perspective is exactly what is needed now to better understand where Russia may be heading in the coming years.

“Is Navalny Russia’s future? The Kremlin clearly doesn’t want him to be. But Navalny, his team, and his movement have been fighting for another possibility: that it’s for the Russian people themselves to decide.”

The real nemesis of the dictatorial regime is the Russian nation. There is no doubt that this story is far from over, with or without Navalny. Stay tuned.

Maria Domańska is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

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