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The “Deceased Hope”: on the death of Alexei Navalny

Boris Nemtsov, the indomitable Russian regime critic, died on February 27th 2015 after a pernicious assault on his life, yet the Putin regime survived his violent death almost unscathed. Will Alexei Navalny’s untimely death also pass by without any serious consequences for Russia’s ruling establishment?

April 12, 2024 - Leonid Luks - Articles and Commentary

A memorial of flowers in St. Petersburg set up by people grieving Aleksei Navalny's death. Photo: Aleksey Dushutin / Shutterstock

The death of Alexei Navalny, another implacable Kremlin critic, in a penal colony in the inhospitable north of Russia shocked both the world and many of his Russian supporters. “Hope died today. We all killed it” – these words appeared on Russian social media shortly after Navalny’s death. Another of Navalny’s compatriots added that “Navalny died because we were not worthy of him.”

These words mirror the lack of power and hope that Russia’s regime critics feel these days. The Kremlin dictator seems to have achieved his goal. The most decisive opponents of the regime still remaining in the country are either imprisoned (Sergei Kara-Mursa, Ilya Yashin and many others) or subjected to brutal reprisals, such as the members of the “Memorial” society, banned by the regime.

After the “turning point” of February 24th 2022, Putin’s dictatorship took on a totalitarian character, trying, like all other totalitarian regimes of the modern era, to totally atomize society and crush all organizational structures not controlled by the state. Already in 2021 Navalny denounced this tactic in one of his court speeches: “This is the most important thing that this apparatus of power, indeed our entire system, wants to say (to critics of the regime) “You are alone. You are a loner.” First they scare you and then they show you that you are alone… Yes, the tool of loneliness is very important.”

Just three years ago, things seemed very different. At that time (the end of January 2021), there were nationwide protests against the arbitrary imprisonment of Navalny, who, despite many warnings, decided to return to Russia. He decided to ignore the fact that he had been attacked there with the poison “Novichok” only a few months earlier in August 2020.

Russia’s totalitarian legacy

These protests, reminiscent of the mass protests against the rigged Duma elections in December 2011, gave some Russian regime critics great hope.

At the end of January 2021, one of the most prominent opposition politicians, Leonid Gosman, considering the consequences of the mass rallies by Navalny supporters, wrote that “We are now living in a different country.” The head of the dissident polling institute “Levada Center”, Lev Gudkov, was more sceptical. On the web-based platform “Liberalnaya missiya” (Liberal Mission) he stated on February 3th 2021 that “The thin layer of the protesting minority … [cannot] change the fundamental structure of the bond between state and population. As long as this problem … has not undergone a thorough and complete analysis, as was the case in Germany with respect to National Socialism, no protest movement will ever have the strength to change a society that cannot come to terms with its own totalitarian past.”

However, in his comparison between the German and Russian way of coming to terms with the past, Gudkov ignores one important aspect. This is the fact that after the unprecedented “rupture in civilization” between 1933 and 1945 the most stable democracy on German soil could only be established in the western part of Germany because it was inextricably linked to the Marshall Plan and received additional support from other states of the Free World. At least of equal importance in this context was the gradual integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the economic and security structures of the West. The pro-western groups in post-Soviet Russia, who still dominated the country’s political class at the beginning of the 1990s, also strove for closer ties between Russia and the West. However, for whatever reason, the endeavour failed. Thus, coming to terms with the totalitarian legacy in post-Soviet Russia happened under completely different conditions than in the Federal Republic of Germany. This resulted in the “second” Russian democracy that was founded in August 1991 being replaced some nine years later by Vladimir Putin’s “controlled democracy”. And one of the most important projects of the new Kremlin ruler was to reverse the results of the revolution of August 1991 (the Russian “Maidan”). The power apparatus targeted primarily the symbolic figures of Russian civil society, who, due to their popularity, were viewed by the regime as extremely dangerous. The most important of these symbolic figures of resistance were Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin-controlled mass media directed its propaganda fire predominantly against these two invincible fighters for the “other Russia”.

The “Nechayev” scenario

Boris Nemtsov was murdered on February 27th 2015. The assassination followed a scenario conceived around 150 years ago by one of the masterminds of revolutionary terrorism, Sergei Nechayev. However, at that time the roles were reversed. Advocates of reform were in the government and their opponents were in the opposition.

In his so-called Revolutionary Catechism of 1869, Nechayev says: “First of all, [those] must be destroyed who are most inimical to the revolutionary organization and whose violent death is most likely to frighten the government and shake its power by depriving it of its most energetic and intelligent agents.” The terrorist organization “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Will or People’s Freedom), which was founded in 1879, acted according to Nechayev’s plan. Its most important goal was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881), who had initiated an enormous reform project in the country. However, as Narodnaya Volya was not interested in reform but rather in the complete destruction of the existing system, the liberal tsar became its most important object of hate and his assassination its central aim. These terrorists wanted to rob the state of its “most energetic agents” in the spirit of Nechayev and initiated a veritable manhunt. Six assassination attempts failed, but on the seventh, March 1st 1881, they finally succeeded.

In today’s Russia, the opposition was also robbed of its most “energetic” representatives by the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the death of Alexei Navalny.

The regime survived the mortal attack on Nemtsov unharmed. This was not least because the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which Nemtsov strongly protested against, was supported by the majority of the population and significantly boosted Putin’s popularity. The Russian leader had lost some of his lustre after the aforementioned protests in 2011 and 2012.

Will Navalny’s death also have no tangible consequences for Putin’s hold on power irrespective of the fact that today’s circumstances are very different from those of 2015? The occupation of Crimea was something of a “walk in the park” for the Russian army. They did not encounter any significant resistance there. Now, however, Russia has been engaged in a two-year war of aggression against its western neighbour, which is referred to in Russia as a “Slavic brother nation”. And this war, according to many military experts, has already claimed more than 300,000 dead and seriously wounded soldiers on the Russian side alone.

What was Navalny’s attitude towards Ukraine? Initially it differed significantly from that of Boris Nemtsov. From the very start Nemtsov condemned the annexation of Crimea in the strongest possible terms. In 2014, however, Navalny still believed that Russia should definitely annex Crimea but only after a new “authentic” referendum. He also initially took a decidedly nationalist stance on some other issues, which disturbed many Russian liberals. Gradually, Navalny moved away from this position and started to speak out in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And from prison he repeatedly and vehemently condemmed Russia’s war of aggression against the Ukraine.

The Matteotti effect?

According to some observers, the regime will survive Navalny’s death unscathed, as it has complete control over an intimidated and largely disenfranchised society and is able to effectively deal with any opposition movements. It should not be forgotten, however, that some dictatorships have been caught somewhat off guard by certain surprising turns in history. One such turn took place in fascist Italy, for example, following the murder of one of the most radical opponents of fascism, the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti. The fascist leadership was unprepared for the outraged reaction of the Italian public to Matteotti’s assassination (June 10th 1924). Italy had, after all, been accustomed to political assassinations for more than three years.

The fascist terror was aimed at both opposition parties and civic society. With the murder of Matteotti, the fascists violated many Italians’ sense of justice to such an extent that indignation and anger replaced resignation and fear. Furthermore, we can assume that the protests against Matteotti’s assassination were so fierce because behind them lay years of silent frustration in the face of violence. To a certain extent, this powerful outcry was a form of compensation for the previous years of weakness.

Immediately after Matteotti’s assassination, the Italian communist G. Nicci described the sudden change of mood within the Italian public: “Until yesterday the aversion to fascism was expressed silently, today the outcry can be heard in the pubic square… The various opposition groups now use a language they would not have dared to utter a few days ago. We have to ask ourselves whether we are not looking at the classic “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. 

Will Alexei Navalny’s death lead to a kind of “Matteotti effect” in Russia? Only time will tell.

This article is an extended version of a column that appeared in the online debate magazine Die Kolumnisten on February 19th 2024.

Translated by Eva Schulz-Jander

Leonid Luks is professor of history at the Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany.

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