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Aleksei Navalny: The Man vs. The Symbol

You fight authoritarianism with the heroes you have, not the heroes you wish you had.
December 15, 2021
Aleksei Navalny: The Man vs. The Symbol
Covering a mural depicting Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and reading "The hero of new times" on a transformer house in Pushkarsky Garden with paint. The mural was discovered in the early morning of April 28 and painted over around 10:30 am. Alexander Demianchuk/TASS (Photo by Alexander DemianchukTASS via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the European Parliament will officially bestow the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Aleksei Navalny, the canny and charismatic anti-corruption campaigner currently serving a multi-year jail sentence for breaking his parole, due to being poisoned by Russia’s Federal Security Service. (His previous conviction was almost as bogus.) Navalny has long been considered a hero because, at considerable cost to himself, he’s become the face of the Russian democracy movement.

And yet, Navalny presents a usefully complicated picture of what a hero can be—especially a hero for democracy. For one thing, he appears to be a bit of a racist. Or at least he was. In 2007, before he achieved real prominence, he made public comments comparing Caucasian (that is, from the Caucasus) militants with “cockroaches” in need of extermination and proposed mass deportations of non-white Central Asian immigrants from Russia. The videos are still available on his YouTube channel.

Almost a quarter of the Russian population is of non-Russian ethnicity, so in theory Navalny was casually suggesting the ethnic cleansing of tens of millions of people.

Does it matter why he said those things? Does it matter if he was pandering to a nationalist streak in Russia, whose support he was hoping to win over to a democratic coalition—if that’s what he was doing? Does it matter that he hasn’t repudiated those statements in the past 14 years? On the other hand, does it matter that he hasn’t repeated them, either?

There are less morally compromised pro-democracy politicians in Russia. (I use the word “politician” loosely, since no one who genuinely supports democracy can hold office there.) Grigory Yavlinksy, the leader of the social-democratic Yabloko party, has never made casually bigoted remarks in public the way Navalny has. Neither has journalist, documentarian, and multiple-poisoning-survivor Vladimir Kara-Murza. And yet, for all their principle, eloquence, and education (Yavlinsky holds a doctorate in economics, Kara-Murza a master’s in history from Cambridge), they haven’t had the effect Navalny has.

The man who should be receiving the Sakharov Prize is Boris Nemtsov, whose pro-democratic bona fides were just as strong as Navalny’s, and who never indulged ethnic-Russian chauvinism. Moreover, Nemtsov was a real politician, both a governor of the province of Nizhny Novgorod and deputy prime minister of Russia. But he was murdered in 2015, depriving the country—and pro-democracy movements everywhere—of a less complicated champion.

Though Nemtsov, too, had failings that, in a different time and place—say, in America in the 1990s—would have doomed him, including a somewhat complicated romantic and family life.

But none of that really matters now. Putin made sure that Nemtsov did not have the chance to become Russia’s pro-democracy champion. And you fight authoritarianism with the heroes you have, not the heroes you wish you had.

If Navalny were an artist or an athlete or some other kind of celebrity, the nature of his politics—to say nothing of his soul—would be less important. But he is one of the rare figures whose existence is bigger than his own life. He is the embodiment of the hopes of millions of people to live in the democratic, “normal,” non-corrupt country they were promised after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And as cagey, evasive, and disappointing as he’s been on questions of ethnicity and nationalism, he’s been relentlessly consistent on questions of freedom and democracy.

Does it degrade the thoughts of Navalny’s fans, employees, and followers to support such a man? It’s tempting, especially for Americans, to argue that racism and xenophobia ruin even the most vigorous advocacy for human and civil rights. But Russia has no equivalent of the 1619 Project. They went through a period of iconoclasm in the 1990s, tearing down Lenins and Stalins all over—and then they stopped.

Perhaps one day, Russians will have the luxury of arguing over whether to dismantle statues of Navalny for his manifestations of bigotry. But that luxury is, at this point, so far in the future that it is hard to even imagine. It would mean that democracy in Russia is so entrenched, so stable, so unthreatened that it would no longer need reminders of his sacrifice. Perhaps before we worry about whether or not a man such as Nalvany deserves statues, we ought to get to a place where erecting a statue to him is an option.

At some point in the past few years, in between leading thousands in protest movements spanning 11 time zones, braving attacks with acid and neurotoxins, and uncovering world-beating corruption schemes, Navalny stopped being just an opposition figure and became a dissident in the great Soviet/Russian tradition. Maybe the best thing that can happen to him now is to become a symbol—without flaws, without depth, without humanity. Maybe one day people won’t even know if he really existed or not.

Until then, it’s better to have Navalny than no one. After all, that’s why the Kremlin keeps trying to shut him up.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.