Vladimir Putin just doesn’t know what to do about Alexey Navalny. Putin’s regime generally knows how to perpetuate itself. It controls all state institutions—not only the executive branch but the courts and the parliament—insuring that Putin’s power remains unchecked. It dominates the information sphere, creating the illusion that no alternative to Putin exists. It has reduced elections to empty spectacles with preordained outcomes. These measures have kept the regime stable and largely undisturbed for more than twenty years. At times when protest has nonetheless erupted, as it did in 2006 and 2007 and again in 2011 and 2012, the Kremlin has responded with many detentions, a few long prison terms, and unrelenting harassment and threats against protest leaders. Many protest organizers, threatened with criminal prosecutions, left the country. Many of those who failed to stay away have been killed. And then there was Alexey Navalny.
Navalny has managed to subvert every one of the regime’s mechanisms of control. He began more than a decade ago with a one-man blog about bogus state tenders and outrageous government contracts. He has since built a media organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, that investigates corruption and abuse of power in Russia, producing extensive text and video reports that draw millions of readers and viewers. He has also created a network of field organizers who have outwitted the Kremlin’s system for election rigging; they’ve been successful in only a couple of local races so far, but the precedent they have established is terrifying for Putin. Navalny has been arrested repeatedly, detained for protesting, and convicted twice on trumped-up criminal charges, but none of these measures have succeeded in silencing him. He has inspired mass protests that compelled the authorities to release him in 2013, a day after he had been sentenced to five years in prison. Following his next conviction, he refused to comply with an illegal sentence of house arrest, and then took Russia to the European Court of Human Rights and won. When the state took Navalny’s brother Oleg hostage, sentencing him to three and a half years in prison, Alexey grew only louder and more effective. Finally, last year Putin’s secret police attempted to kill Navalny by poisoning him with the chemical agent Novichok. Navalny not only survived but co-authored an investigation of his own attempted murder. And he still refused to stay out of the country.
Navalny fell ill on August 20, 2020, on a plane from the remote Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny spent four days in a coma before Russian authorities finally allowed him to be airlifted to Berlin; he remained in a coma for several more weeks. In early October, he gave his first media interviews after the poisoning. He told me then that he would return to Russia because becoming an exile would give Putin exactly what he wanted: to be rid of him. [Continue reading…]