The following article is adapted from The Dissident: Alexey Navalny, Profile of a Political Prisoner, to be released today by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, today.
During the Soviet era in the Western world, Russian dissidents gained a sense of fame and admiration. People like Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner were viewed as brave activists, standing against an oppressive empire and enduring lengthy and difficult exiles, repressions, and other punishments from the Communist government. Natan Sharansky, a refusenik who spent eight years in prison for charges of high treason and espionage before being released in a prisoner exchange, went on to become a member of the Israeli parliament and deputy prime minister. He was even honored with the presidential medal of freedom by President George W. Bush.
In Russia, dissidents were not as highly regarded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their protests and actions were largely unknown to the public. In 1968, a group of eight Soviet citizens briefly held banners in Red Square denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, they were either sent to labor camps, institutionalized in psychiatric facilities, or forced to leave the country.
All of this helps explain why Alexey Navalny, despite decades crusading against Russian corruption and against Vladimir Putin’s increasingly dictatorial rule, never wanted to be known as a dissident. Instead, Navalny — Putin’s most reviled rival — has long presented himself as a man of the people — and a future president of Russia.
Despite facing an attempt on his life and undergoing a five-month recovery in Germany, Navalny refused to be labeled as a dissident in exile. In January 2021, he made the bold decision to return to Moscow, fully aware that he would be arrested. He believed that this was necessary in order to continue his political career and maintain legitimacy as a Russian politician. By returning to Russia, Navalny also aimed to demonstrate to his supporters that he was not afraid and encouraged them to stand up against Putin’s regime.
It was a serious mistake.
According to Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff and campaign manager in 2013 for mayor of Moscow, the term “dissident” in Russian carries the meaning of being one of the eight courageous individuals who stood on Red Square in 1968. This was during Navalny’s successful campaign against the Kremlin’s chosen candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, where he received an unexpected 27% of the vote despite not having access to unbiased media.
In 1968, Volkov praised the bravery of the eight individuals. He stated that they were admirable, but it was evident to everyone that they represented a small portion of a much larger, silent majority.
“These, like, great heroes of Soviet intelligentsia, those Shestidesyatniki, of those dissidents, like Sakharov and Bonner, and [Anatoly] Marchenko and [Natalya] Gorbanevskaya and the rest, they were disconnected from the people,” Volkov continued. “So, they played a very important historical role. We admire them a lot. But there was a dramatic difference between them and our movement.”
Similar to Navalny, Volkov is known for being straightforward. However, he was being courteous. His intended message was that these courageous rebels were unsuccessful. Not unsuccessful in the casual sense – his admiration for their courage and sacrifices is sincere – but unsuccessful in the literal sense that they did not prevail in their battle against the Soviet government.
Russian activists who opposed the government, particularly during the Soviet era, were never successful. Navalny’s goal was to win elections and become the president of his country.
Navalny’s goal was always to be considered mainstream.
In a 2011 authorized biography titled Threat to Crooks and Thieves, Konstantin Voronkov, who is a friend, colleague, and supporter of Navalny, described him as a modest, typical Russian man.
This is the account of a man who was known among his closest friends and colleagues as a natural “political animal”. He began his political journey in Moscow and aspired to be a regular politician in a democratic country. However, he ended up becoming the sworn enemy of a ruthless dictator and gained international recognition as a dissident, often being compared to Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. Now, he is a political prisoner and has been given a 30-year sentence on fabricated charges. Not only has he lost his political career, but he also faces the possibility of losing his life in the harsh conditions of a Russian prison, where he is frequently placed in solitary confinement.
In August 2011, I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent for The New York Times. At this time, Navalny’s popularity was on the rise as he shifted from being a lesser-known anti-corruption advocate on LiveJournal, Russia’s top blogging platform, to becoming a famous leader of the largest street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2011, Navalny gained widespread attention after labeling Putin’s political party, United Russia, as “the party of crooks and thieves” during a radio interview. This struck a chord with regular Russians who were tired of corruption and incompetence within the government. The phrase became a popular meme. As the protests against election fraud continued into early 2012, there were calls for Navalny to run for president. However, the Kremlin quickly responded with attempts to persecute and prosecute him.
I have been captivated by Navalny’s determination and sharp wit for over twelve years while covering him. The Kremlin’s attempts to portray him as a traitor or foreign puppet were often seen as comical, until they made an actual attempt on his life. Despite facing constant hardships, Navalny has remained dedicated to his country of Russia, even embracing Russian nationalism at times.
Navalny is a modern and versatile figure in the media world, with a blog, YouTube channel, and active presence on social media platforms. He is also the subject of an award-winning documentary. Despite this, there has yet to be a comprehensive biography for an international audience that delves into Navalny’s talents, peculiarities, and contradictions. These include his approach to his work as a heroic crusade and his refusal to back down from conflict. He has been known to associate with far-right nationalists and use discriminatory language, while simultaneously advocating for progressive ideals of freedom and democracy. His bravery is admirable, yet it can also be seen as reckless. In my book, The Dissident: Alexey Navalny, Profile of a Political Prisoner, I aim to unravel the complexities of Navalny and explain why he was ultimately given the label of a dissident.
Navalny’s physical appearance, along with that of his family, has played a significant role in shielding him from accusations of being a dissident. His traditional Slavic features have made it difficult for Putin to paint him as a treacherous traitor. In fact, for some of Navalny’s supporters, what sets him apart from other opponents of the regime is what he is not: he is not a member of a minority group, an oligarch, or from the intellectual or political elite. Rather, he comes from a military family with Orthodox Christian beliefs and a history of serving in the Red Army during World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia.
Navalny’s family history, childhood upbringing in Butyn and other military towns just outside of Moscow, his education, love life and early career are so utterly normal — initially so Soviet, then so Russian, and all along, so Slavic — as to make it ridiculous, if not impossible, to try to paint him with “otherness.” Here is a guy who spent a half year on a fellowship at Yale University and later said he realized he could not live in America because he missed black bread.
“At last,” whispered one of Navalny’s most loyal supporters. “At last, we have a Russian man.”
Despite the prevalence of conspiracy theories, distrust, and betrayal in the country, critics and opponents continue to portray Navalny as a dangerous figure and label him as an “extremist” and “foreign agent.” However, at its essence, Navalny’s personal background is deeply rooted in Slavic-Russian culture.
To call him Russian, however, is not entirely precise, at least not in the Russian way of thinking about ethnicity. Navalny’s mother is Russian. His father was born in Zalissia, Ukraine, a town that is now in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The town was abandoned after the nuclear disaster in 1986, and all its residents, including Navalny’s grandparents, uncles and other relatives, were eventually forced to evacuate and relocate.
Navalny was deeply affected by the tragedy of Chernobyl during his youth, which highlighted the grave consequences of government deceit, misinformation, and incompetence. In a furious manner, he has recounted how the Soviet authorities delayed the evacuation of families and attempted to conceal the severity of the disaster. He expressed outrage at how collective farmers and even his own relatives were sent to plant potatoes in the radioactive dust in order to prevent panic. In 2019, when HBO’s popular miniseries about Chernobyl was released, Navalny used YouTube to vehemently criticize Russian television commentators who had accused the show of being historically inaccurate and deliberately manipulated by its Western creators.
Navalny’s beliefs about the Soviet Union were solidified by his ties to Ukraine and the Chernobyl disaster. This, along with his exposure to politics during the collapse of the Soviet Union in his teenage years, sparked his interest in the subject. Navalny was particularly drawn to a television show called “Vzglyad” (meaning “Outlook”), which discussed current events and featured foreign music videos. He would watch the show with his mother, who recalls that it initially focused on politics before transitioning to music. Navalny’s childhood hero was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder who later became governor of California.
Maria Gaidar, the daughter of the late former acting prime minister of Russia, knew Navalny from when he first started working for the progressive-liberal Yabloko party, in the early to mid 2000s. She later worked with him to organize a series of political debates that briefly became a sensation in Moscow — until pro-Kremlin hecklers forced them to end the events.
“He had a strong passion for politics. He was determined to be involved in politics, regardless of his position,” Gaidar stated. “He was a true political figure, as they say, a ‘political animal’.” As he gained recognition, Navalny became known for his desire to be at the forefront. However, Gaidar recalled that during that time, she never witnessed this behavior. “All I know is that he always had a strong desire to engage in politics and be a part of it. I remember times when he faced setbacks in politics and it was not rewarding for him in any way.”
Navalny has always had a passion for advocating for the underdog. During the early stages of his career in the mid-2000s, his greatest sense of accomplishment came from establishing the Committee to Protect Muscovites. While technically not a part of Yabloko, the organization received support and coordination from the political party. Its main goal was to combat the rampant corruption and abuses during Russia’s construction boom, which resulted in Yelena Baturina, the wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, becoming the country’s first female billionaire. This marked the beginning of his ongoing fight against corruption in all facets of Russian society.
Subsequently, during his mayoral campaign and attempted presidential run, Navalny adopted a comparable method – vowing to tackle common grievances faced by ordinary Russians, such as inadequate housing and infrastructure, and to eradicate corruption within the government. However, following his arrest in 2021, he shifted his focus to an even more fundamental objective: the happiness of the nation.
During a court hearing, Navalny expressed his desire for numerous positive changes to occur in our country. He believes that our struggle should not just be for freedom, but also for overall improvement in all aspects. He pointed out that Russian literature often portrays misery and suffering, reflecting the unhappiness of our nation. However, he hopes to break out of this cycle of unhappiness and suggests that the slogan should be changed to not only strive for freedom, but also for happiness. He is confident that Russia will eventually become a happy country.
Currently, the situation is not as positive; Navalny’s aspiration of becoming president seems like a distant dream. When he came back to Russia, Navalny did not anticipate Putin’s determination to eliminate him. Maybe after Angela Merkel’s visit to his hospital room, Navalny believed that he was too significant to be imprisoned for an extended period. Alternatively, he may have assumed that the Kremlin still feared creating a martyr out of him.
There are numerous methods of causing death. The use of poison was unsuccessful. As a result, imprisonment became the alternative. Currently, Navalny is confined to a harsh Russian prison colony, serving multiple sentences that have been falsely imposed for political reasons, amounting to over 30 years.
Previously seen as Russia’s greatest opportunity for a democratic tomorrow, Navalny, whose well-being has deteriorated, is currently facing a serious threat of perishing while being held captive. His legal representatives, who acted as his last connection to the external world, have also been subjected to detainment and legal action.
Simultaneously, Navalny has been forced to adopt staunchly anti-war stances due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, making it highly improbable for him to attain elected positions in Russia even if he were to be released from custody.
Among Ukrainians, Navalny’s outspoken criticism of the war is viewed, in part, as a self-serving effort to maintain publicity on his own case. And in Russia, where thousands of families have lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in a war that Putin and the Russian Orthodox have proclaimed a just and necessary fight, Navalny’s views seem antipatriotic.
Navalny has long supported the Ukrainian people’s fight for democracy during the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 and the Maidan Revolution in 2013-14. He has expressed his hope that Russians would unite in a similar movement to oppose Putin.
However, Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, including the invasion and takeover of Crimea, which had strong backing from the Russian population, often put Navalny in a difficult position, as he needed to maintain a stance that aligned with the views of regular Russian voters in order to gain their support for future political endeavors. In response to Putin’s annexation, Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation began conducting sociological research and polls, including an attempt to gauge Russian public opinion on the situation in Crimea. The results were complex.
Over 55% of individuals expressed concern that the rights of Russian speakers were being violated in Crimea, which is a key argument in Kremlin’s propaganda. Additionally, over 85% stated their desire for Crimea to join Russia. However, almost 75% also stated that they do not believe a war between Russia and Ukraine is likely to occur.
Over the following months, Navalny aimed to carefully adjust his public remarks regarding Crimea in an effort to strike a balance between denouncing Putin’s unlawful takeover and expressing his own belief, which is also held by most Russians, that Crimea belongs to Russia.
In a radio interview in October 2014, Navalny made a significant but disputed statement that sparked controversy among Ukrainians. He acknowledged that Crimea is currently under Russian control, despite the fact that it was annexed in violation of international laws. He warned Ukrainians to not delude themselves and accept the reality that Crimea will continue to be a part of Russia and will not rejoin Ukraine in the near future.
The former leader of Ekho Moskvy, Alexey Venediktov, questioned Navalny’s stance on returning Crimea to Ukraine during a live broadcast, asking if he would do so if given the opportunity.
“Navalny stated that Crimea is not a mere bologna sandwich to be tossed around, but a serious matter.”
Navalny’s maneuver was a reflection of the current political situation. However, Putin’s aggressive attack on Ukraine in February 2022 left no space for ambiguity – especially for the millions of Ukrainians affected. At this point, Navalny was already imprisoned and had no other option but to openly oppose the war.
In an attempt to establish Navalny as a significant opponent of the invasion, he and his team focused on the pressing question, which had captured the attention of global leaders, of the potential future of Russia after the war. However, this posed a considerable challenge from a legal and political perspective, and could potentially be dangerous. Harsh new laws forbade any dissent towards the Russian military or the war, meaning that any anti-war stance taken by Navalny could result in further criminal charges and a longer prison sentence.
Although there was widespread unease among the public about Putin’s military mobilization efforts in September 2022, which led many men of fighting age to leave the country, the majority of Russians still expressed their approval of the war in opinion polls. Politically, Navalny was in conflict with his own citizens.
Navalny and his team faced challenges and dangers, but they wanted to gain international recognition for Russia and its conflict. To do so, Navalny wrote an essay for the Washington Post, exploring the question: “What would be a feasible and desirable resolution to the criminal war initiated by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine?”
Navalny stated in the article that it is important for Western countries to support not only Ukraine’s efforts in protecting its independent land, but also for Navalny and the Russian opposition to overthrow Putin.
“The topic of post-war Russia should be the primary focus, rather than just one aspect, for those working towards peace,” stated Navalny. “Without a plan to prevent the root cause of issues, long-term goals cannot be accomplished. Russia must stop provoking aggression and instability. This is achievable and should be considered a strategic triumph in this conflict.”
The central point of his essay, if there was one, seemed to be that to achieve regional peace and stability, Russia must become a parliamentary republic with constitutional changes to limit the authority of the country’s overly strong presidency.
The main idea was occasionally hard to understand. The piece jumped between different topics, attempting to steer clear of many obstacles without success. Any argument in favor of Russia would not be well-received in the Western world, while an argument against Russia would create tension with fellow citizens. Navalny appeared to be echoing French president Emmanuel Macron’s belief that Russia should be overcome without being humiliated.
In his op-ed, Navalny attempted to alleviate concerns and reaffirm his belief that the majority of Russian citizens are moral. However, he also condemned the Western world for misinterpreting and mishandling the events in Ukraine, while simultaneously attacking Putin and anyone who holds imperialist ideologies.
In addition, he gave a strong caution that solely defeating Russia in a military manner will not result in long-term stability.
Navalny stated that even if Putin suffers a military defeat, he will likely attribute it to the collective West and NATO’s aggression against Russia. He will then use traditional Russian symbols and cultural references to rally the nation and promise to build a powerful military that will seek revenge against the West for defying Russia. This could lead to a cycle of hybrid warfare and provocations, ultimately leading to new wars.
Unfortunately, Navalny’s article was published on September 30, 2022, which happened to be the same day that Putin announced his plan to annex four regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Due to Putin’s bold actions in attempting to change the borders of Europe, there was little attention given to Navalny’s opinion piece.
In February 2023, shortly before the anniversary of Putin’s large-scale attack on Ukraine, Navalny openly restated his opposition to the war and affirmed his unequivocal support for the preservation of Ukraine’s international borders as defined after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which includes Crimea. Although he did not explicitly demand the return of Crimea, he also did not use vague language like his previous “bologna sandwich” comment on the radio.
During the summer, a week following Navalny’s sentencing to an additional 19 years in jail, making his total sentence 30 years with a scheduled release date of 2051 when he will be 75 years old, he confessed to being a dissident, which was a surprising revelation for him.
Throughout his many years battling against Putin’s government, Navalny had refused to be categorized. However, in August, following his conviction for “extremism” – a ridiculous charge considering his only “crime” was advocating for fair elections – Navalny revealed that he had been reading “Fear No Evil,” a novel by Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. This book recounted Sharansky’s own experience being held in solitary confinement in the punishment cell known as the SHIZO.
Navalny expressed in a social media post that while reading his book, he often finds himself shaking his head to dispel the notion that he is reading his own personal file. He urged Russians to continue the fight against corruption and advocate for democracy, so that in the future, no one will have to relate to Sharansky’s book while in a mental institution, thinking: “This is just like me”.
David M. Herszenhorn serves as the editor for Russia, Ukraine and East Europe at the Washington Post. He was also previously the chief correspondent in Brussels for POLITICO.