Navalny Is All-In on Bringing Down Putinism

Russia’s opposition leader is forcing the system to make decisions it wants to avoid.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Jan. 18. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Five months after Russian intelligence services botched an attempt to kill him, Alexei Navalny audaciously returned to Moscow, in the process announcing himself the uncontested political champion of the Russian political opposition. He had succumbed to a military-grade poison on a flight to Siberia and was then evacuated in a comatose state to Germany, where world-class doctors saved his life and rehabilitated him.

After failing to kill him in a quasi-deniable fashion, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have liked nothing more than to have Navalny stay in exile. Understanding full well that staying in Germany would have ensured he would join the chorus of irrelevant exiled Russian opposition figures, routinely ignored by both the authorities and the Russian population, Navalny instead returned to Russia and inaugurated an accelerationist strategy of resistance against the Kremlin—breaking the status quo one way or the other.

On Sunday, Navalny and his wife boarded a flight with Pobeda Airlines, whose name means “Victory” in Russian, crammed with international journalists filming every moment. The return was as stylish as it was impudent. As the plane taxied, Navalny posted a video to his Instagram account of his wife laconically delivering an iconic line from the massively popular Russian crime film Brother 2: “Bring us some vodka, boy. We’re flying home.” Navalny answered the questions of the international press in Russian, publicly rejecting the veracity of Putin’s accusation that he was nothing more than a Western agent. The air stewardesses who excitedly took a photo with him would later get into serious trouble with the authorities. The audacity of his political return to a state that would inevitably attempt to jail him to take leadership of the political opposition raised comparisons to Vladimir Lenin’s own return to the Finland Station via Germany a century ago.

Immediately prior to landing, the flight was rerouted at the last moment from one airport to the other. Navalny was detained on arrival in front of the passport control booth and not allowed to bring his lawyer with him, on the pretext that she had not yet entered the country. The heavy-handed response at the airport—brigades of riot police surrounded the terminal in order to keep Navalny’s supporters from meeting him—as well as the fact that the authorities detained him before allowing his passport to be stamped showcased the tremendous anxiety that he now provokes in the authorities. The next morning he was quickly tried for not reporting to detention for an old case where he had received a three-and-a-half-year-long suspended sentence. Navalny had not appeared at his mandated court summons—he was in Germany at the time, recovering. The hastily organized kangaroo court (or rather much resembling a 1930s-style “troika” show trial) held in the back of a provincial police station illustrated either the desperation or the impudence and brazenness of the Kremlin.

The Kremlin’s haphazard attempt to rid itself of a long-term foe has demonstrated the sad degradation of the capacity of once fearsome security services. Navalny had not just survived the assassination attempt, he had also investigated it along with the Bellingcat investigative organization and had even personally called the operative who had attempted to kill him in order to interrogate him. The spectacularly theatrical return has transmogrified Navalny from a political gadfly thought by many Russians to be first and foremost an anti-corruption activist into a global statesman who enjoys the full backing of the international community—even as it can do little to protect him.

The day after his arrest and jailing, Navalny and his team of investigators published a feature-length investigation of Putin’s secret personal palace. The investigation was as highly theatrical, minutely produced, and perfectly timed, as the return to Russia had been. It included a detailed paperwork trail derived from internet sleuthing of which oligarch and business entities legally owned which part of the massive palace compound and adjoining vineyards, as well as records of the numerous bribe schemes that had paid for $1 billion in construction fees. Navalny had symbolically broken into Putin’s private sanctum and took the Russian population through a guided tour of its secret ballrooms, underground tunnels, and tastelessly decorated bedrooms, all while mocking Putin, his psychological failings, and his aesthetic choices mercilessly. It was his storming of the Winter Palace.

The hybrid political regime that Putin has constructed has allowed a great deal of space for all sorts of ambiguity and blowing off steam. It has accounted for professional and personal accommodation. People are allowed to grumble and complain and engage in private affairs as long as they do not challenge the system directly. But Navalny has challenged the system directly and is forcing it to make a decision about how to deal with him that it has no interest in making. Stepping over the line to go after Putin’s private wealth has never been done so brazenly by a Russian dissident before, and even previous Navalny investigations of members of the Putin retinue had avoided such direct assaults on the president and his family. There is no going back now. The Russian hybrid regime has never been challenged by anyone as directly as it has been by Navalny. He has thrown himself at the regime with an implicit ultimatum that he will never stop until he is either imprisoned or killed. Or perhaps killed after being imprisoned.

The previous consensus that the regime had enacted, the delicate balance that created a system where one could operate under the radar and that preferred to have people censor themselves—and that resorted to the usage of brutal force only sparingly and in random applied fashion—was shattered the moment that Navalny boarded the flight in Berlin.

The historical dissident whom Navalny most resembles is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was equally intense, willful, fearless, and physically and morally brave, and who possessed a focus that bordered on the obsessive. Much like Solzhenitsyn, Navalny intends to barrel through the regime that he opposes through sheer will and force of personality, and threats of a few more years in a camp do not dissuade him. And like him, Navalny holds some hard nationalist and conservative values that make liberals both in Russia and the West uncomfortable, which have resurfaced in recent conversations about him as the Kremlin furiously looks for ways to discredit him.

Returning in the face of government’s threats to jail him and the unpredictability of the possible response, Navalny has essentially placed himself as a hostage into the hands of the system. He has already reshaped the terms of his struggle with Putinism irrevocably. On Thursday, in response to Navalny’s arrest, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the European Union to cease work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. The system has hit back already; on Thursday night, Navalny’s press secretary had her apartment searched by police, and several of his highest-profile supporters were detained in the run-up to Saturday’s planned nationwide protest.

Navalny has placed his own body on the line in a remarkable wager and accelerating push against the system. The national turnout at this weekend’s demonstrations will show whether that bet was a success.

Vladislav Davidzon is a writer, journalist and artist who has reported extensively from Ukraine. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review.