An expert's point of view on a current event.

Dissidents Aren’t Saints

The organized campaign against Alexei Navalny was damaging and misplaced.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife, Yulia
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, are seen at the passport control point at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Jan. 17. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

The phenomenon now described as “cancel culture” isn’t new—whether for noble purposes or cruel ones, it has a long history. It’s human nature to judge other people, for right or wrong. But in an age of online communications, it’s easy to think the worst of a person you’ve never met and to decide that they’re evil based on one video or comment—even if they’re just, like most of us, imperfect. And it’s also easy, it turns out, for bad actors to weaponize those feelings themselves.

That’s what happened with Amnesty International’s recent decision to strip jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status after a shadowy email campaign brought up his past xenophobic statements. The decision emboldened Kremlin propagandists covering Navalny’s case, and it has given both trolls and useful idiots reason to cast both Navalny and anyone who supports him as outright Nazis. From the start, Amnesty seemed to realize it had been played—and the organization is now undergoing a review of what happened. But the damage has been done.

A disinformation campaign had reputable journalists suggesting that Navalny had once filmed a video comparing Muslim immigrants to “cockroaches.” In context, though, it seems more likely that he was referring specifically to terrorists, as he made the comments while pointing at a picture, instantly recognizable to Russians, of Shamil Basayev and others involved in the then-recent killings at Beslan. Navalny has disavowed some of his past attitudes, while maintaining that Russia needs a tougher attitude on immigration.

It was still a bad, distasteful video—and it was made in the context of other nationalist remarks by Navalny, who started out his political career believing that nationalism was a good antidote to the political movement of President Vladimir Putin. That’s an opinion he’s has since moderated, but it was always a profoundly dubious one. Yet Navalny simply does not hold the level of hatred ascribed to him.

All of this was happening as Navalny sat in Matrosskaya Tishina, one of Russia’s most notorious jails, awaiting transfer to a penal colony after surviving a horrific poisoning attempt, recuperating in Germany, and returning to Russia following treatment. Navalny knew that he would be detained, and he chose to go home anyway.

Back in Russia, the anti-Navalny campaign has been even more effective—even as hundreds of thousands of people turned out to protest his arrest. I was chilled to the bone as I watched a video of ordinary Russians wishing death and suffering on Navalny. None of the people who were interviewed could point out what crime Navalny had committed, exactly—aside from vague mutterings about him cozying up to the West.

State propaganda and yet another show trial had done its job on these people—people who looked too tired, too worried about their everyday survival, to even consider trying out an alternative news source or just getting to the bottom of the charges against Navalny.

I have friends in the Vladimir region, where the video was taken, and where the penal colony Navalny has been sent to is located. There are many gorgeous churches around, but the infrastructure is terrible, drug addiction is a local scourge, and doctors complain that the bureaucratic “optimization” of medicine is, in fact, destroying health care. All of this is happening, of course, while Russia’s rich, the elites who support Putin, are presiding over some of the worst inequality in the world.

Watching people kick Navalny while he was already down raised the question: Can you really “cancel” someone who’s been “canceled” already, nearly killed off by his own government and taunted by many of his compatriots? I don’t think so. Navalny has, by now, transcended many of the categories people have tried to apply to him over the years. I can easily imagine him laughing at Amnesty’s cowardice.

But there’s also no need to make Navalny some kind of saint now. In fact, no dissident is a saint, and they shouldn’t ever be required to be one.

Consider Nelson Mandela, who was stripped of his status as a prisoner of conscience back in 1964, after defending organized political violence during his show trial.

Consider Nelson Mandela, who was stripped of his status as a prisoner of conscience back in 1964, after defending organized political violence during his show trial. It’s an odd thing to read about today, considering the fact that Mandela was ultimately crowned as a saint after all—and was said to be very irritated by it. Public sainthood is a repudiation of humanity, and if you spend your life fighting for humanity—and knowing how ugly the fight can get, and how you can get blood on our hands—you would be annoyed at being treated like a saint, too.

Consider, also, the fate of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a brave Soviet dissident, writer, Nobel Prize in Literature winner, and former political prisoner, who fell in love with Putin’s government in his old age because he wanted to see a restored Russia—and was swiftly co-opted by Moscow.

Solzhenitsyn rejected totalitarianism, but he believed that post-Soviet Russia could only make its way out of various crises through an authoritarian figure. He was also a nationalist who believed, for example, that Ukraine should have never gotten its independence from Russia. Catastrophically flawed thinking? Sure. Enough to erase Solzhenitsyn’s legacy? No.

The truth of being a political dissident is that no one starts out on that path wanting to be a glorious and perfect martyr. Well, some people do, but they tend to change lanes pretty quickly. The harsh reality of the dissident’s life is not for the overly romantic.

To be a real dissident is to feed yourself into the government’s jaws and then watch them crush and remake you. I have observed this process happening to Navalny for years now. I have seen how brutally cops twisted his arms behind his back and noted the grimace of pain on his face. I have seen the anxiety and sadness in his eyes as a court jailed his brother, Oleg Navalny, essentially taking him as a hostage of the government.

I have seen Navalny grow from someone who seemed slick and opportunistic at best to a man willing to put literally everything on the line—career, family, life—because he got tired of how the Russian state defrauds and humiliates its own people: the very same bedraggled-looking people standing on the streets of a small town, yelling to a journalist about how Navalny “hopefully bites it.”

Adversity changes us all, in ways that can be both good and bad. Some people crumble, and some harden to steel. Some people grow bitter, and some grow kinder. Most, I think, combine both bitterness and kindness—simply because that’s how people tend to work.

It’s too early to tell just how the latest chapter in Alexei Navalny’s fascinating and terrifying existence will play out and how it may influence and affect him. All I can confidently say is that it was clearly his conscience that made him refuse to take the offramp. Conscience made him go back to Russia. And if he is not a prisoner of conscience, no one is.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington D.C.