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Lessons for American Democracy from a Russian Prison Cell
What we can learn from Alexei Navalny’s meditation about what went wrong for his country.
ALEXEI NAVALNY HAS A LOT OF TIME TO THINK. He’s been in jail in Russia for more than 940 days, since January 17, 2021, and has spent more than 180 of those days in an isolation punishment cell. On August 11, a court sentenced Navalny to a further nineteen years of jail under the harshest conditions—in addition to the eleven-and-a-half-year sentence he was already serving. The charges against him aren’t worth dignifying by mentioning: They are as fanciful as the court procedure itself. So, with no real opportunity to defend himself and no hope of freedom any time soon, Navalny has ample time to think, to read Natan Sharansky’s prison memoir, Fear No Evil, and, it turns out, to write.
Just days before the court was to announce his inevitable conviction, Navalny released (through associates) a strange and interesting essay. It’s about the people he hates more than Vladimir Putin, the man who tried to kill him and who has deprived him of his rights.
Navalny’s essay is worth reading because, unlike Fear No Evil, from which he quotes, it’s hardly about his imprisonment at all. It’s not a piece of prison literature—a genre that previous generations of Russian dissidents established as something of a national tradition. Instead, it’s a meditation on democracy, the rule of law, and blame. And there’s a lot of blame to go around.
Navalny doesn’t really blame Putin and the cabal of spooks, thugs, thieves, and murderers surrounding him for being, well, spooks, thugs, thieves, and murderers. “We let the goat in the cabbage warehouse,” he writes,
and then we wonder why it ate all the cabbage. It is a goat, its mission and goal is to eat cabbage, it can’t think of anything else. It is useless to agitate him. Similarly, Putin’s FSB official[s] can’t think of anything else but to build a huge house and imprison those they don’t like. I can’t stand the goat, but I hate those who let it in the cabbage warehouse.
So whom does Navalny blame for the state Russia is in today—and thus indirectly for the state prison he is in? It’s the people who wasted Russia’s golden opportunity to democratize in the 1990s, according to Navalny—the so-called democrats, liberals, and reformers who managed to gobble up the profits from privatization without enacting deep political reform:
I hate oligarch [Vladirim] Gusinsky (even if he is no longer an oligarch) because he blatantly hired [Filipp] Bobkov, the deputy head of the KGB, who was responsible for persecuting dissidents. They thought it was a joke at the time: ha-ha, he put innocent people in jail, and now he works for me. Kind of like a bear in the livery. So not only was there no lustration [i.e., no process of cleansing the government of Soviet holdovers], there was the encouragement of villains. Now, literally, those people who worked for Bobkov as young employees are putting [democratic politicians] Yashin, Kara-Murza, and me in jail. . . . I hate the authors of the most stupid authoritarian constitution, which they sold to us idiots as democratic, even then giving the president the power of a full-fledged monarch.
In 1993, when the State Duma tried to remove the supposedly democratic president Boris Yeltsin, he ordered the army to shell the legislature building. So much for democracy and the rule of law, and no wonder Yeltsin chose a ruthless, mobbed-up former KGB colonel as his successor. As Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent liberal magazine New Times put it, the shelling of the parliament was “a small pleasure” because the legislators were mostly Communists and fascistic nationalists—“reds and browns.” But still, “in politics, symbols have meaning,” and the burning parliament building “became a symbol of relations between, roughly speaking, the Kremlin tsar [and] the power chosen by the people.”
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The historical analogies almost draw themselves. The Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar dictator. King Victor Emanuel III forced the Italian government to give the fascists power. Franz von Papen and Paul von Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor when the Nazis were still a minority party. Each of these officials voluntarily accommodated the extremists rather than put up a fight. By Navalny’s logic, they are in some ways more blameworthy than the despots they empowered because they should have known better.
What if we were to apply that same reasoning to the United States and our political travails? The United States is, of course, not in the position of the late Roman Republic, the Kingdom of Italy, or Weimar Germany. But as Judge Michael Luttig told the House January 6th Committee last year, “A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife’s edge. America was at war . . . against herself. We Americans were at war with each other—over our democracy.”
There are plenty of people to blame for allowing the Republican party to enthrall itself to an authoritarian movement, including almost every Republican who held any official office since 2016. Even those who now oppose Trump—Chris Christie, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger—still accommodated the would-be authoritarian for so long. Trump, in the terms of Navalny’s metaphor, is just a goat. As Charlie Sykes wrote in 2020, “Trump himself is a horror show, but the most horrific story of the last four years has been the complete surrender of the GOP to Trumpism, not just on policy but on everything.” Christie, Cheney, and Kinzinger—to say nothing of Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham and the many, many others who maintain fealty to the orange god-king—are adults and should have known better. They probably did know better.
THIS BRINGS US to Navanly’s second main problem: hatred. “I need to get over this loathing and fear,” he admits.
I have said many times before that hate is the main thing that must be overcome in prison. There are so many reasons for it, and your powerlessness is a strong catalyst for the process. So if you let it go [on], it will eat and end you up. I’ll be honest, I have a hatred and I’ve got a lot of it.
Hatred by itself is a spiritual problem, but the political problem for Navalny is that it is incompatible with optimism. And he is optimistic: “Tomorrow we will have a new chance—that window of opportunity” like the one Russia wasted in the 1990s, he predicts. Yet, “I am very afraid that the battle for principles may be lost again under the slogans of ‘realpolitik.’”
As far as history is concerned, hatred and blame are no problem. But, writes Navalny, “tomorrow we will have to deal with those” who make excuses for corruption and despotism. “Those with such ideas will not be Putinists or Communists at all—they will once again call themselves democrats and liberals.” One day, in other words, the opponents of Putin’s regime, the enablers of Putin’s regime, and those in the middle who kept their heads down and tried to tend to their own gardens will have to unite to form some new social contract. There aren’t enough true liberals in Russia, and those there are lack sufficient strength to take power, especially when their opponents have no compunction about theft, false imprisonment, torture, and murder. They will need to form some kind of political alliance. From the darkness of his jail cell, Navalny is already contemplating what kind of modus vivendi he can reach with the people who helped put him there.
The conclusion Navalny reaches is completely unsatisfying: “Real life is complicated, hard and full of compromises with unpleasant people. However, at least we ourselves should not become unpleasant people and welcome corruption and cynical fraud even before circumstances require compromise.” Of course we should not let ourselves become unpleasant, corrupt, cynical fraudsters; but that alone won’t revive democracy.
HOW ONE DAY MIGHT WE American liberal democrats address those who helped put Trump in power and who helped keep him there—not his posse of confidants and henchmen but people who stood aside or “humored” him?
The answer for Navalny may be different from the answer for us. His only shot at freedom is to outlive Putin. Americans have more options when dealing with the enablers of our would-be authoritarians. Our speech is still free. Our votes still count. Our justice system is still independent. Navalny’s top priority is rightly to preserve his sanity and his soul. We’re not there yet.
There are three lessons to be learned from Navalny’s moral-political meditation. The first is that hatred is no substitute to righteous ardor. Hating Trumpism shouldn’t necessarily imply hating Trump. Hopefully one day we’ll look back and realize that we as a country treated this sad, troubled, angry old man rather callously by elevating him to an office for which he was clearly unfit.
The second lesson is that the timing of authoritarianism is hard to appreciate in the moment. Few knew in 1993 that Russia’s attempt at democracy was doomed. It took until 2012 for most people—including most Russians—to figure that out. We may look back and realize that America’s brush (let’s hope it’s just a brush) with authoritarianism began long before January 6, 2021, possibly long before 2016. We should be aware that every moment is a test of democracy.
The third lesson is that, while hope is not a strategy, it can be a strategic frame of mind. Despair can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Navalny, in his circumstances, can think deeply and clearly about the past and future of his country’s democracy, we should be able to do at least as well.