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Stand with the Russians Who Stand Against Putin
The case of Dasha Navalnaya and the excesses of the anti-Russian backlash.
HARD ON THE HEELS of last week’s controversy following the cancellation of a PEN America panel featuring Russian writers in exile because Ukrainian writers on a different panel objected, another conflict over a Russian speaker whose presence some considered an insult to Ukrainians reached its conclusion at Georgetown University. This time, the outcome was very different—and it may point to the best way to approach such thorny disputes in the midst of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Last Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service included a “call for freedom” for imprisoned Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and for other political prisoners around the world. In early May, the school announced that Navalny’s daughter, Daria (“Dasha”) Navalnaya, a junior at Stanford, had been invited to speak on behalf of her father. This led to a protest organized by a handful of Ukrainian and Georgian graduate students who, like many other Ukrainians, regard Navalny as a Russian imperialist in deceptive liberal packaging. A number of other students, including several prominent in the student government, joined in asking Georgetown’s leadership to reconsider the invitation.
Those objecting to Navalnaya’s appearance cited not only respect for the Ukrainian students incensed by her father’s past ambivalence on the status of Crimea but concerns that other aspects of the persona of Navalny père—especially his past as a Russian nationalist with lapses into hateful rhetoric—did not “align with Georgetown’s culture of inclusivity.”
Is there any validity to those critiques? Well, Navalny’s complicated past is an undeniable fact. Early in his public career, some fifteen years ago, he railed against migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus and made an infamous ad implicitly comparing migrant criminals to cockroaches and flies. A blog post he made during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 not only called for the expulsion of all Georgians from Russia but used the common Russian slur gryzuny, or rodents—a nasty pun on gruziny, Georgians. What’s more, while Navalny had moved away from such rhetoric by 2011 when he emerged as a leader of the democratic opposition, he refused to condemn or disavow it as late as 2017. It was only in January 2022 that he voiced “regret” for the “cockroaches” clip in a Time interview, and only in April of this year that he offered a full-throated apology for his comments about Georgia.
Nonetheless, it is also a fact that in the 2010s, Navalny built a genuinely liberal and multiethnic anti-corruption, pro-democracy movement. As for Ukraine, his calls for anti-war protests while already behind bars on a trumped-up fraud conviction were almost certainly the reason for the new charges that earned him another nine-year term in March 2022; even during his trial, he used the courtroom as a platform to assert that “it is every person’s duty to fight against this war.” In February of this year, Navalny published a statement that not only denounced Putin’s “unjust war of aggression against Ukraine” but endorsed the restoration of Ukraine’s 1991 borders, which include Crimea—ending all speculation about his position on that issue—and the payment of reparations by Russia.
As for Dasha Navalnaya herself, the 22-year-old psychology major has her own record of antiwar advocacy. Some two months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she delivered a remarkable warning in a speech to the European Parliament while accepting a human rights award on behalf of her father, noting that “Years of flirting [by Europe] with Putin made it clear to him that . . . he can start a war” and that the menace of “Russian troops coming to the Ukrainian border” was not being taken seriously enough.
None of this swayed Navalnaya’s detractors, whose Change.org petition to get her deplatformed at Georgetown asserted that she had “not once mentioned the war in Ukraine” in her earlier public appearances.
To its credit, the school stood firm. “We do not disinvite speakers on the Georgetown campus, and we don’t dissuade speakers from speaking,” School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman told Politico. Two more keynote speakers were added to make the lineup more diverse: Zimbabwean pastor and democratic activist Evan Mawarire and Houston, Texas resident Debra Tice, whose son, journalist and Marine veteran Austin Tice, has been in captivity in Syria since 2012. Otherwise, however, Navalnaya’s appearance went ahead as planned. A video shows that despite a lone boo and a few people draped in Ukrainian flags standing up with their backs to the podium, she was greeted with warm applause both before and after her four-minute speech—in which she focused primarily on the importance of freedom but also pointed out that her father, already in prison, had risked new persecution by “speaking out against an unjust and horrible war in Ukraine.”
WHILE NAVALNAYA PREVAILED, other “cancellations” of anti-Putin Russians last week were more successful—not only at the PEN America festival in New York but in England, where an event with expatriate Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich was canceled with no warning and no explanation; an hour before the start, Shenderovich, his manager, and some ticket holders who had shown up early were approached by security and told to clear the premises. (Shenderovich ended up holding an outdoor event at nearby Regents Park.)
Shenderovich had earlier drawn the ire of many Ukrainians—and fellow Russian exiles—by vocally criticizing anti-Russian hate in the pro-Ukraine camp. Some of his language, such as a reference to “Nazi outbursts,” was extremely ill-considered given that “Ukrainian Nazism” had been a staple of Kremlin propaganda as a go-to excuse for the war. Yet detractors rushed to accuse Shenderovich—one of the earliest and most fearless opponents of the Putin regime—of nothing less than asserting that “Ukrainians are actually Nazis” and thus allying himself with Putin’s war on Ukraine, which he has consistently denounced. Ironically, some of those critics proved Shenderovich’s point about blanket anti-Russian hate: a column by former Ukrainian foreign minister Volodymyr Ohryzko lambasting Shenderovich as a de facto Putin ally asserted that Russia is “a slave nation” of people who crave a strongman’s brutality. Likewise, the recent “cancellation” attempts directed at Russian dissidents do not exactly disprove Shenderovich’s claim that Russians are being targeted for their national origin.
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Last week’s flurry of cancellations sparked animated and sometimes bitter discussions in the Russian exile community, with a number of YouTube pundits such as broadcast journalists Ksenia Larina and Yevgeny Kiselyov passionately arguing that it was unseemly, even immoral, for anti-Putin Russians to criticize Ukrainians or claim persecution while Ukrainians are being killed, maimed, and dispossessed by Russian aggression. When Larina polled her audience on whether Russians should “shut up” on the subject (as opposition leader Garry Kasparov recently suggested), slightly over half of those who voted said yes.
This is obviously a fraught issue for Russian nationals, especially ones who until a certain point had reasonably successful careers in Putin’s Russia. But those of us in public life in Western liberal societies that strongly support Ukraine in its just war should oppose all manifestations of illiberalism. That includes “cancellations” directed at Russians—other than boycotts of individuals or organizations linked to the Putin regime or to support for the war.
It’s also worth noting that blanket ostracism of all Russians including anti-war, anti-Putin dissidents is by no means the general position in Ukraine, whether public or private. While one of the Ukrainian protesters at Georgetown has complained that her future political career in Ukraine might be imperiled by so much as sharing a space with Navalny’s daughter, an actual prominent politician in today’s Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, is a frequent guest on the YouTube channel run by Navalny’s team. Russian lawyer Ivan Zhdanov, the current director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, met with Podolyak on a trip to Ukraine last June and had the Ukrainian government’s assistance in filming evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine for broadcasting on YouTube. Meanwhile, expatriate Russian commentators such as Mark Feygin and Yulia Latynina appear frequently on Ukrainian television.
IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that the excesses of the anti-Russian backlash are utterly trivial next to the plight of Ukrainians fighting on the frontlines, living in cities under Russian attack, or coping with devastating losses. It is also easy to see why many of those Ukrainians have little patience for “good Russians” whose struggle against Putin produces few results besides blog posts, tweets, and YouTube videos. But the moral calculus gets more complicated when people living a free and comfortable life in the West pour scorn on a man who is being essentially tortured in prison for opposing the Putin regime and its war in Ukraine—or taunt his daughter for having a designer bag.
Ultimately, Georgetown took the right approach to the issue, reassuring the Ukrainian and Georgian protesters that their concerns were being heard and giving them the opportunity to publicly express their point of view without silencing the Russian speaker. Cancellations that target anti-Putin Russians in the West pale next to the tragedy of the war—but they should still be opposed for reasons both moral and practical: moral because freedom of expression matters; practical because such cancellations help the Russian propaganda machine far more than some Russian dissidents’ badly worded criticisms of Ukrainian nationalism.