Death of a hero

Alexei Navalny, RIP

The title comes from the 1929 novel by Richard Aldington, whose main protagonist is killed in the First World War.

While both sides in that war claimed they defended good against evil, neither had a valid claim to such moral ascendancy. The lines weren’t so clearly drawn, as if to remind us that our post-Christian world allows for no absolute standards of goodness.

It’s more generous when it comes to absolute standards of evil. There is always room for those, and in Russia that space has been pre-booked for centuries in advance. Public, if not yet private, virtue has been expunged there, the very possibility of it consigned to oblivion.

Yet some people still harbour hopes, although few are prepared to die for them. Alexei Navalny was, and he will go down in history as a hero, a man who had the courage of his convictions. His murder by Putin has forever put his courage before his convictions, and this is the only order in which they can be discussed in the aftermath of the tragic news.

In 2020, Putin’s hitmen poisoned Navalny with Novichok, the nerve agent they had already used to murder other dissidents at home and abroad. Unlike others, Navalny didn’t die, and the public outcry around the world was such that Putin agreed for Navalny to be flown to Germany for treatment.

A fortnight later Navalny emerged out of his coma and felt strong enough to go back to Russia. His friends desperately tried to talk him out of that suicidal intention, but to no avail. Navalny knew he’d be arrested on return and imprisoned for a long spell. But he felt that his whole life had left him no choice. He had to either repudiate it or take Putin head on.

A series of sham trials followed, with more and more years tagged on to Navalny’s original sentence. He refused to indulge in jailhouse arithmetic, knowing that he was in prison for life, either his own or Putin’s, whichever lasted longer. Unfortunately, Navalny’s hearse beat Putin’s in that race to death.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian, and the same goes for any revolution. I hope Navalny’s martyrdom will fertilise the soil in which what he called “a beautiful future Russia” may grow, but this hope has little realistic basis.

I’m not going to go over every detail of Navalny’s epic struggle against those he described as “a party of crooks and thieves”. The papers are full of such accounts, and I have nothing to add to them. Instead I’ll try to understand Navalny’s reasons for delivering himself voluntarily into the blood-stained hands of Putin’s torturers and murderers.

Why didn’t he just stay in the West, joining hundreds of Russian dissidents, journalists, bloggers, political scientists who had fled for their lives to the sanctuary of Europe or America? The question contains the answer: Navalny was neither a dissident, nor a journalist, nor a blogger, nor a political scientist.

He was an active politician who felt he had a fighting chance to supplant Putin and drive his “crooks and thieves” out of the Kremlin. In that regard, I can only repeat what I wrote on 22 January, 2022, when Navalny received yet another tagged-on sentence:

“Navalny certainly has a talent for what some may describe as inspiring the masses and others as rabble-rousing. He has become the focal point of dissent, and the only political figure seen as a plausible challenger to Putin.

“He is trying to unify various factions in what may become a sustained protest movement, to which end Navalny is uttering plenty of liberal phrases. But his heart lies elsewhere.

“Navalny’s problem is with Putin’s epic corruption, not his declared political sentiments: Russian nationalism, empire building, suspicion (if not hatred) of the West and so forth.

“Hence one hopes that Navalny will only act as a battering ram breaching the wall surrounding the kleptofascist regime, not as its one-for-one replacement. But such hopes are probably forlorn.

“Navalny may not get the chance to challenge Putin in earnest. Vlad has shown that he doesn’t mind turning Navalny into a martyr, and he may still feel Navalny is more dangerous alive than dead. After all, another plausible challenger, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead 100 yards from the Kremlin six years ago, and no mass opposition has rallied around his body.

“Hence I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Navalny suffering a sudden heart attack in prison…”

In another article written at about that time, I wondered how the West would respond should that possibility become reality:

“Biden tried to answer that implicit question by threatening ‘devastating consequences’ should Navalny die in prison. By the looks of it, the devastating consequences will take the shape of another stern expression of deep concern.

“Anyway, why weren’t there any consequences, devastating or otherwise, when the previous opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead a few feet from the Kremlin wall? Or when another opposition leader, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered? Or after dozens of other dissidents (Starovytova, Shchekochihin, Sheremet, Litvinenko et al.)  were ‘whacked’ in Russia and elsewhere?

“Where were the consequences of a London restaurant being poisoned with polonium and half of Salisbury with Novichok? What about that Chechen émigré shot in Germany? Boris Berezovsky garrotted in England? Alexander Perepelichny poisoned in Surrey?”

This isn’t a boast of my prescience: anyone with a modicum of understanding and knowledge could have predicted such gruesome events and the West’s cowardly response to them. But the question is still nagging: what was the source of the suicidal courage with which Navalny marched towards his tragic death? After all, such an outcome was even likelier than the death of Aldington’s hero.

I’m sure the role model Navalny saw with his mind’s eye was Václav Havel, who emerged from communist captivity to become the first president of the Czech Republic. Another example of a political Phoenix rising from the ashes of prison was Nelson Mandela, but I doubt Alexei found him as inspiring.

Whatever gifts Havel possessed as playwright and intellectual, Navalny was a more talented politician. Had he been born anywhere in the West, he could have reached the political summit. He certainly had every prerequisite: charisma, oratorial brilliance, campaigning stamina, leadership qualities – even a law degree.

Yet Navalny wasn’t born in the West. He was born in Russia, the place where politics has died, or perhaps has never lived. Power there changes hands by revolution, coup or fiat, never by anything a Westerner would recognise as politics.

And revolutionaries need a different set of skills, of which Navalny had some but not others. He had suicidal courage but not homicidal cruelty, which is de rigueur for a Russian revolutionary. Navalny was ready to accept his own martyrdom, but not to send others to theirs.

He watched most of his comrades in the Anti-Corruption Foundation flee to the West, and he was neither prudent enough to follow nor cruel enough to stop them. Navalny could have formed an effective political party but not a subversive cabal. And he didn’t realise that only the latter could possibly succeed in unseating “the crooks and thieves”.

Most successful revolutionaries in history led the masses by offering a drastically different vision of government expressible in simple slogans. Yet Navalny was consistent only in his opposition to the Kremlin, not in the premises from which he mounted such opposition.

In his younger days he was a nationalist whose pronouncements weren’t dramatically different from Putin’s. Navalny welcomed Russia’s attack on Georgia and subsequent annexation of the Crimea. In private, he also expressed pride in his Nordic looks and wasn’t averse to racial invective, such as describing Georgians as “rats”.

Displaying a certain amount of elasticity, so typical of Western politicians, Navalny sensed that a Putin Mark II, even if free of corruption, wouldn’t be able to rally the opposition. He then adopted the phraseology of the predominantly liberal dissidents, who, unable to come up with equally powerful leaders, accepted him as their own.

Yet even pooling their resources, they were unable to offer much beyond the usual phrases about freedom, democracy and real elections. Since the Russians have never tried such delicacies, they have no taste for them. Hence Putin’s stormtroopers have had no problem isolating such dissidents and either squeezing them out of the country or putting them in prison.

Navalny, the only real politician among them, had to die, just to be on the safe side. For Putin, already covered head to toe with the blood of hundreds of thousands, spilling another drop is no hardship, especially if that eliminates a potential nuisance.

The rest of us, whether or not we shared Navalny’s convictions, such as they were, should bow our heads to his courage. He lived and died as a hero, his whole life proving he was a man, not what Dostoyevsky called “a trembling creature”. May God look after his soul with the loving care his martyrdom deserves.

5 thoughts on “Death of a hero”

  1. “’The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,’ wrote Tertullian,”

    If this be so then witchery should be the prime religion of Europe. Protestant “rationalists” executing about 100,000 witches during the period of witch-craze.

    No less than Isaac Newton believed in witchcraft.

  2. So Navalny’s problem was with the Kremlin’s epic corruption, not Putin’s political sentiments? You seem to have passed over this very significant detail a tad quickly. Ok, a battering ram to the kleptofascists, etc… But aren’t Putin’s political sentiments the cause of the current horror in the Ukraine and potential nuclear catastrophe?

    1. I didn’t want to focus on that stuff so soon after the man’s martyrdom. Nil nisi bonum… and all that. Navalny was a Russian patriot, which concept includes, practically by definition, belief in imperial greatness. That’s where he approached Putin’s pronouncements, the difference being that Navalny was an idealist, and Putin is an evil creature. Idealists are capable of causing great harm, but Navalny never got in a position to do so. What he did do was some good, and he died a martyr’s death.

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