.
P

olitical figures, particularly opposition figures, are often blank canvases onto which the hopes and dreams of many are painted. They may not be perfect in either tone, ideology, or style, but the fact that they are willing to stand up to an entrenched system provides something aspirational for activists and political opportunists alike. For the West, Alexei Navalny is very much in this mold—he is a young, charismatic, and media-savvy activist, and clearly a gadfly of the Russian state and President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? | Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet & Ben Noble | Hurst | December 2021.

A force behind protests in Russia, Navalny’s stature in the West skyrocketed when Russian authorities attempted to poison him, nearly killing him on a flight from Siberia. The incident, worthy of a spy thriller in its own right, saw him evacuated to Germany for treatment and imprisoned on his return for violating the terms of his parole. Later, he managed to turn the tables on his attackers, tricking one to describe in vivid detail how the assassination plot unfolded.

If one looks at Navalny only through the lens of the West, he seems to be a (if not the only) rival for the Russian presidency, a leader in waiting, and the one man who could potentially unseat Putin and the siloviki (former security and intelligence officials now making up a key cadre of the Russian elite). Yet, the reality of both Navalny and Russian politics is far more complicated and interesting than cable news and social media would suggest. Offering a much needed critical look at Russia today is “Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?” a jointly written book by Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet & Ben Noble.

“Navalny” is one of the Diplomatic Courier’s best books of 2021 and quite possibly the best politics book of the year, full stop. The trio of authors manage to take a political biography and elevate it into a deep look at the state of Russia’s domestic politics today. In so doing, they offer a much richer, nuanced, and smart look at what is happening within Russia, and for this they should be wholly applauded.

Much of the West’s understanding of Russia is blinkered by the Cold War binary system: the United States versus Russia, democracy versus communism, etc… While this was then, and remains now, a gross oversimplification, the end of the Cold War sadly didn’t bring about the end of that framework of understanding. The West too often simply replaces the CCCP with Putin and seeks to understand Russia through that lens. Putin, in this simplistic telling, is no different than Brezhnev or Andropov, sitting astride a massive top-down authoritarian system, controlling every aspect of Russian society.

In an era of quick takes and snap analysis, this cliché and hyperbole reign supreme in equal measures. It is far easier to take analytical shortcuts, adopt tired and outdated tropes, or simply parrot what others have said before, rather than take a deeper look at what’s really going on. This is nearly ubiquitous in Russian analysis. Russia is an authoritarian state (it’s not). Putin is a dictator who rules by fiat (he’s not and he doesn’t). There is no civil society in Russia. (There is and it is vibrant, if not under increasing pressure from the regime). Navalny is the only hope for Russia’s future. (He’s likely not, but he is important).

The Navalny that emerges from this book is far more complex of a figure. By exploring three dimensions of Navalny—the anti-corruption activist, the politician, and the protester—the authors follow the evolution of Navalny as a person and as a figure. This is not a hagiography, and that is a strength of the book. What could have easily become a fawning paean to the imprisoned figure, instead stays fair and balanced, discussing his legal troubles (both manufactured and otherwise), his more controversial comments and positions on immigrants and Russian nationalism.  

Navalny is a fascinating figure, and almost the right person at the right time. He is internet and social media savvy, coming of age at a time when the Internet was exploding and new forms of communication were emerging. He is charismatic and funny, but also passionate and grounded. In that, he’s unique within Russian politics and the opposition movement. To be sure there are opposition parties within the Duma, but they are nearly all loyal or tame opposition controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin and doing the bidding of United Russia, Putin’s party. Navalny, by contrast, knows how to market, sell, and communicate to Russians and the broader world, using his slickly produced YouTube exposes to highlight corruption and advocate for change. Yet, he has not yet been able to translate name recognition into tangible results, and with the Kremlin’s pressure on him and his group, it is unclear whether he will be able to do so in the near future.

He is also inspiring a new generation of activists and this, perhaps, may be his greatest legacy. Even if he is unsuccessful, he is demonstrating to a new generation that the system can be challenged and that there are ways of competing within an ossified system that is stacked against change. The authors, interestingly, present interviews with younger activists who found Navalny’s movement to be too top-down and centralized—the insurgent movement becoming more, if unintentionally, structured.

Reading “Navalny” one wonders about the extent of the figure’s reach and protest movement. For most Russians, corruption is a fact of life. Deplorable to be sure, but something that exists within the system. While the YouTube videos are catchy and interesting, they cannot be an end in and of themselves. After exposing Prime Minister Medvedev and Putin, where will Navalny go next? At what point does pointing out corruption become passé and old hat, and can he or someone else unite such a diverse collection of opposition entities?

This is where the longer-term impact of Navalny may be felt. His “smart voting” initiative sees voters selecting the candidate most likely to challenge United Russia’s preferred candidate. This of course sees voters choosing candidates that may not necessarily be the best candidate overall and sees Navalny supporters advancing not a slate of candidates but a hodge-podge of ideologies—including Communists, Liberals, and others. But in the near term, for Navalny, this matters less than unseating and challenging United Russia’s de facto monopoly in the Duma. Worry about the politics later, just pressure Putin today, seems to be the mantra.

Here, the authors offer up a keenly insightful look at how Putin’s Russia operates today, which stands in stark contrast with the aforementioned clichés. Putin very much relies upon and needs public approval. He may have authoritarian tendencies, but he is not a dictator. Conversely, he remains popular with the Russian people, people who are at the same time skeptical of Navalny and widespread or sweeping change. They may be dissatisfied with their lot in life—increasingly so as of late—but they believe in Putin, the regime, and the country. They do not all want to be American, which may come as a shock to policymakers in Washington.

While Navalny is certainly an opposition figure, and perhaps the most popular one in Western eyes, he is not sitting on top of some massively organized nation-wide protest movement that is dynamic enough to drive change. Rather, he sits at the head of, as Prof. Mark Galeotti terms it, a “coalition of the fed-up”. There is widespread discontent, but discontent does not necessarily translate into a willingness to act or protest, though some part of the coalition is certainly interested in doing so, and have done so in the past. Ironically, the fact that there are protests in Russia is missed on many pundits, who instead fixate on the crackdowns, arrests, and other government actions.

To be sure, as the authors show, Putin is concerned about protests, disruptions, and potential instability, as well as Navalny himself. The color revolutions of former Soviet states and large-scale protests in response to electoral malfeasance sparked concern, if not fear, amongst the regime in the Kremlin. He was blocked from running for president in 2017 and the regime has aggressively pursued his NGO, banning his Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization” (in the same category as the Taliban), working to ensure its activities are all but illegal, to say nothing of attempting to kill him using the nerve agent Novichok.

Yet, while the Kremlin has undertaken more concrete and forceful actions as of late—the foreign agents’ law, political shenanigans to control access to the ballot and limit Navalny’s reach, and other crackdowns on civic and non-governmental organizations—not everything has been purely stick. Indeed, as the authors show, Putin is far more pragmatic and adaptable than many in the West believe him to be. He went to great lengths to provide carrots to the people, appealing to their emotions and patriotism, to engender great support for his leadership. Though this shows signs of solidifying more behind the stick as of late, it is still not the authoritarian paradise many assume it to be.

While Navalny may not be the future of Russia, he and his movement are pushing for a future where Russians can decide for themselves. As the authors write, “Navalny, his team and his movement have been fighting for another possibility: that it’s for the Russian people themselves to decide.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Politics, Opposition, and the Future of Russia

Photo by Sam Oxyak via Unsplash.

December 26, 2021

“Navalny” is one of the Diplomatic Courier’s best books of 2021. The authors manage to take a political biography and elevate it into a deep look at the state of Russia’s domestic politics today. In so doing, they offer a much richer, nuanced, and smart look at what is happening within Russia today.

P

olitical figures, particularly opposition figures, are often blank canvases onto which the hopes and dreams of many are painted. They may not be perfect in either tone, ideology, or style, but the fact that they are willing to stand up to an entrenched system provides something aspirational for activists and political opportunists alike. For the West, Alexei Navalny is very much in this mold—he is a young, charismatic, and media-savvy activist, and clearly a gadfly of the Russian state and President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? | Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet & Ben Noble | Hurst | December 2021.

A force behind protests in Russia, Navalny’s stature in the West skyrocketed when Russian authorities attempted to poison him, nearly killing him on a flight from Siberia. The incident, worthy of a spy thriller in its own right, saw him evacuated to Germany for treatment and imprisoned on his return for violating the terms of his parole. Later, he managed to turn the tables on his attackers, tricking one to describe in vivid detail how the assassination plot unfolded.

If one looks at Navalny only through the lens of the West, he seems to be a (if not the only) rival for the Russian presidency, a leader in waiting, and the one man who could potentially unseat Putin and the siloviki (former security and intelligence officials now making up a key cadre of the Russian elite). Yet, the reality of both Navalny and Russian politics is far more complicated and interesting than cable news and social media would suggest. Offering a much needed critical look at Russia today is “Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?” a jointly written book by Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet & Ben Noble.

“Navalny” is one of the Diplomatic Courier’s best books of 2021 and quite possibly the best politics book of the year, full stop. The trio of authors manage to take a political biography and elevate it into a deep look at the state of Russia’s domestic politics today. In so doing, they offer a much richer, nuanced, and smart look at what is happening within Russia, and for this they should be wholly applauded.

Much of the West’s understanding of Russia is blinkered by the Cold War binary system: the United States versus Russia, democracy versus communism, etc… While this was then, and remains now, a gross oversimplification, the end of the Cold War sadly didn’t bring about the end of that framework of understanding. The West too often simply replaces the CCCP with Putin and seeks to understand Russia through that lens. Putin, in this simplistic telling, is no different than Brezhnev or Andropov, sitting astride a massive top-down authoritarian system, controlling every aspect of Russian society.

In an era of quick takes and snap analysis, this cliché and hyperbole reign supreme in equal measures. It is far easier to take analytical shortcuts, adopt tired and outdated tropes, or simply parrot what others have said before, rather than take a deeper look at what’s really going on. This is nearly ubiquitous in Russian analysis. Russia is an authoritarian state (it’s not). Putin is a dictator who rules by fiat (he’s not and he doesn’t). There is no civil society in Russia. (There is and it is vibrant, if not under increasing pressure from the regime). Navalny is the only hope for Russia’s future. (He’s likely not, but he is important).

The Navalny that emerges from this book is far more complex of a figure. By exploring three dimensions of Navalny—the anti-corruption activist, the politician, and the protester—the authors follow the evolution of Navalny as a person and as a figure. This is not a hagiography, and that is a strength of the book. What could have easily become a fawning paean to the imprisoned figure, instead stays fair and balanced, discussing his legal troubles (both manufactured and otherwise), his more controversial comments and positions on immigrants and Russian nationalism.  

Navalny is a fascinating figure, and almost the right person at the right time. He is internet and social media savvy, coming of age at a time when the Internet was exploding and new forms of communication were emerging. He is charismatic and funny, but also passionate and grounded. In that, he’s unique within Russian politics and the opposition movement. To be sure there are opposition parties within the Duma, but they are nearly all loyal or tame opposition controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin and doing the bidding of United Russia, Putin’s party. Navalny, by contrast, knows how to market, sell, and communicate to Russians and the broader world, using his slickly produced YouTube exposes to highlight corruption and advocate for change. Yet, he has not yet been able to translate name recognition into tangible results, and with the Kremlin’s pressure on him and his group, it is unclear whether he will be able to do so in the near future.

He is also inspiring a new generation of activists and this, perhaps, may be his greatest legacy. Even if he is unsuccessful, he is demonstrating to a new generation that the system can be challenged and that there are ways of competing within an ossified system that is stacked against change. The authors, interestingly, present interviews with younger activists who found Navalny’s movement to be too top-down and centralized—the insurgent movement becoming more, if unintentionally, structured.

Reading “Navalny” one wonders about the extent of the figure’s reach and protest movement. For most Russians, corruption is a fact of life. Deplorable to be sure, but something that exists within the system. While the YouTube videos are catchy and interesting, they cannot be an end in and of themselves. After exposing Prime Minister Medvedev and Putin, where will Navalny go next? At what point does pointing out corruption become passé and old hat, and can he or someone else unite such a diverse collection of opposition entities?

This is where the longer-term impact of Navalny may be felt. His “smart voting” initiative sees voters selecting the candidate most likely to challenge United Russia’s preferred candidate. This of course sees voters choosing candidates that may not necessarily be the best candidate overall and sees Navalny supporters advancing not a slate of candidates but a hodge-podge of ideologies—including Communists, Liberals, and others. But in the near term, for Navalny, this matters less than unseating and challenging United Russia’s de facto monopoly in the Duma. Worry about the politics later, just pressure Putin today, seems to be the mantra.

Here, the authors offer up a keenly insightful look at how Putin’s Russia operates today, which stands in stark contrast with the aforementioned clichés. Putin very much relies upon and needs public approval. He may have authoritarian tendencies, but he is not a dictator. Conversely, he remains popular with the Russian people, people who are at the same time skeptical of Navalny and widespread or sweeping change. They may be dissatisfied with their lot in life—increasingly so as of late—but they believe in Putin, the regime, and the country. They do not all want to be American, which may come as a shock to policymakers in Washington.

While Navalny is certainly an opposition figure, and perhaps the most popular one in Western eyes, he is not sitting on top of some massively organized nation-wide protest movement that is dynamic enough to drive change. Rather, he sits at the head of, as Prof. Mark Galeotti terms it, a “coalition of the fed-up”. There is widespread discontent, but discontent does not necessarily translate into a willingness to act or protest, though some part of the coalition is certainly interested in doing so, and have done so in the past. Ironically, the fact that there are protests in Russia is missed on many pundits, who instead fixate on the crackdowns, arrests, and other government actions.

To be sure, as the authors show, Putin is concerned about protests, disruptions, and potential instability, as well as Navalny himself. The color revolutions of former Soviet states and large-scale protests in response to electoral malfeasance sparked concern, if not fear, amongst the regime in the Kremlin. He was blocked from running for president in 2017 and the regime has aggressively pursued his NGO, banning his Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization” (in the same category as the Taliban), working to ensure its activities are all but illegal, to say nothing of attempting to kill him using the nerve agent Novichok.

Yet, while the Kremlin has undertaken more concrete and forceful actions as of late—the foreign agents’ law, political shenanigans to control access to the ballot and limit Navalny’s reach, and other crackdowns on civic and non-governmental organizations—not everything has been purely stick. Indeed, as the authors show, Putin is far more pragmatic and adaptable than many in the West believe him to be. He went to great lengths to provide carrots to the people, appealing to their emotions and patriotism, to engender great support for his leadership. Though this shows signs of solidifying more behind the stick as of late, it is still not the authoritarian paradise many assume it to be.

While Navalny may not be the future of Russia, he and his movement are pushing for a future where Russians can decide for themselves. As the authors write, “Navalny, his team and his movement have been fighting for another possibility: that it’s for the Russian people themselves to decide.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.