Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
On the morning of 20 August — this morning, long ago — Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner, was taken ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow.
He had been poisoned and was in a dangerous condition. The plane was diverted to Omsk. He was taken to the city’s Emergency Hospital Number 1. Doctors rushed him to intensive care. He was in a coma. Police filled the hospital. His press officer, Kira Yarmysh, was with him in the plane and in the hospital. In a recent interview she had called him ‘the most courageous and honest person I know’. She told the world about events as they unfolded. Long after midnight, Omsk time, it was reported that a plane had set off from Germany to take Navalny back to the world-leading Charité toxicology clinic in Berlin. Whether he would be allowed to leave was unclear.
On 9 August — 11 days, or perhaps 11 months ago — the president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, stood for re-election. It was his 26th year in power. All independent evidence showed that people voted in massive numbers for his opponent, Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, and that his claim of victory was based on falsified results. Tikhonovskaya was a political novice, who was standing in place of her arrested husband Sergei. Representatives of the other opposition candidates, who had also been jailed or exiled, supported her. She formed a trio with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova. Together they voiced a language of love, unity, and honesty. But after her victory, she was forced to leave the country.
The three women inspired massive crowds who came out to protest against the rigged election. Huge strikes took place. Unarmed men and women across Belarus were beaten and incarcerated by fellow-citizens wearing the body armour of the paramilitary OMON. Despite the physical and economic risks, the protests went on day after day, and continue, always using peace to demand honesty.
On 20 July — it feels like years ago — Sergei Furgal, the independent-minded governor of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East was removed from office by the government in Moscow. He had been arrested 11 days earlier on charges that had been dormant for 16 years, and transported to the capital. Furgal was widely popular in the region, elected on an honest mandate, and admired for his insistence on transparency in regional government. He had targeted corruption, even trying to sell off the yacht that officials used to entertain themselves. When he was arrested, local people came out on the streets to voice their support. They regarded his appointed successor, parachuted in from thousands of miles west, with contempt.
Every weekend since, good-natured and peaceful protestors have marched through the city in massive crowds, demanding the return of Furgal and the restoration of honesty in their public life. As time went on, their banners articulated fraternal support for Belarusians. Khabarovsk is near Japan, but, like Minsk, nowhere sounds more European in the way that Europe tries to imagine itself.
What these people have in common is guts: the uncanny ability to walk past their fear, demanding honesty of themselves and those around them.
In February 1974, just before he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and forcibly required to leave the country, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an article entitled ‘Live not by lies’. ‘We lie to ourselves to preserve our peace of mind,’ he warned, addressing Soviet people in a text that only a few of them would be able to read in typewritten, underground copies, passed from hand to hand.
He went on:
‘So in our timidity, let us each make a choice: whether to remain consciously a servant of falsehood (of course, it is not out of inclination but to feed one’s family that one raises one’s children in the spirit of lies), or to shrug off the lies and become an honest person worthy of respect from one’s children and contemporaries.’
In this long August, great crowds and charismatic figures live out the consequences of this choice.