Navalny, 23 January, and five words from history

I write on 22 January 2021. Let me add my voice to the global chorus that’s calling for the release of Aleksei Navalny from detention in Moscow.

These are palpably historic events, but what can history tell us about them? Direct parallels and analogies are not much use. History can only help in allusive ways: casting light from odd angles, devising new perspectives, making unexpected connections. For those of us who deal constantly with history, taking this approach to current events is instinctive, however present-minded we might really want to be. In this post I talk about five words that link past and present, and which in the third week of January 2021 intersect with each other in the figure of Navalny.

But first let’s summarize the events of the last few days.

Sunday to Friday

Navalny’s return to Russia on Sunday evening was a high-stakes political gamble and an extraordinary personal risk. Five months ago, the security services attempted to assassinate him in Tomsk. He was evacuated from Siberia to the world-leading toxicology centre at the Charité hospital in Berlin. On Sunday, he came home.

A month ago, investigative journalists revealed exactly which FSB agents were responsible for the crime and how they carried it out. Acting the part of a senior officer, Navalny then telephoned one of them and talked him through a long and detailed description of the events. Shortly after, a confected and unrelated set of criminal charges against Navalny were renewed.

And so Navalny was arrested at passport control on Sunday evening, after his plane was dramatically diverted from Vnukovo Airport, where a crowd of supporters were gathered, to Sheremyetevo. He was sentenced in the first instance to 30 days by a court which irregularly sat in the police facility where he was being held.

Navalny seemed to be gambling that another attempt could not be made on his life and that he could provide moral opposition to the Russian government from a prison cell. There is no Russian politics in exile; credibility dissolves during absence; politics is a matter of proximity. The decision to return and risk all, which seems so irrational to an ordinary person, was in this sense inevitable: he could do no other.

His staff in the Foundation for Combating Corruption (FBK) called for public demonstrations on Saturday 23 January. On Tuesday 19th, they released their latest exposé, this time a video about Putin himself, his construction of an enormous palace on the Black Sea coast, and the place of his family in the web of corruption. Everything was substantiated with legal and financial documents. Within 72 hours, it had generated 60 million hits on Youtube.

And then senior figures from the FBK in Moscow and other parts of Russia were arrested. As police gathered outside the door of Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, they said that she might as well come out: they would anyway arrest her when she came outside for Saturday’s protest. She replied that she was not afraid. She got nine days, enough to keep her away from demonstrations on Saturday.

Which brings us to the first of our five words.

Five words

  1. Fear. Speaking calmly and straightfowardly, Navalny declared before departure and on arrival that ‘I am not afraid.’ (‘Ya ne boius.’) A few weeks before that, when asked about whether he would return to Russia, he said ‘My role is to be the person who is not afraid.’ When his wife left the airport without him on Sunday evening, she told reporters: ‘They are so afraid of Aleksei that they paralysed practically all flights this evening over Moscow. […] The main thing is that Aleksei said that he is not afraid. And I am not afraid. And I appeal to all of you not to be afraid.’

Fear (strakh in Russian) is a difficult concept for historians to conceptualize. It is an emotion and therefore the analysis of past fears belongs to the history of emotions, a set of methods and approaches devised by a pioneering group of cultural historians. In a study of fear among Russian soldiers in the early twentieth century, Jan Plamper analyses new ways in which they came to describe (and even experience) this feeling. He explores such factors as increasing literacy, which allowed soldiers to access new words, including those that emphasized fear; mass-audience books and stories that aimed to evoke fear in their readers; a novel cultural focus on individual subjectivity, allowing soldiers to privilege their own feelings over those of their unit; and the creation of new scientific interpretations by psychologists and psychiatrists that allowed fear and related concepts (for instance, those related to shell shock) to become a medical category,

No present-day observer doubts that Navalny and his staff have an interior calm that allows them to control any fears they have. But history reminds us how contingent and specific the description of fear can be. It is an act of rhetoric with its own historical contexts. Alexander Gorbunov, the activist who broadcasts on Youtube with the name Stalingulag, praised Navalny’s rhetoric of fear as epoch-defining language. He suggested that Navalny’s language about fear allowed people, especially the young, to think about their country in a completely new way, one that made it easier for them to participate in Saturday’s demonstration. ‘Russia is your home. You cannot feel afraid when you are at home,’ Gorbunov repeated in forceful interviews and Youtube monologues.

  1. Courage. Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, had been sitting next to him on the August flight from Tomsk in which he was taken ill. She was again beside him on the journey from Berlin to Moscow. She praised his courage again on Sunday. Following his poisoning in the summer, she gave an interview in which she described him as the ‘most sincere and courageous person of anyone I know.’

Yarmysh used the word muzhesvtvennyi, which perhaps carries an even greater sense of fortitude than synonyms smelyi and khrabryi. Almost everyone who has written or spoken about Navalny in Russia and abroad has commented on his courage, his toughness, his balls in coming home. Yet of course the same quality can be attributed to other members of the FBK and any demonstrator.

For historians, courage is an even more difficult concept than fear. Acting courageously is a quality attributed by others to a person they admire; unlike the phrase ‘I am not afraid’, it is seldom attributed to oneself. Historians sometimes move beyond their sources and project the characteristic onto their subjects. They might be right. Perhaps the group of people in recent Russian history who have most frequently been described as courageous in historical texts are the late Soviet-era dissidents. In his memoirs, Andrei Sakharov wryly mentions what one of his fellow-scientists said to him as he crossed the line into dissent in the mid-1960s: ‘Andrey Dmitrievich, you really are a brave man!’ How useful are the use of historically-charged words like ‘dissident’ in contemporary Russian politics and how relevant is the comparison between Sakharov and Navalny will become clearer as the state’s response to today’s demonstrations unfolds.

  1. Justice. Karmysh mentioned sincerity alongside courage in describing Navalny. The words are linked by the concept of justice. Navalny makes his case as both a lawyer and a politician. His idea of justice relates to legal structures and people’s sense of themselves as modern citizens. The word that they use is spravedlivost’, rather than the more evocative and elemental word pravda, which has its own complex history.

Navalny’s video about Putin’s palace was a forensic and witty description designed to evoke outrage and anger among its viewers in Russia. It invited a sense of offended justice. The reason to go on to the street is to seek justice, framed as the midwife of a positive, modern, proper future with no overtone of mob rule or the quest for revenge. The word is frequently cited in the videos that all kinds of Russians have been putting out on social media this week. Some of them are people of experience, one or two of them are even famous, but the language of justice has filtered through the Tik Tok generation, so much that the authorities have made false accusations that the FBK have been trying to get under-18s to come to the protests.

  1. Charisma. Justice is a charismatic concept that unites many famous figures in Russian history and culture. Both Navalny and Sakharov appeal to it. In one way, though, the comparison between Navalny and Sakharov falls down. Navalny is a leader, aspires to political power, and he projects strength and decisiveness. His charisma is more powerful.

In one of the most important books about Russian history that has been published in the last thirty years, the Columbia historian Richard Wortman described the court rituals and ideological justifications for power that marked each reign between Peter the Great and Nicholas II. For Wortman, each monarch had their own ‘scenario of power’, a set of themes that unified the political culture that they wanted to project. As an aspirant leader, Navany’s scenario is justice, and linked to this are courage and sincerity. His anti-corruption campaign is animated by a charismatic presentation of these virtues, which imply openness, transparency, and the future.

  1. History. Demonstrations are already underway today in Russia. Drawing on tough recent legislation, the authorities have declared them illegal. Attending a public meeting takes courage. There are likely to be many arrests by armed and armoured police of unarmed and unprotected citizens.

‘Going to the square’ is a Russian phrase that signifies attending a protest. On December 5 1966, Andrei Sakharov went to Pushkin Square in central Moscow to join a few others who were publicly marking their respect for the Soviet constitution, which was constantly infringed by their own government, and for the country’s political prisoners. There were only half-a-dozen silent protestors there — they knew each other because they all removed their hats at 6pm — and the same number of KGB agents. Protestors are already gathering on Pushkin Square as I complete this post on 23 January.

In my final post of last year, I argued that Russia (and Belarus) seemed to have moved through a timelock during 2020. Unprecedented coercive measures have been introduced by the Russian government. For all his revelations about high-level corruption over many years, Navalny’s direct exposé of Vladimir Putin himself is unprecedented. It seems that this might be a time of flux and that a new society, distinct from post-Soviet society, might emerge. No one can imagine what that will be, though several possible futures might be on display today. It is in this sense that these events are historic. They are made out of history and time, whatever the precise significance of them will actually seem today or next week.

I’m posting this on the morning on 23 January. Large crowds have gathered in some Far Eastern cities. In Vladivostok, there have been many arrests. The public meeting in Moscow is beginning. Historians should be averse to making predictions, so I had better end my comments there.