Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s only credible national opposition leader, was jailed on Tuesday by a Moscow court for two years and eight months. New political charges against him are already being assembled.
Across Russia, OMON riot police, armed with batons and stun guns, and wearing body armour, beat up unarmed protestors on 23 January, 31 January and 2 February. Protestors were supporting Navalny, and also speaking out against arbitrary coercion and corruption. The most dreadful scenes were on Tuesday night, when even passing taxi-passengers were dragged out of vehicles in central Moscow. Police have kept the arrested locked up in unheated buses or primitive holding cells for days on end. The authorities continue to harass and humiliate investigative journalists and activists with repeated fines, police visits and apartment searches.
As ever on this blog, the question is where history fits in.
History throws light on these present-day events, and these present-day events throw light on history. This interaction is what we mean by contemporary history.
In early February 2021, this interaction is happening in three ways.
1. History is a vantage point from which to look at the present
i) It shows that change has limits. The most famous Russian opposition figure for a generation has been locked up and sent to a penal colony. This does not mean that Russian life changes overnight. As Richard Pipes, the great Polish-American historian of Russia, noted (of Warsaw in 1939): ordinary people don’t make history precisely because they are too busy trying to make a living. People will get up and go to work, not to the barricades. Even many sympathizers are exhausted by the pandemic and by economic anxiety. History shows how rare revolutions are. It suggests that it’s only when a critical mass of officials and middle-class people see economic advantage in supporting the opposition that they will publicly change sides or protest. And Russian public opinion is historically diverse. Those temperamentally opposed to Navalny find their views anticipated by historically-sensitive propaganda that describes him as a self-obsessed foreign stooge who attracts Western diplomats to his trial and entices kids to riot.
ii) It shows that change is real. It invites us to consider precedents, especially those that are most relevant, i.e. most recent. In recent times, there is no real precedent for Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment, though there are precursor events, such as the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015. The number of arrests during Sunday’s demonstrations — as many as five thousand — is a new use of the judicial-police system. And there is no recent match for the scale of the violence used by one group of Russians — those in uniform — against another. All this fits with the equally blunt legal and constitutional measures that extended executive power in the second half of 2020. It all signals an open change in the Russian public sphere.
iii) It shows who will win in the end. Over many centuries, Russian history has unfolded inside European boundaries. History indicates that its culture and practices are part of European norms, including the natural pluralism and divided political views of its population. Today, this spirit of Russian history is expressed by the people who came out onto the street on 23 January, on Sunday, and on Tuesday. There’s little doubt that they are the courageous surface of a much deeper well of people with similar views, but who have different temperaments and a more pragmatic sense of their own interests. The protestors look more like Russia’s history and future than the riot police who violently oppose them. They, by contrast, look only of their own time, the fleeting present. They don’t have much in common with previous police regimes. They seem obviously the product of two decades of unchanging government, unable to exist outside the present-day compact between themselves (the siloviki, or security forces) and ministers.
2. ‘History’ is an actor in the present
Participants and observers constantly say that these events are ‘historic’.
They use historical reference points like landmarks on a roadmap. By invoking historical significance and historical change so often, they lend their rhetoric a self-fulfilling aspiration.
Read this, from Navalny’s speech in court on Tuesday.
‘You know, there was Alexander the Liberator,’ said Navalny, referring to the monarch who reigned between 1855 and 1881. ‘Or Yaroslav the Wise,’ who was a grand-prince in the eleventh century. ‘And we will have Vladimir the Poisoner. In this way will he enter history.’
Or this, from Alexander Gorbunov, the ‘Stalingulag’ activist and YouTuber, invoking the overlap between historical change and moral change.
‘Remember this day,’ tweeted Gorbunov. ‘Remember this injustice. Remember this anger. So that when you hear “I was carrying out orders, nothing depended on me,” you don’t fall for these fake excuses. There are no more grey areas, the world has finally become black and white. Everything has changed.’
This rhetoric instantly historicizes events. For the likes of Navalny and Gorbunov, history is both an agent of change, i.e. a present-day process with its own momentum, and a court of appeal, with its own retrospective standards. During a time of self-consciously historic change, political events and contemporary history therefore become the same thing.
3. The present embodies history
One of the reasons that foreigners like me study Russian history and culture is to encounter at second hand the charismatic Russian virtues: courage, seriousness, conscience, integrity, sincerity.
These words structure important episodes in Russian history. And they construct the ideal worldview, the best self, of many Russians in past and present.
By personally embodying these historically-resonant Russian qualities, and by crafting a political narrative that emphasizes them, Aleksei Navalny is all the more historic a figure.
But there contemporary history runs out of power. It can’t answer the question of how Navalny makes his brave gamble pay off. That’s for the future.