Navalny’s scenario of love?

One of the leading members of Aleksei Navalny’s team, Leonid Volkov, has announced a moment of symbolic protest on Valentine’s Day. He invites people to step outside the entryway to their apartment building between 8pm and 8.15pm, stand in the courtyard or street, and hold aloft the torch on the back of their smartphone.

Just as they can’t arrest every potential protestor, Volkov argues, the authorities cannot police every apartment entrance. So there is no need to be afraid. Instead, there is the opportunity to display love. ‘Perhaps in your own yard, in one of the [surrounding] apartment houses, lives one of those who are under house arrest,’ he writes. ‘But even [they] can look out of the window and see a bright heart.’

In Belarus last summer, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s election rhetoric against the incumbent president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, drew on a similar trope. Where he threatened violence against his fellow citizens, she claimed that her side loved all Belarusians. Belarus is on the minds of everyone involved in Russian politics at the moment. Tikhanovskaya’s intoxicating language of optimism and unity, with its Christian edge, now emerges in Navalny’s team. ‘Putin is fear,’ Volkov tweets. ‘Navalny is love. Therefore we will prevail.’

In his speech in court last week, Navalny happened to mention Alexander II, ‘the Liberator’ (1855-81). Alexander is famous as the tsar who emancipated the serfs and oversaw major reforms to the legal system, local government, universities, and other parts of Russian life. The historian Richard Wortman, in his classic account of the political culture and ceremonial of the Russian tsars, showed how Alexander’s ‘scenario of power’ was defined by symbols of love.

This was partly a matter of the people loving the tsar and the tsar loving the people: a vertical connection that had symbolic and ‘real’ qualities. But it also pointed towards a form of love extending throughout society in horizontal ties. This took place in a religious context, facilitated by God. It assumed that ‘sympathy’ and ‘conciliation’ were a more promising basis for reform and stability than ‘retribution’ and ‘order’, which were symbolic ruling principles of his father, Nicholas I.

This was a much richer and more deeply influential language of love than the sinister, ritualized, and empty rhetoric deployed during the Stalin era — love for Party, love of Stalin. It leaves a more powerful and productive mark on the repertoires available in politics today.

My purpose is not to make a comparison between Alexander and Navalny, or to talk up merely coincidental historical parallels. Nor is to address the arguments among Russians about whether Volkov’s tactics are wise or not. Instead, we can hear something else: the powerful echoes of the Russian past that are orchestrated by the self-consciously youthful and forward-facing figures who surround Navalny. Regardless of what happens in practice on Valentine’s Day, their rhetoric shows again that the Russian opposition movement finds itself at an intersection between two powerful forces: deeply historical Russian traditions, and instinctive, outward-looking connections to the rest of Europe and the wider progressive world.

The rhetorical interplay of love and fear is familiar from non-violent protest movements across the globe in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Timothy Garton Ash from the University of Oxford describes the ‘gloriously mysterious’ forces that sway ordinary protestors standing in crowds (though the crowd will be metaphorical on Valentine’s Day in Russia). For Garton Ash, these mysterious forces emerge from the unpredictable reaction between a charismatic leader and the collective’s combined energy. He points to the bewildering range of specific circumstances that make some non-violent protest movements successful at certain times: the rapidly changing kaleidoscope of external and internal politics that is always unrepeatable. (We could add that one thing is clear, though: a critical mass of the ‘elite’ has at some point to switch sides under pressure from outside.) Unlike the social scientists he works among, Garton Ash deliberately rejects a pattern that might elucidate and model peaceful protest, but he possesses a hopeful commitment to the ‘mysterious’ value and unknowable momentum of countless individual decisions made by ordinary people.

Perhaps this historical chaos — this impossible-to-describe interplay of billions of colliding possibilities — is what Volkov really refers to in the flourish of certainty at the end of his message about Valentine’s Day. ’Perhaps, it will seem to you, that these fifteen minutes will not change anything,’ he says, ‘but in actual fact, they will change everything.’

Historians struggle to explain the causes of immensely complex events, not least when the events are unfinished. Perhaps we can sense the chaos of history most acutely when we are living through it, even more than when we are trying to establish causation after the event. Today — one day after making his announcement about 14 February — Volkov becames the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the Russian authorities. He is working from abroad for the FBK during the current clampdown. The charge: publicizing the ‘illegal public meetings’ that followed Navalny’s arrest. Volkov expresses his contempt. We wait to see what happens next. The story goes on, out of the grasp of history, though somehow illuminated by it.