People unfortunate enough to live under tyranny must swallow bitter poison between every breath. That poison is fear. Fear strips away humanity and leaves behind a panicked animal, hoping only to survive. Fear demands obedience, conformity, sycophancy—the adulation of all that one hates most. Each moment is an anguish of doubt. Children know, or soon learn, that some topics of conversation will destroy their parents. One ill-chosen word and you will never find work again. One careless letter, written in frustration, and you end up in the gulag. One act of open defiance and you are dead.

French revolutionaries coined the word “terrorism” to mark the amount of government-induced fear needed to subdue the population. It worked quite effectively then, and it works still. But the method has a vulnerability: the fearless individual. Fearlessness in the face of mortal threat is an extremely rare quality, possessed by one in a million people, but it’s also contagious. The example of that one courageous person restores the humanity of others, who recall, with shame, that they, too, have a will and voice of their own. Once fear is lost, tyranny collapses. Speaking to the multitudes in his native Poland, Pope John Paul II began the dissolution of the Communist empire with three words: “Be not afraid.”

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, died under suspicious circumstances on February 16 in an Arctic prison camp that serves as a useful reminder of Soviet brutality. His was a death foretold. In fact, he had been murdered once before. As a blogger and social media activist, and later as a politician, he had been relentless in his opposition to the regime: he spoke of the “virus of freedom,” of which he was a carrier. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s supreme hit man, simply could not run the risk of contagion. He had Navalny secretly exposed to a lethal nerve agent, Novichok—another handy legacy of Soviet criminality.

Somehow Navalny survived and, following much public outcry, was allowed to recover in a German hospital. He returned from the land of the dead looking like a corpse but morally unchanged. “I assert that Putin is behind this act, I don’t see any other explanation,” he said of his poisoning. “The system is fighting for survival and we’ve just felt the consequences.” To his remarkable wife, Yulia, he joked, “Putin’s supposed to be, like, not so stupid to use this Novichok. . . . If you want to kill someone, just shoot him.”

After the poisoning, Navalny was together with his wife and family in the relative safety in a free country. He had done more than his duty, offering up his life to Russia and to freedom. Who among us wouldn’t have seized the chance to enjoy a bit of peace and normality? But that is the mystery of people of great courage: they exist almost symbolically, in the realm of myth. Navalny never considered becoming a permanent exile. Some compulsive sense of who he was drew him to his second death. During the months spent outside Russia, a CNN documentary, Navalny, made him known to a global audience. His growing fame clearly irritated Putin, who referred to him as “the Berlin patient,” as if afraid to say his name. There was no question about what would happen to him once he returned.

In one sense, Navalny was a rebel of the digital age. His politics were mutable and confused, but he knew with total clarity what he stood against. From a broader perspective, however, he can be said to descend from a long and venerable line of Russian “dissidents”—people like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the mostly forgotten victims of tyranny chronicled in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, who suffered and died to retain a shred of decency in their society. Russia, a synonym for despotism, historically misgoverned, has been one of the world’s leading producers of political heroism—but unhappy the nation that needs, and wastes, the lives of so many heroes to balance its shame.

We in the U.S. suffer from the opposite condition. Our lives are soft and easy, but we are lacking in courage. We move in great conformist herds, terrified that a single original thought might knock us out of step and reveal us to the world, in all our appalling helplessness, as individuals. We are told by tribal elders which words to use and which are taboo—these change constantly, since it’s a training regime in obedience. We are afraid of the Internet mob. We are afraid of getting cancelled and losing our jobs. The youngest adult Americans are afraid of sex and of each other and of life itself.

None of us faces the threat of death by Novichok, but we fear the poison of loneliness—because the curse of the courageous person, more punishing even than physical persecution, is moral and existential isolation. So we move uneasily with the herd. We are aware that our lives are false, that our public expressions are often lies, that we pretend to embrace what we disbelieve and to love what we hate. We are aware and ashamed, and we compensate by inventing shallow dramas with ourselves as protagonists. Personal identity as a theatrical performance is our ultimate leap into unreality. The cure for self-loathing, we have decided, is narcissism.

Navalny is what fear prevents us from becoming—what we would be if we absorbed Aristotle’s lesson that courage is the highest virtue, because it makes all the others possible. We like to think of ourselves as tolerant and inclusive, but what does that matter, if we can be compelled by fear to participate in pogroms and inquisitions? What is the point of political freedom, if we are in thrall to an inner tyranny? For the fearful, even the best of them, every principle is contingent, every virtue negotiable.

Because we are who we are, our elegies for Navalny are haunted as if by his pale ghost, come back from the dead yet again to utter the terrible words he used to condemn his judges: “You are the people who look the other way.” One event in particular haunts us: his return to Russia. When Navalny boarded the flight for Moscow, he knew that it was a journey to the graveyard. We pretend to praise and applaud this act of self-destruction, but if we are honest, as for once we must be, we’ll admit that it is incomprehensible to us. What American today would do the same? We are the people who look the other way. If offered a seat on that flight to extinction, we would exclaim with J. Alfred Prufrock:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Coachman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

Putin’s thugs arrested Navalny on arrival at Moscow Airport. While in prison, he read Natan Sharansky’s book, Fear No Evil, and exchanged a few handwritten letters with the former “refusenik” and veteran of the Soviet prison system. Sharansky, now living in Israel, understood perfectly the choice Navalny had made:

I was very angered by the question of a certain European correspondent the day after your return to Russia. “Why did he return? We all knew that he would be arrested in the airport—does he not understand such simple things?” My answer was pretty rude: “You’re the one who doesn’t understand something. If you think that his goal is survival—then you are right. But his true concern is the fate of his people—and he is telling them: ‘I am not afraid and you should not be afraid either.’”

On consideration, I think Sharansky was right. By the manner of his death, Navalny has forced us to pierce through the cant and the dreary pantomimes, to wonder: “Is there anything I could give my life for?” It’s a dark and awful meditation—and most of us who are not made for martyrdom will nevertheless reply, “I could—and I would,” if not for some grand cause, then for a beloved him or her, or for the children, or for the safety of the household. Navalny has taught us that we are more courageous than we allow ourselves to be, that honesty is not just possible but necessary if life is to be more than a shadow-show: and that those with nothing to die for have nothing for which to live.

Photo by AFP via Getty Image


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