The death of Alexei Navalny is an unequivocal revelation of the true nature of the Russian regime. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule is a far cry from Soviet totalitarianism. Under Joseph Stalin, Navalny’s name would never have been mentioned; he would have been deported or murdered before he could ever speak out publicly. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet empire, which allowed no room for freedom of expression from dissidents, and which, strangely, enjoyed a certain international ideological legitimacy through its association with Marxism. The Soviet Union not only dominated half the world but also garnered considerable support among intellectuals, artists, and political parties across the planet. Compared with the USSR, Russia now is not totalitarian but merely despotic.

Despotism is shot with a thousand holes through which public discontent about and contempt for a regime can be expressed. Totalitarianism is based on ideology and belief; despotism is grounded only in fear of the police. It relies on the violent power of men without ideology and with neither national nor international credibility. Unlike the former Soviet Union, contemporary Russia pretends to be a normal, law-abiding government, complete with courts, trials, and attorneys. Stalin didn’t bother with these trappings of democracy. Putin, however, wants the international community’s respect, so he pretends to be a part of it.

This explains the extraordinary paradox of Navalny. After he was sent to the remotest of Russian prisons, he maintained the right to an attorney; his attorney ensured his continued access to the rest of the world. His countless trials were filmed, with the recordings widely shared on social media. These were only a few examples of many other masquerades, of course, but in Putin’s mind, they gave the impression that Russia respected law and justice.

Similarly, Putin grants interviews to western media, as Stalin never did. Above all, Putin regularly invites the Russian people to vote for their government. Given that he has no opponents, these events are meaningless, but the circus allows him to claim that Russia holds democratic elections. Once again, Stalin didn’t bother organizing elections—he led a revolution. Putin, by contrast, aspires to a prominent place among world leaders. His wars waged against his neighbors, whether in Georgia or Ukraine, are also about this goal, about a desire to be acknowledged as a great leader, comparable with those in the United States or China. Yet, despite these overblown efforts, he remains economically, militarily, and ideologically dwarfed by the true world powers.

Lacking a globally recognized ideological doctrine, Putin is trying to invent a new, vaguely mystical image to justify both his authority and Russia’s standing. He believes that he has found it by defining Russia as both Eurasian and Orthodox, the simultaneous upholder of true civilization and religion, in opposition to the liberal, individualistic, atheistic, decadent West. In doing so, he is invoking an old tradition of Russophilia that began in the nineteenth century but has never convinced more than a handful of intellectuals and marginal priests. Navalny would have none of it.

Navalny used derision to condemn the bloated ambitions of Putin, who saw himself as the next Peter the Great or Stalin. Navalny’s ultimate weapon was humor. Recall that, after a potentially lethal toxin was secreted into his underpants in an attempt on his life, Navalny showed no outrage. Instead, he started calling Putin “the Underpants Poisoner.” When dictators are as insecure in their own power as Putin is, they cannot stand humor. Nothing could be worse for Putin than being laughed at, than the people realizing that their emperor has no clothes. The Russian president’s personal hatred of Navalny had less to do with the dissident’s support of democracy than with his quips, which had people chuckling all over Russia. Unlike Chinese democrats such as Wei Jingsheng and Liu Xiaobo, who also died in prison, and the anti-Soviet dissidents of the past, Navalny understood that to win the support of ordinary Russians, he had to put more effort into poking fun than promoting ideology. In Putin’s eyes, such humor was the ultimate, unforgivable crime.

Using irony as his indestructible weapon, Navalny embodied a new form of dissidence not often seen under tyrannical regimes. No drone can fight a joke. Though humor was certainly neither the personality nor the method of Liu Xiaobo or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Navalny shares something with them and other great dissidents of history, from Gandhi to Mandela: he had the same rare personality, one sometimes difficult to understand, even for those around him. Navalny did not just claim that Russians were ordinary people in search of happiness and freedom like everyone else. He did not just mock the Slavophile ideology. He did not just give speeches and rally crowds that, by their sheer numbers, illustrated the “normal,” Western-congruent character of the Russian people, dispelling myths that the Russian soul is so different from those in the West. Navalny embodied the very values he championed, in his being, in his flesh. In short, his self didn’t matter; his life didn’t matter. He was his destiny, entirely. And this destiny demanded every sacrifice of him, including the ultimate one, which he will almost certainly have accepted with his trademark sarcasm.

Navalny’s death makes him more than a militant democrat; he has become a martyr for democracy. I would wager that this is what he wanted. It is certainly through this notion of martyrdom, which dates back to early Christian times, that we can understand his deliberate choice of death. He chose martyrdom by voluntarily returning to Russia; he could have lived peacefully in exile. But he knew that in exile, his voice would not be heard by the Russian people. It was only from Russia, even from its prisons, that he could best make his voice heard, by sharing the misfortunes of his people tyrannized by Vladimir Putin—this sad, bloody clown who wants so badly to be king.

Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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