His cell measures two meters by three meters. It is made of concrete, freezing in winter and torrid in summer. Is there a window? I doubt it, but his lawyer doesn’t tell us. The prisoner, with back problems and a cough, receives no medical treatment. Thanks to international pressure, he has gained one privilege: a tea kettle. For ten hours a day, he must stand, under the observation of sadistic guards. Occasionally, the prisoner is taken out and subjected to forced labor—sewing while seated on a chair that is too low for his large, emaciated body. And so his condition worsens.
The prisoner is Alexei Navalny, an opponent of Vladimir Putin, seemingly the only remaining one well-known outside Russia. Putin tried to poison him, a method he is fond of, but without success. Navalny, who had gone to Germany for medical care, returned voluntarily to be judged by a puppet court and condemned to decades in prison. Why did he return? In order to demonstrate the corruption of Russian justice, it seems. Does Navalny seek martyrdom? He endures it, but he does not seek it. I say this based on my own meeting with him. He belongs to a class of human beings, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Liu Xiaobo (a Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), and Nelson Mandela, who staked their lives on the causes they embody. I have had the honor of meeting all of them except Gandhi, and I remain shaken by the experiences. How is it that they have no fear, especially concerning torture and death? They seem to me almost inhuman, and I do not claim to understand them completely.
Navalny’s current fight, like Liu’s before him, aims as much at the outside world as at national public opinion, which often remains ignorant of his plight, and even his existence. What Navalny has to say to us is important: Russians are not born to be slaves, either by nature or by culture; they aspire, like all peoples, to liberty. They do not willingly abandon themselves to servitude, as if bound to some mysterious fate. Instead, they are subjected; they are Putin’s prisoners. They are like those other prisoners, recently released from their cells, sent off to be massacred on the Ukrainian front. What Navalny says to us, and what he embodies, is the authentic Russian person, free and devoted to democracy, contrary to European prejudices concerning the supposed fate of Russia.
One might object that Russia’s history is a litany of imprisonments—nothing new under Putin. This is not quite right since Russian prisons have evolved as reflections of the regimes that have used them to muzzle opposition. We know this from literature: many Russian writers have endured prison and lived to tell about it. Dostoyevsky, in The House of the Dead, relates his experience: collective detention rooms, with their fleas and their filth, but also their sharing of tea and alcohol. The horror was tempered by a kind of camaraderie. If Navalny had the choice, he would surely go back to Dostoyevsky’s time. Putin’s regime is far crueler than the Czars’ ever was. And at the end of the nineteenth century, the Czars were becoming more humane under European influence. Chekov traveled all the way to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island to assess the condition of the prisoners. Each had his stone hut and his garden. The air was pure, as Chekov relates, and the prisoners’ main complaint was that Sakhalin was far from home; they did not want to be buried in Asia, so far from their European birthplace. Navalny would probably like to go back to Chekov’s time—or even to the time of Solzhenitsyn. To be sure, the Gulag Archipelago was a harsh place, where one froze in the winter. But Solzhenitsyn was treated for cancer in the Gulag, where he recovered. And he had the paper and pencil necessary to write his memoirs. Today’s Russia, as revealed by its prisons, is thus crueler than the previous regimes ever were.
Of course, prisons are not the only measure. Stalin massacred many people, especially Ukrainians. But Putin also massacres Ukrainians, after having exterminated Chechnyans. What is more, he is adding to the arsenal of previous tyrants a kind of cool scientism that does not even seek an ideological justification. The Czars saw themselves as the elect of God, and Stalin imagined that he was building the true Communist society. Putin, as far as we can tell, believes in nothing but himself. He does not bother much with either historical or intellectual references. Sometimes he identifies himself with Peter the Great, who built Saint Petersburg on the corpses of 100,000 workers; Putin for his part will not even have a Saint Petersburg to his credit. In fact, there is nothing Russian about Putin—he is merely a terror machine, a postmodern one, beyond all thinking.
I did not need the Ukraine invasion to understand that there was nothing Russian about Putin. I met him once, about ten years ago. If he had been Russian, he would have hugged me and offered tea, vodka, and an assortment of cakes, lox, and other common delicacies that define a so-called Russian tea service. I got no hug, Putin did not budge from his seat, and only mineral water was offered. He immediately jumped into an endless and vociferous discourse justifying the Chechnya war. He was only fighting Islamist terrorism there, he said. He did not mention the desire of the Chechen people to become independent, a centuries-old fight—no, only Islamism was at stake. Therefore, Russia and the West had a common enemy: terrorism. In hindsight, this was a prelude for Putin’s “anti-Nazi war” in Ukraine. His discourse went on uninterrupted for two hours: I was not authorized to ask questions.
Navalny, on the other hand, is truly Russian, as was his comrade in arms Boris Nemtsov, assassinated in 2015. These are types one might come across in a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky novel. But no Russian writer could have conceived of Putin. And I hope, dear reader, that, like me, you will have some trouble sleeping tonight, because you will be thinking of Navalny in his concrete casket.
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images