Alexei Navalny rarely leaves Russia, but in 2018 he made an exception. He was in Strasbourg to hear the European Court of Human Rights rule for him and against Russia’s repeated detentions of him, concluding that the actions had been politically motivated. I was making a BBC Panorama documentary at the time about those brave Russian souls who take on the Kremlin, and Navalny, tall, charismatic, sardonic, was target No. 1.
He had 10 minutes before his flight back to Moscow, where his aides feared he would be arrested the moment he landed. I grabbed him and introduced him to BBC cameraman Seamas McCracken: “Seamas is from Northern Ireland … ” Seamas stopped filming. “Seamas is from the island of Ireland. Sorry, Alexei, we’re still working this stuff out … ” Navalny grinned, delighted at the Irishman teasing the British reporter.
No one doubts Navalny’s courage. The anxiety for many liberals is that he’s a nationalist in lamb’s clothing. The best defense against that charge—and his best weapon against the dictator in the Kremlin—is his sense of fun, the joy he brings to mocking power, and at that moment it shone through.
A few weeks later I met Navalny again in Moscow and asked him why Vladimir Putin never mentions him by name. “That’s because I am Lord Voldemort,” Navalny snapped back.
The Navalny Taboo
A new book from Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble bottles that Navalny spirit and serves it chilled. It slips down a treat.
The authors, all academics, don’t shy away from the difficult stuff, setting out his brush with the dark side in 2007, when in an anti-immigrant video Navalny played a dentist saying a tooth without a root is dead, and so will Russia be if it’s deprived of its Russian roots: “We have the rights to be Russian in Russia, and we’ll defend that right.” There was also a second video, which aligned cockroaches with Islamist terrorists. Challenged about these videos, Navalny replied, “Artistic license.”
Despite this lack of a clear expression of regret, in the decade plus since those videos were circulated, Navalny has tacked to a liberal position and become the effective leader of the Russian opposition. Everyone else has been sex-shamed or corrupted or shot.
The book also gives proper appreciation for Navalny the storyteller. His YouTube video “Putin’s Palace” has had more than 100 million views. The reason it’s been so successful is not just the dogged investigation into a secretive $1 billion–plus estate—complete with gold-plated toilet brush and “aqua disco”—that the Kremlin unconvincingly denies is Putin’s plaything. It’s also the ballsy humor with which Navalny skewers the Russian president.
Fair play, too, is given to Team Navalny. One of the stars of “Putin’s Palace” is Georgy Alburov, a lugubrious, overweight clown who is also comically, heroically brave as he films the Black Sea palace via drone. A second Navalny rock star is Lyubov Sobol, a gutsy lawyer and opposition activist. Sobol was driven to work with Navalny because, in her own words, she has a “personal hatred for the system.”
Not being afraid is part of the team’s culture: “If you break the law, I’ll use all my energy to prosecute you,” Sobol wrote on her blog in 2011. “Get ready, gentlemen.”
When I ask why Putin never mentions him by name, Navalny says, “That’s because I am Lord Voldemort.”
One should note that Sobol’s second husband was stabbed with a syringe by a stranger in Moscow in 2016. He started convulsing, lost consciousness, and ended up recovering. Poison isn’t an efficient killer, but it sends a message, and not just to the target. The Kremlin denies all wrongdoing, but so many of Putin’s critics have ended up dead that the sobriquet “Vlad the Poisoner” feels apt.
Navalny himself has allegedly been poisoned three times, once with a caustic chemical that scarred his right eye, and twice with a nerve agent, most likely Novichok.
The third poisoning took place in a Siberian city. Two hospital doctors who treated him have since died in mysterious circumstances. Navalny was sent to Berlin in a coma, where he recovered.
From his hospital bed in Germany, Navalny, a skilled mimic of Russian officialdom, phoned up one of the F.S.B. agents who tried to kill him and pretended to be a senior apparatchik who wanted to know what had gone wrong with the poisoning. The gormless goon opened up, telling Navalny’s tape recorder that they had sprayed the nerve agent on his underpants.
Once returned to health, Navalny went back to Russia to face down Putin—and was famously locked up upon arrival. He remains in jail, living proof that Putin is an enemy of democracy. The odds are against Navalny, but one has to admire his guts—and his wit.
His position is that he wants Russia to join the world’s democracies, and he uses stealing as a very large stick to hit Putin with. No wonder the little secret policeman hates him.
For the moment, Navalny is the best hope honest Russia has, and this sweetly written book documents that very well.
John Sweeney is a British journalist and author. He is the host of the podcast Hunting Ghislaine