Robin Ashenden

Navalny’s death has left Russia’s opposition in despair

A photo of Alexei and Yulia Navalny on Navalny's grave (Credit: Getty images)

Following the wave of articles that have appeared in the Western press since Navalny’s death come three pieces from émigré Russians. All present a sobering and even chilling picture of Russia’s future now that its leading figure of opposition is gone.

The first, published by the Russian-language Meduza on 4 March, was by Shura Burtin, a Russian journalist living in Prague. In his essay, ‘The world doesn’t know how to stand up to evil’, Burtin described his devastation at the news of Navalny’s death: ‘Only in the wake of Navalny’s murder did it become clear how unconsciously we still lived in hope for a “normal” future.’

The dream of a free Russian any time soon is not much more than a fairytale

Navalny’s image, Burtin explained, had made change seem, however fraught, a possibility. ‘Navalny staked his life on this future and, by doing so, made it feel tangible to us. Now Putin has bluntly shown us that this future doesn’t exist.’ While many Russians had drawn confidence from Navalny’s strength, his death brought home to Burtin that ‘hoping for anything remotely normal to happen with Russia in the foreseeable future is dangerous. We’re dealing with a very bad, malignant process that isn’t going to end any time soon.’

With the dissident’s murder, a crucial moral line had been crossed – ‘the guardrails have come off’ – and it wasn’t just bad news for Russians themselves. ‘The war is most likely going to escalate… when I heard about the murder, my immediate thought was that they’re going to capture Georgia – simply because they can’t stop.’  Georgians, Lithuanians and Latvians who feared Putin might invade their country were surely right to worry: ‘They had seen everything clearly, and I hadn’t.’

Nor could Russians themselves do anything about it. Any kind of political activity was now useless, even suicidal, and the most anyone could do was put their private life in order. Russians should at least resolve consciously ‘to be closer, to pay more attention to each other. To carefully consider what the person next to you might need… We are very bad at supporting each other, not only in politics, but in general.’

Regarding the country’s current state, Burtin couldn’t be bleaker: ‘We’re locked in a cell with a psychopath, and we should be afraid of him… Right now, hope for the future does more harm than good… We need to realise that our situation is lousy and that we don’t know what to do.’

This sense of dying hope came from other writers too, bringing home that the dream of a free Russian any time soon is not much more than a fairytale. The most soul-searching analysis was from writer and blogger Ostap Karmodi in his article ‘Landscape after the death of a hero’.

Why, Karmodi asked himself, was he so appalled by news of Navalny’s death? It wasn’t as if he was a Navalny supporter, or believed the late dissident would make a great future leader. No – that feeling of being ‘headbutted’ came from something far more fundamental: ‘Because on Friday, 16 February, for the first time in our lives, we saw the victory of evil over good.’

Karmodi, in his piece, wasn’t out to whitewash Navalny. ‘Good is never perfect,’ he wrote. ‘It always has a lot of flaws. It isn’t perfection that makes it good, but the fact it fights against evil.’ Having defeated the villain, the hero could even become the bad guy himself – but that was another story. In reality, ‘after three years of torture,’ said Karmodi, the hero ‘was killed, contrary to all the laws of the genre… It didn’t turn out the way we were taught in children’s books… On a conscious level, we were prepared for the possible death of Navalny in the camp. But for the death of the hero, on a subconscious level, no.’

Writer and researcher Nikolay Epplee also looked at the pitfalls of magical thinking. The failures of post-Soviet Russia, he wrote, were partly down to an unconscious shared belief that, when communism fell, ‘the dragon had died’ and that they themselves had defeated the monster. But, Epplee said, many Russians were deluding themselves here: there had never been any unifying struggle or final victory, nor had most ever found the strength within themselves to fight it. Hence, ‘the dragon lives on today and is back in good shape’.

As for Navalny (or now, his widow Yulia, who has vowed to continue the fight), Russian faith in lone ‘dragon-slayers’ – individuals who’d save the country single-handed – had given rise to a fatal inertia. Such projections were ‘bad not even because they are dreams, but because they suggest we don’t need to participate in the battle. Somehow someone else will do it, a Harry Potter or Frodo.’ But, Epplee added, the point of Potter and Frodo wasn’t that they were superheroes who could save humanity single-handed but that they embodied ‘active resistance to evil’ and showed that ‘only action brings results’.

That collective response, Karmodi assured us in his piece, wasn’t coming any time soon. Navalny, on his famous 2021 return to Russia and certain arrest, perhaps hoped it ‘would awaken his followers from sleep’ and that ‘not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, would come to his defence. Alas, nothing of the kind happened’.

It was heartening, Karmodi felt, that so many had shown up for Navalny’s funeral – an act of huge courage in a state ‘where facial recognition cameras are everywhere and every large gathering of people is swarming with agents in civilian clothes.’ But Navalny’s funeral was ‘the last flash of reflected light. If there is no miracle [before the presidential elections] then all will be lost for Russia… The country will be covered with darkness for years, and the faint flames of goodness will remain burning only in hearts and kitchens.’

Three pieces, then, which couldn’t give a clearer sense of the disarray and despair into which Russia’s opposition have fallen. One can only hope these visions of eternal night, uttered so soon after Navalny’s murder, are no more realistic than the fairytales they set out to supplant.

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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