Navalny exemplifies the human spirit in his fight against Russian tyranny
As Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine continues to roil the world, the Academy Awards bestowed the Best Documentary honor on a film that explores another aspect of Putin’s tyranny: the savage persecution of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Some Ukrainian politicians and ordinary social media users were upset by the focus on domestic Russian politics rather than the war — an understandable reaction. But the Kremlin’s tyranny at home is inextricably linked to its brutal imperialism beyond its borders.
As the film “Navalny” acknowledges, its subject has a complicated history. Nearly 15 years ago, he parted ways with the liberal democratic opposition over his populist and nationalist leanings, including ugly comments about Central Asian migrant workers in Russian cities. But in the 2010s, Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption blogger, emerged as a genuine voice for freedom as a leader in the 2011-2012 protests against rigged elections that brought Putin’s obedient United Russia party to dominance in the Russian parliament and reinstalled Putin himself as president after a four-year stint as prime minister.
While the protests were ruthlessly crushed, reprisals against Navalny — whose exposés of corruption among high-level officials brought him a large following, especially among young people — were limited at first. He was convicted on almost certainly trumped-up charges of fraud but given a suspended sentence with restrictions on his ability to communicate with the media; the persecution seemed carefully calibrated to hobble his activism without harming him.
That changed in 2020, when Navalny fell extremely ill on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. Near death, he was initially treated by Russian doctors after an emergency landing, then transferred to a hospital in Germany where tests found poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent (previously used in other assassination plots by Russian special services).
After his recovery, Navalny participated in a stunning investigation of his own attempted murder conducted by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group. As part of that investigation, which is the spy thriller-like main story in “Navalny,” he called one of the men responsible for the operation, pretending to be a superior and demanding to know why the operation failed — with the recorded call confirming the assassination attempt.
From Berlin, Navalny openly accused Putin of being behind the plot. Then, remarkably, he flew back to Russia, where he was arrested, charged with violating the terms of his probation, and sent to prison. Last year, he was hit with new charges of fraud. As Putin prepared to invade Ukraine, Navalny was also designated a “terrorist” and “extremist.” His call for Russians to resist the war in Ukraine was followed by a new conviction and transfer to a maximum security colony, where he has been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement for petty rule violations and subjected to other abuses that his supporters say amounts to slow torture.
It may sound corny to speak of the indomitable human spirit; but Navalny’s story shows us exactly that. Could he have continued his fight more effectively from abroad? Perhaps, but his return to near-certain imprisonment sets an inspiring example of courage, even if the number of Russians who have followed in his footsteps by defying the regime remains depressingly small. One can only hope Navalny will not only outlive Putin but see the day when a post-Putin Russia starts to recover from its current sickness — a mix of passivity and propaganda-induced delusion — and recognizes Navalny as the hero he is.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.