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A tradition of moral defiance

Alexei Navalny is mourned as Russia’s most daring, sophisticated and Western-looking politician. Yet Navalny’s political fight against tyranny, which ended in an Arctic penal colony in what appears to be a state-sponsored murder, makes his “life and destiny” very Russian, part of a tradition of moral challenge against cruel and deceptive autocracy.

A predestined opponent

Navalny would have been a successful politician in a democratic country. But he was a political opponent in Putin’s Russia, which has evolved from a corrupt authoritarian state to a brutal and thuggish dictatorship. In today’s Russia you cannot have a political career: you can either be the loyal servant of the Kremlin or be part of the always silent people (common people). Any sign of disloyalty or opposition is suppressed. Navalny was aware of this better than anyone: in 2020, Putin’s secret police thugs poisoned him with a nerve agent. However, he returned to Moscow from Germany after life-saving treatment, knowing full well that he would be immediately arrested and imprisoned.

What could explain this seemingly irrational move? Navalny’s return to Moscow – that fateful day – marked the true beginning of his Russian history. The history of the Russian intelligentsia, Russian literature, traditions of political dissent and truth-telling, and the quasi-religious pursuit of a virtuous life are elements of its plot.

Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky observes that Navalny, the real man of flesh and blood, warts and all – full of all kinds of contradictions given his flirtation with Russian ethnic nationalism – had become an “irreproachable hero, part of a myth.” religious”. His exploits, his courage and his moral choices, Glukhovsky adds, are perceived as a symbol of “the life of a saint”; the death of a martyr’.

Resolved moral standards

The Russian intelligentsia, which emerged as a social group in the 1830s, pursued moral perfectionism. Its strong aspirations were born from two confluent intellectual traditions: a religious one, derived from Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity; the other, a secular legacy of Enlightenment moralism. The notion of Soviet (Consciousness) was at the heart of the spirit of the early Russian intelligentsia. Having a “clear conscience” (living resolutely according to the precepts of truth) was a deeply held social ideal among the intelligentsia.

Historically, the Russian intelligentsia emerged from the confrontation with the tsarist autocracy. Opposition to the bureaucratic institution shaped the intelligentsia’s rules of conduct and beliefs about what was right and wrong. As Russian cultural historian Boris Uspensky writes: “It is precisely the intelligentsia/tsar dichotomy that lies at the origins of the Russian intelligentsia.” a russian intelligent It is always in opposition, its moral values ​​contrast with the functioning of a repressive state system.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the intelligentsia may have left the historical stage. However, its moral principles did not disappear: many Russians internalized the ideals of the intelligentsia by reading classical Russian literature, which in turn had been a product of the creative efforts of the Russian intelligentsia. Similar to medieval Old Russian literature, which is completely religious in nature, the great Russian novel of the 19th and early 20th centuries serves a didactic function: it expounds on a dignified life, the endless struggle between Good and Evil, and the choice between Truth and lies. In many memoirs and interviews, leading members of the Soviet dissident movement confirm that the subversive and “quasi-religious” essence of Russian literature had shaped their moral principles and their negative attitude toward the “immoral” Soviet system.

The government of the martyr

Alexei Navalny, 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Alexei Navalny, born in 1976, belonged to a new Russian generation: he was a teenager when communism fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. However, the factors that shaped his moral outlook appear to be the same ones that influenced him during previous decades. Russian literature seemed to have played an important role. In a letter he sent to Russian opposition journalist Sergei Parkhomenko shortly before his death, Navalny discussed some Russian classics. He focused on Chekhov’s stories and compared the dark realism of some pieces to the work of Dostoevsky. The letter ended with an eloquent exhortation: ‘You must read the classics. We don’t know them enough. It is also difficult to avoid the direct parallel between Navalny’s passionate desire for the truth and the Russian literary and dissident tradition of truth-telling, best summarized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay. Don’t live on lies; All of Navalny’s live broadcasts invariably ended with the phrase: “Subscribe to our channel: we tell the truth here.”

Alexei Navalny’s moral rectitude, his personal courage and his fearless determination to defend his principles, no matter what, put him on par with a long list of Russian victims of political repression, who have defied the Russian Leviathan over the last few years. Two centuries. The fragmented Russian opposition now has a powerful hero myth and symbol around which to unite. Putin (or “bunker grandfather,” as Navalny used to mockingly call him) was afraid of his most prominent political opponent when he was alive. Now that Navalny is dead, Putin is arguably in a worse situation. The Kremlin tyrant should be reminded of Søren Kierkegaard’s famous maxim: ‘the tyrant dies and his rule ends; The martyr dies and his rule begins.

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