Navalny and the Mirage of a Different Russia

In late April 2015, while on a reporting trip to Moscow, I paid a visit to the offices of the anti-corruption campaign run by Aleksei Navalny.

At the time, his political party was preparing for Russia’s 2016 elections, and his international profile was growing. To many, he seemed to be the one prospective leader who might offer Russia a different path — a possibility that seemed all the more significant after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a well-known liberal politician and critic of President Vladimir Putin, in February 2015.

I didn’t meet Navalny, but I spent time talking to several of the young people who were working on his political campaign and anti-corruption initiative.

I remember the day well. The melting snow on the path to the campaign building was treacherous, with thin crusts of ice over dirty slush that soaked over the tops of my boots. Inside, the office had the colorful décor of a tech startup. And the energy of the young staff members I met was palpable. Many of them stayed working as darkness fell outside, and I wondered if the looming threat of government retaliation lent urgency to their tasks.

Unlike other opposition figures, Navalny was not just a dissident, but a compelling politician: someone who had built a genuine following, a nascent political party and an anti-corruption cause that was winning him attention and acclaim among ordinary Russians.

Talking to some of the people in that office, it was possible to see the hazy outlines of a more democratic future for Russia: Popular support for Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign might grow, undermining the popularity that was one of Putin’s greatest political assets; institutions might show some independence; elite support might fracture; Putin’s erstwhile allies might force him out of power.

No one with any understanding of the situation expected it to be easy. But history is full of examples of democratic change that seemed impossible until it suddenly happened.

Last week, Navalny died in the Arctic prison where Putin sent him on charges widely believed to have been fabricated to silence him. His wife has promised to continue his work, and his death may make him a martyr figure. But even if that occurs, the path to a different Russia has become far harder to see.

All politicians are in the business of self-mythologizing, and the easiest way to understand Navalny’s life and campaign as he wanted them to be seen is to watch the eponymous, Oscar-winning documentary about him. It shows him as a dissident for the internet age: a man who does not just carry on his political work after surviving an assassination attempt, but who also prank-calls the assassin, gets him to admit the whole thing as cameras roll and then uploads the recording to YouTube.

To understand his death, you need to go beyond that self-presentation and understand the Russian political system in which he was trying to operate. “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia,” by Peter Pomerantsev, captures the strange manipulation of reality under Putin’s authoritarian system. In such an environment, no one can be certain of the truth, making it impossible to trust any institution or leader, and everyone is constantly on the defensive.

At the same time, in a place where “everything is possible,” as Pomerantsev puts it, a figure who has a public profile but no actual position or political authority such as Navalny can still seem like a threat.

Early on, Navalny tried to make a name for himself by embracing ultranationalist politics, cultivating support among the far right that demanded “Russia for Russians.” But his stance evolved and he did not repeat such statements in recent years. (In one of the more surreal episodes of my career in journalism, I once interviewed a Russian far-right activist in an anime-themed cafe inside a ritzy Moscow shopping mall. He perused a menu of desserts shaped like cartoon cats while railing against Navalny for his fair-weather friendship.)

Instead it was anti-corruption work that really brought Navalny to prominence, as Julia Ioffe wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile. To understand why the public anger over graft was such fertile political territory, and why effective opposition to it was so threatening to Putin, consider “Putin’s People,” by Catherine Belton, which paints a detailed portrait of how corruption was woven into Russia’s political fabric after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how it fueled Putin’s own career.

Navalny’s staff members were generous with their time on the day I visited, walking me through various projects with wonky enthusiasm — an initiative to improve local government services here, a political organizing effort there. I remember a lot of young people with interesting clothes, a lot of whiteboards and dry-erase markers, a lot of spreadsheets on the screens of Apple laptops.

Sometimes, when I meet with political organizations, I discover that they have options I wasn’t aware of, levers of power that they are willing and able to pull. But speaking with Navalny’s organization made me realize that they had even fewer options than I had thought. Though cheerful in the face of the growing state crackdown on their activities, and determined to continue, their efforts were failing to cross the barrier between civil society and state power.

The week I was there, the government announced that Navalny’s party would not be on the ballot, citing technical issues with the process of registering regional branches. Making spreadsheets of unfilled potholes and burned-out streetlights — one of the projects the team had showed me — was a good way to track petty official corruption and build trust with the public, but it wasn’t bringing them closer to political office.

The theory that Navalny could be a real force of political opposition in Russia rested on the idea that even Putin was not totally immune to scandal and public accountability. But the force with which the Russian government cracked down on Navalny and his movement in fact showed how much the state had already hardened into authoritarianism.

That was the paradox of Navalny. By setting out to become a politician and operating as if democratic accountability might be possible, he came to personify the end of Russia’s experiment in democratic politics. By challenging Putin’s power, Navalny showed how much of an iron grip on it the Russian president had.