December 28, 2020
Despite facing repression, Alexei Navalny is no hero. Russian writer Katya Kazbek reveals the Western-backed opposition figure’s real history.
This interview was originally published at Royce Kurmelovs’ Raising Hell Substack newsletter and republished with permission.
Compressed into a two-minute soundbite, the story of Alexei Navalny and the recent protests that have erupted across Russia seems simple enough. The Russian opposition figure who recently survived an attempt on his life — an alleged poisoning delivered via Novichok-laced pants — was arrested and convicted of breaching his bail conditions in a process that can be fairly described as unjust. In response, his supporters took to the streets across the country in protest.
Ask a Russian, like Katya Kazbek, and they will tell you something different: things are way more complicated than they seem. Katya is a writer, translator and the editor-in-chief of arts and culture magazine Supamodu.com who today lives in New York by way of Moscow and Krasnodar Krai in the North Caucuses. In an effort to give some nuance to Navalny and what has been happening overseas, they recently put together a widely shared Twitter thread that served as a highlight reel of Navalny’s political career — and the picture it painted was not pretty. Having read this, I contacted them to ask more about a man whose treatment has been unjust, but who — it turns out — is no hero.
This QandA has been edited for length and style.
Royce Kurmelovs: What is happening in Russia right now?
Katya Kazbek: Nothing fundamentally new is happening right now. A part of Russian society is unhappy with Putin and his government, but that’s been a constant throughout his 20-plus year term and, previously, throughout his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s term. The grievances include corruption, low life quality, restricted freedoms and undemocratic elections. Additionally, in the last decade, since the previous wave of protests in the early 2010s, there had been some particular legislative measures, such as Putin amending the constitution to his advantage. There has been a tightening in the protest laws, which make protesting harder, even in single-person pickets, and the ramifications graver. But most importantly, 2019 was marked by the beginning of a sprawling pension reform project, which looks to raise the retirement age by five years and has caused a lot of outcry from the population.
In this light, a change in government seems an even more remote perspective for those Russians who do not support Putin and practicing dissent becomes an even more daunting task.
RK: Who is Alexei Navalny?
KK: Alexei Navalny should be first and foremost viewed as an investigative journalist. He founded and leads his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which conducts thorough examinations of corruption in the personal and business lives of members of Vladimir Putin’s government. He mostly digs up hidden assets, such as real estate, businesses and yachts that belong to them and members of their families.
In 2010, he received a scholarship from Yale’s World Fellows program, with graduates directly linked to the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. In 2013 he ran for mayor of Moscow, coming second after the incumbent Sergey Sobyanin. However, it’s important to point out that both then and now, his popularity is only high in large cities, and the situation in the regions is drastically different. He was not allowed to run for president in 2018 because of two conditional convictions for fraud in the cases of timber company Kirovles and cosmetics company Yves Rocher, which Navalny himself calls “frame-ups.”
It was that year that he started expanding into election activism and has used various tactics to engage in them. During the 2018 presidential election, he called for people to boycott. In the 2019 regional elections, he launched the system called “Smart Elections,” where the goal was to take away as many votes from United Russia candidates by supporting anyone outside the party. It was lauded as a success by Navalny and his followers, while the leaders of Russia’s other two biggest parties, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), argue that it was their popularity that led to evident electoral shifts.
There are plans to use the system again this year in various elections. And of course, lately, Alexei Navalny has been in the headlines for his alleged poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok. It’s worth pointing out that according to liberal polls, the attitudes of Russians en masse to the poisoning and its implications differ significantly from the narrative in the western press: while to some people he remains obscure, and many stay neutral, people in general are more distrustful and wary of him than they are distrustful and wary of the Russian government or Putin personally. His popularity has indeed grown some in the wake of the alleged poisoning, as well as the calls he made relatively recently for direct stimulus measures to help citizens in the wake of COVID. However, it still tails that of Putin and even that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of far-right LDPR.
RK: I know you could write a whole book about this, but what are his politics?
KK: Navalny is most definitely a populist, and he likes to follow trends. For instance, during the US democratic primary, he endorsed Bernie Sanders because American cultural markers are appealing to him. I have been watching Navalny since he was just an aspiring politician and had a blog on LiveJournal, the prevalent social media platform in Russia at the time.
Back then, he identified openly as a nationalist and attended nationalist rallies. He started in the liberal, market-oriented party Yabloko but was kicked out for his nationalist views. He then created his movement “The People” aimed against illegal immigration and recorded blatantly xenophobic videos where he compared people from South Caucuses to dental cavities and migrants to cockroaches: one of these videos is still on his verified YouTube channel.
In the following years, there has been an effort to whitewash his views, and he has switched gears on various topics; for instance, I believe he has changed his position on same sex marriage from negative to positive. But when pressed about his earlier convictions and the videos mentioned above, for instance, in a post-poisoning interview with Der Spiegel, he flat out said, “I have the same views that I held when I went into politics.” When he ran for president, he wanted to introduce a visa regime with Central Asian countries—the source of the majority of labor migrants in Russia. When asked why he insists on that while also saying he’d want to let German people visit Russia visa-free, he responded that those who have a rich country should be more welcome as visitors.
As to the other spheres: his economic views favor privatization and free markets, and he is backed by many post-Soviet capitalists, from the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to the former head of the Central Bank of Russia, Sergei Aleksashenko. However, he also wanted to run for the presidency on the platform of raising wages, pensions, and introducing progressive taxes—but never centered the working class in his agenda, only sometimes talking about poverty and always outlining the necessity of helping small business owners. The times when I recall him talking about the working class, it was with disdain or posturing.
Navalny’s geopolitical views are a bit all over the place as well. While he has made calls against Russian military presence in Syria and Ukraine, Navalny’s stance on Crimea varies from supportive to cautious. In general, when it concerns internal Russian politics, he tends to support regional autonomy: one of his central policies through the years has been “Stop Feeding Caucusus,” which called, among other things, for severing republics such as Chechnya from the Russian Federation.
In general, Russian regions are way worse off than Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the growing resentment is a straightforward target for further balkanization of the post-Soviet space and Russian Federation in particular. Moreover, when it comes to foreign diplomacy, Navalny thinks Russia should align more with Europe and less with its ex-Soviet neighbors, Asian or Latin American countries.
Basically, his politics adapt to whatever seems opportune, but that also doesn’t seem to help his cause. He is not Nazi enough for the ultra-right, too right-wing for leftists, spooks some liberals with his pro-gun stance and uncertain position on Crimea, which are both serious issues for them. He seems to only find full support in those who want to switch from Putin’s government by any means necessary and don’t really care about views or policies.
RK: How much support does Navalny have within Russia?
KK: Despite his 15-year-old crusade against Putin, his government, and corruption, Navalny is still mostly recognized only for his investigative work. Even though trust in him grew in the wake of the poisoning, the number of people distrusting him has also grown along with awareness. Overall, in the last poll about the number of people trusting significant political figures taken in August 2020, he scored two per cent, in third place after Vladimir Putin’s comfortable 40 per cent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s four per cent. However, some politicians who trailed behind him belong to parties in the Russian Duma that enjoy way more support as whole entities, including the CPRF and LDPR.
RK: Why is this happening now?
KK: His support in Russia has been greatly exaggerated by the Western press. The Navalny supporters, who are not as numerous, have been galvanized by the attempt on his life and his arrest. Others, who might not be supporting Navalny per se, view the case of his apprehension as yet another in the string of cases where one’s political views become a basis for detention and imprisonment. Such cases vary greatly; some figures are more popular, some downright ambiguous, others do not get as much coverage in the liberal media and Western media. I’ll name a few I consider most worthy of attention, even as my personal opinion on them varies. Communist party member and diplomat Nikolai Platoshkin has been under house arrest on charges of inciting riots and endangering public safety for the past few months. Anarchist Azat Miftakhov has just been sentenced to six years in prison for breaking the window and throwing a smoke bomb into the United Russia party — Putin’s party — office in Moscow. Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov had been tried on a fabricated drug charge, although released after much public outcry and an investigation. Feminist artist Yulia Tsvetkova is still on trial for administrative charges, including dissemination of pornography and gay propaganda, for her online activity and art.
Meanwhile, far-right populist Sergey Furgal, ex-Khabarovsk Krai governor, has been charged with multiple murders. Because of this, regular protests in support of the “people’s governor,” as his constituents call him, and against federal involvement in regional politics, have been going on for the past six months. Around 25 thousand protestors took part at its peak, about four per cent of the city’s population.
I would say that these protests, as well as the protests in neighboring Belarus, have been an inspirational force for recent protests across Russia. But I believe that the Russian protests are a mix of organic and astroturfed. I would definitely see what’s happening with Alexei Navalny in the context of the foreign politics of the European Union and the USA — and especially to the presidency of Joe Biden. The US Democrats have spent years talking about the so-called “Russiagate”, a narrative prevalent in the US, that blamed Russia for Hilary Clinton’s loss in 2016. The conspiracy has been debunked continuously but remains a big staple of American politics. I believe that because of that and the proxy wars going on between the two countries, Biden’s term will be very hawkish on Russia.
RK: There have been other protest movements before. I remember images of Garry Kasparov getting arrested. Is this different?
KK: Apart from some particularities, in general, a lot of what’s happening seems to be similar to the events in the 2010s, when I personally participated in the protests. Back then, I believe, they were also astroturfed to a point by foreign interference but also stemmed from various reasons of organic discontent—quite similar reasons to what has sparked the protests now. I will also add that the 2010s protests started right after parliamentary elections, which were widely considered fraudulent.
That said, I believe that the protests of the early 2010s and early 2020s seem to be almost identical. I have seen the same jokes and memes surface, very similar manifestos written, people have been referring to unsanctioned protests as “going out for a walk” and cracking jokes about that, and taking white flowers as a symbol of peace to the events. But most importantly, the people most vehemently supporting these protests remain pretty much the same. Of course, there are newer figures, and some have died or changed camps since the last ones, but in general, it’s all pretty much the same, which creates a peculiar feeling of deja vu.
As opposed to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, which I had also been following since inception and which had taken on a completely different spin this past summer, the Russian protests do not seem to have evolved. Of course, I might be mistaken because I’m not currently in Russia, but I have not seen anything radically different about them. Of course, twenty-somethings, who were too young to participate in the protests of the 2010s, or people who had been apolitical before will perceive them as unprecedented, and I do believe that there has been an increase in participation in a broader geographic and class context—as compared to the mostly Moscow-centric, middle-class events of 2010s. But the overall tactics had not changed, no meaningful strategy has been adopted, and most importantly, just like the last time, no effort to address or center the working class has been made. All of it makes the narrative all too familiar, and the protests appear detached from the everyday worries of Russia’s working class.
RK: The nineties were, to put it mildly, a hell of a time for Russia with western governments massively interfering in Russian politics and, essentially, looting the economy. Those events, such as Yeltsin’s coup to depose a democratically elected parliament and the creation of the oligarchs, must have been scarring for many in society. How much can we read what is happening within Russia today as an echo of those events?
KK: Everything that has been happening in Russia over the past 30 years has been an echo of these events. Boris Yeltsin’s coup, that was backed by Bill Clinton and the US media, is definitely something people think back to a lot. Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s chosen heir and a continuation of the system that makes sure that power and capital are concentrated in the Kremlin. The whole idea of Putin being replaced with Navalny just seems like a reshuffling of the same old: a new pro-Western leader to replace the one who has strayed from NATO’s grasp, and a different set of oligarchs and capitalists taking the reigns. But even if people were eager for this shuffle, Putin has something that Navalny doesn’t: a factual track record as the country’s leader. And even if this record is indeed marred deeply with corruption, trespasses, and things that many find unpalatable, life under Putin has improved as compared to the impoverished 90s. It might not be a huge advantage, but having seen the pits, no one is eager to forfeit the small advantage that exists for the unknown. And as someone on Twitter rightly said: “While it’s obvious whom Navalny is against, it’s not quite clear whom he is for.”
RK: What do those outside Russia need to know about the situation?
KK: I want everyone to realize that the overwhelming majority of western journalists are busy communicating their own narrative, which does not have anything to do with the real situation on the ground; however, it too often reflects the opinions of State Departments of NATO countries. Disgruntled diaspora voices and loud English-speaking liberals in Moscow are incredibly biased, also. The majority of Russian online presence is in Russian and overwhelmingly on VK.com and Telegram. So judging the country by what you hear most often about it is misleading and dangerous. Honestly, I think the same applies to most countries that are not considered allies by the US and EU, but Russia more than others because of this new Cold War we have at hand.
The biggest myth about Russia is that Putin is some off-the-charts dictator, Russia is an absolute hellhole, and that his only opposition is Navalny, who is being prevented from elections and poisoned. Careful investigation into the material circumstances of people in Russia will show that while the country is poor, it has improved since the 90s. It isn’t a liberal paradise, for sure, but having tirelessly compared it to the US where I’ve been working in the past few years, I have to say while nothing about Russia is performatively woke, the foundations set in place by the Soviet Union remain quite firm: from the access to free, unlimited abortions to a genuinely multiethnic society. Russia is not without its racial problems, of course, but that’s also true for Europe with its Roma and migrants, the US with its Latinos and African-Americans and Australia with the Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people to pontificate about.
The more significant problems that Russia struggles with are Putin’s weaponization of the orthodox church and nationalism, the domestic violence surges and decriminalization of them, and the economy, of course, especially in the COVID era and with the pension reform in full swing. But I firmly believe we Russians can solve those internally and don’t need any interference from the West. Moreover, the West should get rid of the white savior syndrome and allow Russians to choose their leader themselves. According to polls, right now, it is Putin. I’m not a fan, but I don’t feel like I have the moral high ground to tell most of my compatriots they lack the agency to make this choice for themselves.
So whenever you hear something about Russia, please consider what vested interests there may be in that opinion, who is telling you these things, and why. And just in general, whenever you’re interested, try to talk to actual people within Russia, preferably its regions, and not the pundits who get paid for pitting Navalny against Putin.