Alexei Navalny: Putin’s latest victim

Dave Kellaway remembers Alexei Navalny, who reportedly died today in an Arctic prison, a victim of Putin's brutal anti-democratic regime.

 
Move poster for the documentary Navalny.

In the Oscar-winning documentary film about him made in 2022 (Navalny), there is an almost surreal scene where his team actually talks to the secret agent who tried to assassinate him by placing poison in his underpants. Bellingcat, the renowned investigative journalism team, had helped track down the telephone number of the agent. Navalny actually talks to the man who tried to kill him. 

Throughout his appalling repression by the Putin regime, he retained an ironic optimism and a sort of brilliance, able to poke fun at the sloppiness and idiocy of his enemies. You have to have a heart of stone or be an irredeemable campist (someone supporting Russia against the US) to not admire and respect the sheer bravery and intellect of the man.

Of course, he was not a socialist or a revolutionary. At one point, he made comments that were derogatory towards migrants from predominantly Muslim countries. But this was not a consistent feature of his later political work. In 2021, he tried to sue the Russian state for not allowing him a copy of the Quran in prison. Many of the dissidents the left defended against the former bureaucratic dictatorship of Brezhnev et al., such as physicist Sakhorov or writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had varied political views and moved to pro-Western political positions. 

“Of course, he was not a socialist or a revolutionary. At one point, he made comments that were derogatory towards migrants from predominantly Muslim countries. But this was not a consistent feature of his later political work.

Nevertheless, we argued against the Stalinists here in the Communist Party who refused to support their democratic rights because they were seen as tools of the West. For us, socialist democracy is a principle that becomes meaningless if it only applies to people who do not support the current regime. In any case, without democratic discussion and freedom of expression, the very social or economic development of a post-capitalist society becomes very difficult and eventually implodes, as we saw with the fall of the wall in 1989.

Today, we are consistent in supporting the right of Navalny to be able to organise his own political tendency or party and to compete in democratic elections. Putin has never allowed this. He knew it would risk everything his power stood for once Navalny managed 27% in a rigged Moscow mayoral election. Leaving Navalny alive, even in an Arctic prison, was still a medium-term risk for Putin. Although he has recently stabilised his military positions in Ukraine, he has had to brutally repress any antiwar mobilisations, and the losses and mutilations of his soldiers are stoking up resentment. The continuing war also weakens the Russian economy and the margins for the regime to keep the masses onside by maintaining living standards. 

Navalny was the opposition leader who had the biggest profile among the Russian population. Like Stalin’s fear of Trotsky, which eventually led to his assassination in Mexico, Navalny was seen as a potential alternative leader if the regime went into a deep crisis. Socialists in the West have to understand the difficulty of any opposition to the regime in building a socialist or Marxist core. Remember that for over 60 or more years, the Russian masses were told that socialism was the same as the bloody Stalinist regime, which murdered millions of opponents and did not allow any democracy? So when opposition to the war or to the regime generally emerges, we need to give unconditional support. Discussion about political alternatives with activists in Russia can only begin if you start with this basic political and humanitarian position.

“Like Stalin’s fear of Trotsky, which eventually led to his assassination in Mexico, Navalny was seen as a potential alternative leader if the regime went into a deep crisis.

If you did need any more evidence after the invasion and indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine, this assassination yet again shows that Putin’s regime is not a lesser evil to US and Western imperialism. Nor is it some sort of bulwark, blunted shield, or ‘objective’ resistance to the expansion of the US imperialists. In fact, the latter are quite happy to coexist with Putin’s global capital’s exploitation of the world’s working classes and destruction of our planet. 

So-called socialists who fail to criticise Putin or defend his camp against the West should reflect on how they would work politically inside Russia. Indeed, in some respects, it is more difficult to organise and fight for an alternative in the Putin regime than in a Western capitalist nation, at least in terms of rights to organise and freedom of expression. 

Today, the West will denounce the assassination of Navalny, but in practice, ‘in ‘normal’ times—before the Ukraine invasion—it will co-exist and do business with Russian capital. If there were any movement in Russia threatening the dominion of global capital, the West would collaborate with the regime there to stop it.

Whatever criticisms the left may have of some aspects of his politics, today we should salute a heroic fighter for democratic rights in Putin’s rotten regime. Those few people on the left who dismissed him as a CIA stooge or as not worthy of our support in his campaign for free elections should hang their heads in shame. Remember, this man could have stayed in the West and lived out a comfortable exile? Instead, he returned to Russia, knowing that this fate could well await him.

“Whatever criticisms the left may have of some aspects of his politics, today we should salute a heroic fighter for democratic rights in Putin’s rotten regime.

His political intelligence and logic led him to choose prison because he knew exile would be a victory for Putin. It was a calculated risk that led to his death. Let us honour his memory by redoubling our solidarity with the opposition to the Putin regime and by campaigning in support of the Ukrainian resistance and for an immediate Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Navalny consistently denounced the Ukrainian invasion. He was right.


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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