In August 2020, Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition leader, was
nearly killed by an artificial neurotoxin in an apparent Kremlin assassination attempt.
Navalny returned to Russia in January after recuperating in Germany and was
sentenced to 32 months in a prison labor colony. Thousands of Russians have been
arrested in protests following his imprisonment.
In an interview with reporter Devan Tatlow, journalist, author, and dissident
Masha Gessen discussed Navalny’s decision to return to Russia. Gessen, who left
Russia in 2013, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a distinguished writer in
residence at Bard College. Gessen is the winner of the 2017 National Book Award, the
Overseas Press Club Award for Best Commentary, and The Hitchens Prize. Gessen is
also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, and an Andrew
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Why do you think that Navalny returned to Russia? Do you think he was brave or
shortsighted, as he has now been detained and can't spread information as well?
He knew exactly what was going to happen — he wasn't shortsighted. There are three ways in which Navalny has undermined Putin. These three ways of controlling the population — through dominating the information sphere, through terror, and through creating sham elections — have all been subverted by Navalny.
One is through the media. I've written a lot about autocracy and [I] use the analysis of Hungarian sociologist, Bálint Magyar, to talk about what autocracy is. One of the things that Magyar talks about is control in the information sphere, which is a little different from control over all the media. Putin has done some of that — he has taken personal control over federal television, he has shut down opposition media, but social networks are available in Russia [and] some online media is still functioning. What he has had for the last 20 years is total domination — you don't see an alternative narrative in the media. You might see alternative voices, but you have no doubt that a majority of Russians get their news from state-controlled television. Navalny has changed that. His video about Putin's palace has more than 110 million views, a majority of them inside Russia. So almost every adult in Russia has watched it.
Another [element of Putin’s tactics] is through how he deals with his opponents. He either kills them or forces them into exile. Navalny first survives an assassination attempt, then manages to investigate his own assassination attempt, then refuses to be intimidated into exile. All of Putin's other formidable, or not so formidable, opponents are living in exile if they are still alive. Every single one. Including the leadership of Navalny's organization. The people who are actually running things are living in exile.
The third element is elections. The system that Putin has built, which is pretty common in contemporary autocracies, is a system of sham elections. The Kremlin creates some puppet parties. Some people don't vote at all because they don't want to legitimize the spectacle of voting while some people vote for parties that are not Putin's to express their opposition. Some go left, some go right, and that divides the opposition to Putin into people who sit out the election and people who vote for one of the so-called alternatives. This means that Putin and his ruling party always come out with more than
50% of the vote.
What Navalny has done is create this system called Smart Vote, where he uses the trust that he has built. He says to people, "Look, what we want to do is vote against Putin, so cancel sitting out the elections and cancel voting in accordance with your preferences. Let' s all unite around one candidate, even if you don't like him — it is almost always a he — just so that we can vote against Putin."
That's a huge ask of people because it is hard for someone like me to vote for a communist — I remember the Soviet Union too well — but it seems to be working. In the regions where they have tried this, they have actually convinced people to vote for the one opposition unity candidate. And this is huge. It calls Putin's bluff in the most dangerous way. It may actually be possible for Navalny to exert some political power — not a huge amount, I don't want to create illusions here — but to exert some political power by using this almost completely destroyed voting system.
What effect was Navalny hoping to produce with his return to Russia?
I think he is trying to model not acting out of fear. He acknowledges that there are things for him to fear. He knew he was going to get arrested. What he said is, "I am not afraid." By this he meant, "I am not acting out of fear." His call to people for the last couple of weeks has been, "I am not afraid, please don't be afraid." In other words, please don't act out of fear, please come out into the streets and act in accordance with your convictions because if enough of us do it, they're not going to be able to put us down. They can't lock everybody up.
Given that Putin has near-complete control in Russia, why is he threatened by Navalny?
You're making a couple of assumptions here, mainly that Navalny threatens him. Maybe a better way of asking this question is: why is Putin reacting strongly? We don't know for a fact that he feels that his power is threatened. I think that his idea of a well-functioning state is one in which there are no protests. Protests for him are disorder, they're chaos, they're a thing that signifies that his power is weak. What effect, if any, do you think these protests can have on Russia and Putin? I don't think that these protests or any protests can have a direct effect on the regime. The regime at this point is like a black box. It is completely welded up and whatever is going to bring it down — and eventually, something will, because nothing lasts forever — is going to come from the inside.
Whether Putin dies or he makes a huge mistake and destroys the whole edifice, I don't know. It's not going to be the protests. The regime is impervious to pressure from without. But it is eventually going to end, and what happens after is in large part dependent on these protests. I think Navalny knows and we know that these protests are basically an investment in Russia's future. If Navalny can create a sense of unity that is dependent on principles and a desire for a better society and country, that is something that we can build on after Putin.
Once the Putin regime falls, what effect can what Navalny is doing have on the reconstruction of Russia?
What he is trying to do is establish the idea that you can hold government to account, you can demand transparency, you can have a social consensus that corruption is bad, and that has to be the basis of any future society.
Do you think Navalny will have any effect from prison, or was his effect from going back and showing that he is not afraid?
That's a hard question to answer. He has never spent a long time in prison before. This time, the regime is planning to have him behind bars and is probably planning to kill him in prison. He has a very effective organization. It is a very good system of communications and organizing. What we don't know is how dependent it is on his charisma. Will the people who work for him continue to organize for the upcoming Duma elections? Will they keep putting out YouTube videos? Will they continue to organize protests? Will they continue to have the same political reach without Navalny's particular political talents?
They have an incredibly inventive and well-conceived organization, but what they lose with him in prison is his personal presence. He is an incredibly effective communicator. His example of bravery after the assassination attempt has been incredibly inspirational. Will that continue to have an effect if he himself is silenced? I don't know the answer to that question. I hope that he has built a machine that is strong enough to continue functioning.
Why should people outside of Russia be concerned about what is happening to Navalny?
I could give you strategic answers which would probably be right, but I don't like those kinds of answers, I don't like that kind of thinking. I think that we should care about what happens to people because we're human. Solidarity is the basis of humanity. I think we should care about what happens in Myanmar and what happens in Palestine and what happens in Russia because we're human.