Anti-corruption protests swept across nearly 100 Russian towns and cities last week, from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad in the West to Vladivostok in the Far East. They were the biggest demonstrations in Russia since the 2011-12 protests against alleged election fraud.
Police arrested hundreds of protesters and activists, among them Alexey Navalny, an opposition figure and anti-corruption campaigner. Navalny had sparked the protests by releasing a report claiming that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has built himself an empire of mansions, estates, yachts and palaces.
Navalny’s anti-corruption messaging is hitting home — and for good reason. Corruption, while certainly not as ubiquitous as it used to be, is still rife in Russia. A man I met in Vladivostok last year, while we were walking through the city, pointed at a half-built church and jokingly told me the reason they had chosen this particular location to construct it was so that city and regional officials could look out their windows and “ask God’s forgiveness for their corruption.”
The fact that Navalny is a vocal Kremlin critic and ardent opponent of Vladimir Putin has ensured that he has become somewhat of a media darling in the West. He is sometimes hailed as a hero in Western coverage. Time magazine once called him “Russia’s Erin Brockovich.”
What is reported less often about Navalny are his nationalist leanings, ties to neo-Nazi groups, xenophobic comments and extreme anti-immigrant views. References to Navalny’s nationalism in the West are usually buried or brushed off, while the headlines sing his praises. While we seem somewhat better able to appreciate the complexities of politics and political figures in our own nation, we tend to regard Russia in very simplified terms; there’s a “bad guy” in power and we must therefore support the valiant and oppressed “good guy.” Many people hear “Russian opposition leader” and immediately assume this is the person with whom their sympathies should lie.
I’ll spare you Winston Churchill’s “Russia is a riddle...” quote and just say that it’s never that simple. Russian politics is not a clear-cut case of dictator vs. democrat — and Navalny provides a good example of just why we should be careful to avoid oversimplifying events we don’t fully understand.
Many Navalny supporters are extremely anti-immigrant, particularly when it comes to newcomers from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Many see Putin as playing a part in the destruction of the traditional fabric of Russia. Navalny himself has played a role in skinhead marches in Moscow and earned the sympathies of extremists. In other words, if he were an American, liberals would hate Navalny far more than they hate Trump or Steve Bannon — and yet he is glorified and exalted as Russia’s last, best hope.
Navalny has been a co-organizer of the “Russian March” — an annual parade that uses slogans like “Russia for the Russians” and “Stop feeding the Caucasus”. He was expelled from one of the country’s liberal parties (Yabloko) for essentially damaging their brand. One of his former colleagues in that party has claimed that Navalny repeatedly used racial slurs.
In a bizarre video, Navalny appeared to compare people from the Caucasus to “cockroaches” that need to be exterminated. While cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says, for humans he “recommends a pistol.” Navalny supporters claim it’s all just a joke.
As with most things Russia-related, conspiracy theories also surround Navalny. Many of his supporters in Russia and the West believe the Kremlin has tried to smear him as a dangerous nationalist and to lock him up on trumped-up charges (he has been convicted of fraud and embezzlement). Others believe Navalny himself is a Kremlin plant, working for Putin as controlled opposition. The latter would seem laughable, but if you were to believe everything you read these days, there’s very few people left out there that aren’t somehow “working for Putin,”
We should not blindly lend our support to opposition figures like Navalny without actually understanding what it is we’re supporting. A Russia under Navalny would not be one many liberals would admire, despite their professed love for him now.
Ironically, one area where Navalny and Putin do converge is on the issue of Crimea. Navalny has said he would not return the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine. This is also conveniently left out of Western reporting on Navalny as an anti-Putin hero.
Russia’s current system under Putin is a corrupt and authoritarian one, to be sure — though it also displays at least some features of democracy. In an excellent piece for the Guardian on Putin’s presidency, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls the Russian leader “an autocrat with the consent of the governed.”
Our skewed interpretation of Putin as omnipotent ruler controlling every city, town and village with an iron fist is wrong. What’s more, this false interpretation has dangerously spilled into Western discourse about domestic politics in the U.S. and Europe. There appear to now be people out there who think they see Putin on their toast every morning.
It always surprises people to hear that there is a faction of Russian society and political life that actually believes Putin is too pro-Western. Such people feel he has placated the West too much and should do more to stand up for Russia. This flies in the face of everything one would assume through reading only Western headlines, but it’s one more piece of the complicated reality; another reminder that the alternatives to Putin would not necessarily look favorably on the West, and might even be more hostile to it.
Rarely can we gain a full understanding of another country by relying on our own distanced interpretations of events and figures. This is particularly the case if that country is regarded as an adversary, because we see little reason to challenge our preconceived ideas and established narratives.
The case of the two Navalnys — the one in the Western headlines and the more complex figure that Russians know — reminds us that there’s nearly always more to any story than meets the eye.