What are we to make of Alexei Navalny? What are we to think of someone who makes himself a willing martyr to an impossible cause? How do we get our brains around this strange amalgam of Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, and Joan of Arc?
First, he gets poisoned with a deadly nerve agent, ordered by Putin, the world’s most dangerous man. He wakes up from a coma in Germany. He recovers in a mere six months, though it’s unclear to what extent he’s still affected.
Then, as long as he’s in Germany, he might as well go rummaging through Putin’s carefully crafted past. He makes a video exploding the myth of Putin the super-spy — the one where Putin intrepidly defends Russia from his Cold War post in East Germany.
Navalny replaces that myth with the reality of Putin’s real job at that time — a petty bureaucrat in the minor leagues of the KGB.
But that’s just the beginning. The same video goes on to expose — with stunning drone footage — what is surely the most corrupt piece of real estate on the planet. Navalny calls it Putin's Palace.
Built on a land area thirty-nine times the size of Monaco — at a price tag of well over a billion dollars — the palace itself is 190,000 square feet. It was built so shoddily it had to be torn down and built again, from scratch.
The property features castles, vineyards, wineries, greenhouses, an underground hockey rink, a harbor, several heliports, and a vast network of tunnels:
It’s not a residence, it’s a whole city. It’s a kingdom. It has impregnable fences, its own guard, a church, security controls, a no-fly zone and even its own border checkpoint. It is a state within a state. And in this state is only a single and irreplaceable Tsar: Putin.
This is a video guaranteed to send Putin into a murderous rage. Yet Navalny chooses to deliver it to the Russian people in person.
So he flies home to Russia, knowing with utter certainty that he’ll be arrested the minute he steps off the plane. If he’s lucky. Putin could easily have him shot instead.
The video now has over a hundred million views. Massive protests have gone on for weeks, in sub-zero temperatures, in forty cities across eleven time zones. And Navalny, sure enough, has gone directly to jail. He may never get out.
What are we to make of that kind of courage? Or foolishness? Or whatever it is? What makes a guy give the finger to a regime that can squash him like a bug? What makes him give that finger, not just once, but repeatedly over more than a decade.
We’re used to admiring, if begrudgingly, so-called tough guys. But this is another kind of tough altogether.
It’s not tough in the physical sense. Or in some macho, don’t-mess-with-me sense. This is tough in the moral, courage-of-one’s-convictions sense.
It’s a particularly Russian kind of tough. The tough of a people facing down an oppressive system with exactly zero chance of having any effect. Born of suffering, it’s a tough that pre-dates and post-dates Stalin — but Stalin took it to another level.
We have, in this country, many Russian emigrés among us. Some of them are older people who grew up in the early Soviet Union, who saw the cult of Stalin consume everything around it in a totalitarian madness whose effects are still felt today.
They saw the Collectivization of the 1930s, in which entire populations were forced to surrender their land, livestock, and livelihoods. Brutally herded into shabby collective farms, they saw family and friends forced to choose between starvation and a bullet in the head. Five million died.
They saw the Second World War, in which incompetent generals led millions into the meat grinder of German weapons technology, with their bodies piled up like cordwood, ten feet high. Twenty-five million died.
They saw the Great Terror, in which political orthodoxy was carried to extremes, with non-approved opinions punishable by imprisonment or death, courtesy of a massive Communist party fully empowered to arrest anyone for any reason — or for no reason at all.
They saw these arrests applied especially to students and intellectuals, ordinary citizens of no particular political persuasion. Awakened in the dead of night, these innocents were sent off to populate the vast prison system — the notorious gulags — that provided the slave labor that built much of the country’s industrial base. Millions died — how many, we don't know.
The atrocities were endless, and no one was unaffected. It’s impossible to overstate the hardship and death inflicted on the Russian people in that time — or our own inability to grasp its horror. It has been estimated that from the First World War to the death of Stalin in 1953, one hundred million Russians died from war, famine, genocide, or enslavement. Next to Stalin, Hitler was a sweetheart.
There is simply nothing in the American experience that compares. We’ve never really had to stand up to tyranny. Trump is the closest we’ve come to it, and as tyrants go, he was pathetic.
Yes, we’ve had our periods of unrest. Yes, we’ve exercised our rights of free speech and free assembly. And yes, we’ve been glad to have those rights. On nice days, we’ve even turned out to march.
But we’ve never felt the need to turn out in sub-zero cold, day after day, with police happy to bash our skulls, and with no attainable goal in sight. That’s what Russians are doing, right now. They’re standing up for Navalny, a guy whose sanity any American would question. And they’re not likely to win.
Russia still doesn’t turn out even one world-class consumer product. But it does turn out world-class criminals. Russia today is an almost total kleptocracy, the most sophisticated criminal enterprise in the world. And fifty percent of the take gets kicked up to Putin, who enjoys the kind of absolute power unseen since Stalin.
That’s what Navalny is up against, and it’s hard to see it ending well. Putin will be as ruthless as he needs to be, and everyone knows it.
Russians are indeed tough, but it’s the kind of tough that comes with hopelessness. An outraged populace can take to the streets, but for how long? Sooner or later, people will need to get back to their lives, as bleak as those lives might be. Putin can wait them out.
Meanwhile, we can look at our own current situation — as blighted as the last four years have been — and put it in perspective.
As crazy as it was, you might say we got off easy.