Supporters of jailed Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny had their knickers in a twist last week after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the editor of the liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov. The Navalnyites thought that the award should have gone to their own chosen Messiah and were full of indignation that Navalny had been passed up. The slight was more than just a slight – it was downright dangerous, they claimed, going to so far as to assert that it endangered the whole world with nuclear war. As Leonid Ragozin tweeted:
‘“The peace award has brought the war closer” – a popular sentiment in the Russian liberal camp, reflecting the fact that Navalny’s peaceful movement might have been the country’s last chance from sliding into civil conflict with grave implications for the rest of the world.’
“Navalny’s movement is exactly about preventing civil war in a nuclear superpower or wars it could launch abroad,” continued Ragozin, obviously not immune to a bit of hyperbole. Other Navalnyites were equally up in arms at their hero’s rejection. Muratov’s award was “Putin’s prize” said one. “What do you think? Has Putin corrupted the Nobel prize committee?” tweeted another. And so on.
What explains this passionate leader cult? Why do Navalny’s followers seem to hate other liberals almost as much as they hate the “Putin regime”? And why do those other liberals reciprocate, rejecting Navalny as almost as bad, if not worse, than Putin? Is Navalny really Russia’s salvation? Or is he a minor bit player in the grander scheme of Russian history?
It would be nice to have someone provide some deeply considered answers to questions such as these, and so I leapt at the opportunity to buy Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble’s new book Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? As the first biography of Navalny published in English, it’s what academics like to call “an important contribution to the literature.” After reading it, though, I was a bit unsatisfied. I didn’t hate it. It’s fine as far as it goes. But to be frank, I found it rather superficial. If you want a quick summary of Navalny’s activities over the past 20 years, you’ll find that you get it. But if you want a deeper, critical analysis of the man, his beliefs, and his personality, you’ll be left with a lot more questions than answers.
The book is centred on three aspects of Navalny’s activism: Navalny “the anti-corruption activist”; Navalny “the politician”; and Navalny “the protestor”. It then wraps up with an analysis of how the eponymous hero has allegedly affected the Kremlin’s behaviour and by asking some questions about what influence Navalny may have on Russia’s future.
The three authors clearly have a mass audience in mind. The book is written in a chatty, popular style, divided up into lots of little digestible sections. That’s makes the topic approachable, but it also means that no subject gets more than a very brief examination. Overall, there are some 190 pages of text, but the pages are fairly small and the type reasonably big, so this is a short book. On the plus side, that means that you can read it quickly. On the minus side, it means that it’s necessarily rather shallow. Given that there are three authors, the total amount of effort put in by each to produce the work can’t have been enormous. One gets the sense of something produced rapidly to get onto the market while the subject is still hot.
I have no objection to that. But it comes at a price. There’s not really a whole lot in it. There’s also no evidence of what one might call “primary research”. Flicking through the footnotes, it seems to be based almost entirely on secondary sources. There’s no interviews with Navalny, or his friends and family, or his close associates, such as Leonid Volkov. I found one footnote saying “Interview with an associate of Navalny from Yekaterinburg, 2017,” but that was it. So you’re not getting much by way of new insights. If you’ve haven’t been following Navalny – then no doubt there’ll be much of interest. But if you have, then it’s unlikely that you’ll discover anything particularly novel.
In short, the book suits the popular audience to which it is obviously targeted, but not so much academics and others wanting an in-depth analysis.
Being one of the latter, I therefore found it a bit frustrating, as an awful lot is glossed over without digging sufficiently into the substance. Take, for instance, Navalny’s brushes with the law in the Kirovles and Yves Rocher cases. One gets a sense that the authors consider the charges against Navalny to be unfounded, but they never say as much, merely imply it. In the process, they basically ignore the substance of the charges, the relevant law, and so on. Consequently one isn’t left with any possibility of adjudicating whether there is anything to them or whether Navalny is the victim of a gross injustice. In the instance of the Yves Rocher case – which is what has formally led to Navalny being imprisoned – we’re not even told what the case is about!
Or take also the issue of Navalny’s “nationalism.” The authors don’t try to hide the accusations made against Navalny that he is a xenophobe, a racist, and so on. But they don’t dig very deeply into them. So, we are told about Navalny’s infamous dentist and cockroach videos disparaging immigrants, and about his association with nationalist groups in the early 2000s, but we don’t get much by way of follow-up.
There’s a lot of room for discussion here. Navalny’s defenders say that the purpose of his association with Russian nationalists was to wean them from their more extremist position and move them in a more liberal direction. This is what the likes of Masha Gessen have claimed. Against this, opponents of Navalny have claimed that he is an out-and-out racist, anti-Semite, and homophobe. Katya Kazbek, for instance, published on Twitter a whole set of extremely offensive messages sent out by Navalny, some of which are too beyond the pale for me to repeat here. And then, there’s another group which maintains that Navalny is just an opportunist – that the nationalism was merely a device to get attention which was dropped once it became clear that it was counter-productive.
What’s the truth? That’s the kind of thing I’d like a book about Navalny to tell me. And that requires the gathering of the complete evidence, the consideration of all the alternatives, a weighing of the options and some sort of firm conclusion. But sadly, Dollbaum, Lallouet and Noble don’t give us that. Lack of time? Lack of space? A fear of what they might find? Whatever, it’s a bit shallow for me.
Only towards the very end of the book do the authors go back to the nationalism topic and make a very brief stab at a conclusion. They tell us:
“Navalny has made racist comments in the past. … in contrast to racist comments made in today’s Europe or the United States, in Russia, these remarks do not exclude Navalny from progressive politics … as many point out, the more important problem now is to join forces against the authoritarian regime.”
In short, “Sure, he’s a racist, but this is Russia and he opposes the state, which is what really matters, so no biggie.” It’s a slightly unsettling conclusion.
The lack of depth shows itself elsewhere. There were parts of the book when I wondered what it all had to do with Navalny, as the authors spin off into descriptions of Russian corruption, the protest movement, and so on, and leave the subject of the book behind. The most useful chapter for me was that on Navalny the politician, as this provided an opportunity to learn some more about what he actually believes. The authors chart his development from someone who sought to combine radical free market principles with nationalism to somebody occupying a more social-democratic, mixed market position while putting the nationalist rhetoric aside. But that raises some questions. For instance, the newer Navalny position isn’t so far from that of the main liberal party in Russia, Yabloko. So why the intense mutual hatred I mentioned at the start of this article? And, furthermore, does Navalny really believe his current line? Or is that something that he’ll also drop when it ceases to be convenient? At the end of it all, Navalny appears as something of a blank slate.
Beyond that, there is the interesting question of what the authors call Navalny’s “flexibility.” Is it flexibility or is it “opportunism”? The authors admit the possibility of the latter, but don’t dwell on it. Again, I think that this is something that a really good biography would dig into deeply. Is there actually anything “there” there? Does Navalny really represent any sort of positive belief system, or is he just a negative, anti-government phenomenon? To be fair to the authors, they do touch on these questions, but very briefly. I want more. There’s not enough here to provide proper answers.
The conclusion to the nationalism question I quoted above reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book. On the positive side, it’s not a hagiography, in the sense that it doesn’t try to pretend that there aren’t some issues with Navalny’s past and character that give rise to doubts about his suitability as a political leader. It also avoids simplistic characterizations of the Russian political system, admitting that Putin enjoys considerable popular support, that the state is far from being totalitarian, and that it is more than just a “kleptocracy” and does actually invest considerable funds in trying to improve the lives of ordinary Russians.
On the negative side, there’s a tendency to dismiss Navalny’s failings as not very important or to just gloss over them and move onto the next thing. This is combined with a tendency, in my mind, to exaggerate his importance. This is, of course, quite natural in a biography – why write something saying “This guy doesn’t matter”? At that point, people would put down the book. Still, I think that the authors in this instance go a bit too far.
For instance, we’re told that Navalny leads the largest opposition movement in Russia. Which is odd, because surely that’s the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – by far. We’re told that Navalny is the second most important politician in Russia. Really? That’s quite a stretch and nothing in the book substantiates it. And we get the statistics that make Navalny look best. For instance, the authors try to convince us that Navalny’s “smart voting” scheme was quite effective, in a limited way to be sure but “enough to worry the Kremlin.” But evidence pointing to the opposite isn’t considered. Again, there’s a lack of deep analysis.
The weakest part of the book to my mind is Chapter 5, which tries to argue that Navalny’s activities have had a significant impact on the Russian authorities. Part of the problem is that a lot of what the authors discuss has very little, if anything, to do with Navalny. On pages discussing protests in places such as Perm and Khabarovsk, for instance, I found myself scribbling in the margins, “What’s the connection with Navalny?” As for government policies, such as the enacting of legislation enabling organizations to be deemed as “foreign agents”, it’s not at all obvious that they had Navalny in mind or resulted from his activities. Rather, the international situation and a growing paranoia about foreign “interference” seem to me to be far more relevant.
In short, I remain unconvinced that Navalny is as important as this book would like me to believe. Perhaps he is, but I would need a longer, more thorough examination of his activities to convince me of it.
Now, I am perhaps being a bit unfair here. This book obviously isn’t designed to provide such an examination. It’s a popular book that skims the surface and does so competently enough. The problem is that as an academic I want more than that. All in all, I’d say that given that there is no other English-language bio out there, this is a welcome publication. It’s worth a read, especially as it won’t take you long. And perhaps it will provoke somebody else into writing a definitive study that digs truly deeply into the subject. Until then, this will have to do.