Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

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.

31 thoughts on “Book Review: Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?”

  1. When Navalny “run” for president in 2016 I took time to actually read the “program” he published. That’s when my opinion of him changed from mere dislike to something significantly worse. That was no program, it was a guide to destroying Russia for fun and profit! And not citizens’ fun and profit, if it’s not obvious.

    I wonder if the book’s authors took any kind of detailed look at it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nope. That’s exactly the kind of detail that gets left out. There is a brief mention of his program as mayoral candidate for Moscow, which apparently involved privatisation of social services in some form, but not much detail.

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    2. The daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Sobchak, revealed that empty calories quality of Navalny, when the two interacted with each other awhile back.

      Shifting gears a bit, Gessen the mind reader:

      “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.”

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    3. changed from mere dislike to something significantly worse.

      One might get a little envious, as born too late to get his deserved piece of the larger, once collective cake in the raging 90s? 😉

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  2. “In short, I remain unconvinced that Navalny is as important as this book would like me to believe. ”

    Does it really matter, for the domestic consumption in the West? I have the impression now that Angela Davis wasn’t very important either.

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    1. Comparatively speaking, the Soviets seemed to have a more realistic view of Gus Hall’s and Angela Davis’ actual popularity in the US, when compared to how the BBC et al prop Navalny.

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      1. “the Soviets”

        Do you mean ordinary Soviet people in the 70s? I don’t think so. She was billed as an all-important superstar political prisoner. Similar story, methinks. And then it didn’t go anywhere, she faded away, more or less.

        But the campaign to free Angela Davis was YUGE, regardless of her own merits or value.

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      2. Referring to her CPUSA role with Gus Hall. Sympathizing with someone shouldn’t be confused with over-hyping their actual worth.

        Consider John Brennan (who said he voted for Hall back in the 1970s) with his “Imagine” tweet about Navalny being Russian prez, along with the BBC and other Western mass media coverage of Navalny.

        In comparison, the Soviets sympathized with more realism relative to Davis and Hall.

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      3. Again, are we talking about the elites or the masses? I don’t know how the Soviet elites perceived the ‘worth’ of Davis (and Hall, if you insist), but that’s not the point. There was a massive campaign of glamorization, glorification. I don’t remember the details, but there were probably fantasies, in the media, of them shaking the foundation of the system.

        It’s a similar story with Navalny. We don’t know what Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, and Ben Noble think about Navalny. We don’t know what BBC editors think about Navalny. We don’t know what Western Politburo members and their analysts think about Navalny. It doesn’t matter what Navalny is, other than that he is the face of this campaign.

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      4. …and he looks okay, Navalny does. Good face; I mean literally: facial features. Not as great as Angela, though, with her afro hairdo. That was something, I tell ya!

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      5. Navalny is a somewhat close parallel to Davis. I remember that period and don’t recall the Soviets (people and government) having expressed such high hopes for Davis, along the lines of what the Western establishment says of Navalny.

        Among the Russia is a passing interest crowd in the West, a good number believe Navalny’s over-hyped worth. The Soviet population was known for reading between the lines in a way much unlike the Western audience at large.

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      1. “…and he looks okay, Navalny does. Good face; I mean literally: facial features. Not as great as Angela, though, with her afro hairdo. That was something, I tell ya!”

        …You know, there is a reason why here in Russia Navalny’s detractors call him “sisyan”. Juvenile and uncouth, but – c’mon, just look at him!

        P.S. Whether they are bigger than Davis’ – I honestly don’t know.

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  3. The USA declared Russian media foreign agents first; Russia’s policy is a response to that. Who is paranoid ?

    As for Navalny, and the deliberate ignoring of his racism and corrupt behaviour, reminds me of what happened in Ukraine

    There you have an alliance of neo-nazi, liberals, Russophobes and corrupt oligarchs; all this is ignored as long as they pursue a pro-western policy

    Navalny is the focus of the west who are looking for a figure for all the different political forces to unite around for the purpose of getting rid of the Putin government.

    The west love to make politics about personalities- they don’t like to discuss the policies of their chosen candidates.

    There seems to be a strong desire to “make Navalny happen” This book is part of the white washing of his past for a western audience – For 2024 perhaps

    Liked by 1 person

    1. a Govt of Nazis having their strings pulled by Jewish oligarchs – Kolymoskii et al – (whose near relatives where doubtlessly persecuted and/or executed in WWII, not by the German Nazis but the Ukrainian Nationalists who enjoyed doing the job for them) It could only happen in Ukraine. Hopelessness incarnate.

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    2. “There you have an alliance of neo-nazi, liberals, Russophobes and corrupt oligarchs; all this is ignored as long as they pursue a pro-western policy”

      Mostly correct, only there ain’t no “liberals” (in the traditional Western meaning of the word) there. Only “sorosyata” grant-suckers and cargo-cultists who WANT to become said grant-suckers, therefore making all the right noices.

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  4. Write all the books you want, even read the ones you don’t write but the FACT of the matter is Navalny has no support in Russia, never did have, ok a little in Moscow but he was never going to get elected to anything, for the the obvious thing to me was that he has always been the Wests’ stalking horse for Khordokovsky The rabble rouser was to instigate the ‘revolution’ and Khordokovsky the Wests real hope would be swept to power in the aftermath. The problem with all these books is that they are written by westerners with an agenda who have little or no real understanding of Russia, it’s mentality, it’s psychology, it is why the west gets Russia so, so wrong in almost every aspect today and why they live in a bubble of cognitive dissonance which they can’t bear to burst, reality being the real enemy of western liberalism. Meanwhile Russia has to save Europe (and the UK) from its own incompetence and foot in mouth disease to prevent them freezing to death this winter and they WILL help but will they be thanked for it? Not a chance. For me Russia has to learn it is ok to let your ‘enemies’ (for this is what they have made themselves, enemies of Russia, not the other way around) flounder, otherwise how will they ever learn? Western Ukraine is a western problem so let them all freeze and see how they like to reap the rewards for their dangerous duplicity and stupidity, believe me, the west would extend no favours to Russia now or in the future.

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  5. ““What do you think? Has Putin corrupted the Nobel prize committee?” tweeted another.”

    Here it is, an original by a longtime Navalnite Maxim Mironov:

    As you can see, 58,8% voted – “Yes”

    “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”

    Right on cue, there appeared a hit piece a journalist investigation, which found out that:

    1. Muratov owns (via his daughter, of course) an apartment in poshy-posh Manhattan building that costs some $875 000. Source is easily searchable and readily availible in the NYC municipal database (State of New York state board of real property services), but here you are anyway.

    2. Muratov’s current mistress (“civilian wife”, cuz he kinda sorta didn’t divorce his previous one not wanting to go through the division of property) SUDDENLY became a sole owner of the elite apartment in Moscow (252 sq. m) costing c. 140 mln rubles. His mistress also owns two parking lots costing in total 5 mln rubles.

    3. But that’s not her sole property. Earlier, she became a part-owner (2/3) of another Moscow posh apartment (115 sq. m) valued at 80 mln rubles. The owner of the remaining 1/3? Why, some Dmitriy Muratov Jr. – Novaya Gazeta editor’s son from the previous marriage!

    4. And now – the cherry on the top. Muratov’s daughter from the first marriage works for… Sberbank in the PR. Yup – the bank of the “Regime”. Vigilant Navalnites already found out, that his NG had been suspiciously silent in the criticism of the Sberbank over the years of its existence.

    As for Muratov himself – he’s a 30+ year long undisputed czar of his newspaper who brooks no dissent, and, let’s be honest here, who HIGHLY LIKELY (TM) sighted with a relief when Politkovskaya had been murdered, because of her own authoritarian tendencies and been way to friendly with the Chechen terrorists and Nats-Bols.

    In the days following his award Muratov did everything to maintain his “democratic journalist in the totalitarian Mordor” bona fides. Namely – in the interview to Ksenia Sobchak he called “Russian” rapper Morgenstern (known for his… vaguely… anti-government activity) “a piece of shit”. Earlier, he told Navalnites that “As a champion of human freedoms, I, certainly, support your inalieble have a democratic right to puke”.

    The moral of this story – the Westies know nothing about other countries internal politics and the people that made up local “scene”. No, they crave simplistic narrative. In the end they, predictably, get “Afghan freedom-fighters” setting up peadofile kleptocracy that the locals found more repugnant than the Taliban. Or, you know, just look at the Ukraine. But, here – this is a peak behind the curtain.

    It also tells us (in connection with the book discussed in the blogpost) that so-called Russian so-called Opposition is in the gripes of what is called in Russian “вождизм”, aka forming itself in cliques, cults and parties centered about this or that Guru, Chieftain and/or Duce. They tend to spend most of their time fighting each other for the miniscule strata of the “thinking people in This Country”. A den vipers all their lot.

    *They* will bring “democracy” in Russia given power, we are told by the Western propacondoms and brainwashed by them “thinking” masses. Yeaaaaaah, suuuuure.

    P.S. Books whose title contains a question mark are shyte a priori.

    Like

    1. “Books whose title contains a question mark are shyte a priori”

      The answer to the question is almost invaiably ‘no’, but that doesn’t advance the underlying PR.

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  6. hello Mr. Robinson

    One of the masterminds of the 2014 American coup d’état in Ukraine maybe in Moscow today
    October 12, 2021

    Victoria Nuland, the craven politician that puts her own career above the lives of others, who helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Ukraine, is back in the news.
    As a non-Russian, I cannot protest. I must be very careful with what I say beyond this.
    —-
    Ukraine was a coup d’état orchestrated by the American government and Victoria Nuland,
    In a recorded call posted on YouTube the Washington Post reported:

    [Nuland] was dismissively referring to slow-moving European efforts to address political paralysis and a looming fiscal crisis in Ukraine. But it was the blunt nature of her remarks, rather than U.S. diplomatic calculations, that seemed exceptional. Nuland also assessed the political skills of Ukrainian opposition figures with unusual candor and, along with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, debated strategy for their cause, laying bare a deep degree of U.S. involvement in affairs that Washington officially says are Ukraine’s to resolve.

    As a vocal American living in Moscow at the beginning of Cold War 2, I am constantly being baited, being tested.

    Russia and the USA are on the same side, on many issues, to a point. In wars such as WW2 and Vietnam the documents are declassified decades later and it is amazing the horse trading that goes on.
    An incredible book from the 1990s gives a person an understanding of how international affairs really works.
    The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000
    “war war never changes”
    —-

    U.S., Russia lift targeted sanctions to allow Nuland visit
    MOSCOW, Oct 10 2021
    https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-russia-lift-targeted-sanctions-allow-nuland-visit-moscow-2021-10-10/

    The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Nuland

    “war war never changes”
    War Never Changes Fallout 4 Intro

    #politics #whydontrussianssmilecom #moscowBeckons
    #chooseyourbigbrotherwisely

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Why does no one mention that Navalny was given a fellowship by an NED-funded NGO in 2010 to study political activism at Yale. Is it not relevant?

    If some Michael Moore-type was given Russian government funding to go to Russia for training and then came back here to run for office he would get a very chilly reception indeed

    Like

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