The Russian state’s two farcical show trials against opposition leader Alexei Navalny concluded with his sentencing in early February. The anti-corruption activist was accused of insulting a World War II veteran and prosecuted for having violated the terms of his probation in a previous trial, which the European Court of Human Rights had quickly ruled to be politically motivated. He was remanded to several years in the brutal Russian penal colony IK-2. From the standpoint of the Kremlin, Navalny’s unforgivably haughty act of resistance—a fantastically choreographed homecoming to Moscow after recovering from a nerve-agent-induced coma—determined his subsequent punishment.
Navalny’s filmed return to Moscow from Berlin in January was a gauntlet thrown in the faces of the men sitting in the Kremlin, who are deeply afraid of looking weak. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has mostly succeeded in banishing any serious electoral competition from the Russian political arena. The security agencies’ targeted repression, perfected by the KGB during the Andropov era, has dissuaded almost every serious political opponent from open confrontation; those who weren’t persuaded have been jailed, exiled abroad, or, like Boris Nemtsov, assassinated. A neutered opposition had been permitted to bumble along under what Vladimir Putin sells as a “postmodern,” “mixed,” or “hybrid” version of authoritarianism, as long as its political actions remained mostly subdued. But the return of Navalny had directly challenged this arrangement, and in the process supercharged a previously moribund protest movement. In doing so, Navalny temporarily united disparate people and communities from all across Russian society, providing an outlet for a range of pent-up grievances with the state of their country.
When it comes to popular protests, over the past decade the regime has allowed for all sorts of compromises, but always within a highly coordinated system of repressive checks and balances and deliberate confusion about what is and isn’t permitted. But Navalny’s refusal to stay out of politics after being poisoned in a targeted assassination attempt simply could not be tolerated. Furthermore, after the Kremlin denied any role in the poisoning, Navalny personally called and interrogated one of the intelligence agents involved in carrying out the attempt on his life. (Pretending to be a senior Kremlin official, Navalny duped his own would-be assassin into recounting the whole plot to put a chemical weapon in his underpants, all over an unencrypted telephone line and while recording it.)
Since his incarceration in IK-2, Navalny’s Instagram account has detailed a numbness in his legs and the pain he’s experienced in his lower back . Other than a pair of aspirins, he was denied any medical care. So on the evening of March 31, he commenced a hunger strike, refusing to eat until the penal colony agreed to grant him proper medical care. Finally, toward the end of April, the Kremlin relented after a flood of international pressure (though not in any credible form from Amnesty International, which had revoked Navalny’s status as a “prisoner of conscience”) and allowed him to be evaluated by his own doctors on two occasions. The doctors issued a public appeal to “preserve his life and health,” and international media reported that he was on the verge of dying.
Having scored such limited tactical points against the system, Navalny broke his fast on April 23. Then last Thursday, he reappeared. In a video feed from his prison during an appeals hearing in the case of insulting the World War II veteran, Navalny’s face looked quite emaciated (he is reported to have lost 50 pounds during the hunger strike). He delivered a typically blistering speech in the register of heroic resistance. Without mentioning Putin’s name, he denounced the court as a farce and declared “that I want to state, my dear court, that your king is naked, and that more than one little boy has noticed that fact.” He told the judge who tried to cut him off to stop interrupting him, which she did. It was a characteristic performance that may very well be the last for some time. Navalny has, for all intents and purposes, been removed from the core of Russian politics, at least for the medium term. A movement that depended on his personal charisma and force of will has lost its organizational center of gravity.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (known in Russia as the FBK), which has continually published remarkable investigations into the systematic corruption of various Kremlin officials, has now been officially labeled in Russia as an extremist organization. This ruling will place the organization on the same list as al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkistan Islamic Party, neo-Nazis, and various confederations of Chechen Islamist separatists. The resulting ban has forced the FBK to dissolve its 40-plus regional offices and to cease engaging in any further investigative reporting, publishing, meetings, or political activity. All members and activists involved with the organization—in fact, any Russian who has contributed so much as a ruble to its work—is now under threat of legal punishment, including the possibility of lengthy prison sentences. The Russian state is also now in the midst of a concerted campaign to crack down on the leaders of Navalny’s movement. His aides, loyalists, and allies have been hassled, searched, detained, arrested, and threatened. Many of them have fled abroad to Riga, Vilnius, and London. Even before the arrival of the final ruling, the case has totally eviscerated Russia’s only organized opposition to the Kremlin and has essentially sent it back to square zero.
Aside from nearly 2,000 reported arrests, the authorities notably declined to crack down on the large pro-Navalny marches that were held in dozens of Russian cities on April 21. The policing was nowhere near as brutal as on other recent occasions. We soon learned why.
Observing the months of failed protests in next door Belarus, the Russian opposition had foolishly tried to outwit the authorities by mobilizing mass protests across Russia via an online signup and registration system. Many have speculated that the online system has handed the authorities a streamlined database with the names and contact information of every Russian citizen who participated. As in Soviet times, their social activity was soon brought to the attention of their employers. As BBC Russia reported, representatives of state security services visited the houses of activists after they had been identified by facial recognition technology in outdoor police cameras.
At the same time, the authorities have targeted the few independent and unbowed Russian-language media outlets that remain. Meduza, a highly respected investigative news website, was labeled a “foreign agent” last week under a 2012 law that puts pressure on independent media and political groups. The labeling requirement will place large text above every Russian-language Meduza article and tweet, saying the source is a foreign agent. Meduza has announced its intention to contest the label, but it may very well be destroyed, if and when the new designation fulfills its purpose of choking off the website’s advertising revenues and making it functionally impossible for it to report inside of Russia.
As the Kremlin grows ever more isolated and paranoid, it finds itself surrounded by simmering conflicts. The Navalny saga has been accompanied by recent revelations that the same Russian intelligence agents who tried to murder Sergei Skirpal in the United Kingdom in 2018 also possibly took part in a 2014 operation to blow up ammunition depots in the Czech Republic, which led to a series of tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian and European diplomats. Despite having developed the “world’s first” COVID-19 vaccine, Russia maintains a very low rate of vaccination outside of its core cities. And Russians are casting a weary eye toward parliamentary elections this fall. The Kremlin may cling to its self-image as a “postmodern” authoritarian regime, but between extraterritorial killings, identifying political opponents as “extremists,” banning rivals from public life, and bankrupting opponents, there’s nothing particularly innovative or unique about this system.
A member of the Russian political opposition whom I drank with last week in Kyiv glumly informed me that “the Russian opposition, as it currently stands, arrayed around Navalny, is on the verge of ruin. The Buddhist cycle of government repression and rebirth begins anew.” But with perhaps the largest crackdown in 30 years, the Russian government is now set on a course of repression from which it is not likely to turn back.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.