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No Unimportant Lives

No Unimportant Lives

Alexei Navalny and Elena Bonner were cut from different cloth. An update on Putin's new prisoners.

Jeffrey Gedmin

In David Herszenhorn’s recent book on Alexei Navalnythere’s an account of Navalny’s return to Russia in January 2021. His plane was diverted away from Vnukovo airport, where hundreds of supporters had gathered to greet the Putin critic. Navalny landed instead in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport—and was arrested before he could get through passport control. Two weeks later, he was back in a Moscow courtroom facing absurd new charges. For one thing, Navalny had failed to check in with his parole officer while in a coma in Berlin’s Charité hospital. “There are many ways to take a life,” writes Herszenhorn in The Dissident. “Poison had failed. Prison was now the fallback.” 

The Dissident is as much about Vladimir Putin’s relationship to power as it is about Navalny as opposition figure. As a young KGB man in Dresden in the 1980s, Putin watched with deep frustration as Moscow failed to shore up the East German regime against popular uprising. But it was the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000, according to Navalny—all 118 on board perished—that first prompted Putin to grasp fully the danger of public opinion. 

Ukraine’s mass protests in 2013 further focused the mind. Putin’s nightmare: comparable commotion in Red Square spreading across the country. Catalysts for such a nightmare had to be held in check. 

Last week, one such catalyst died in an Arctic Circle penal colony, the site of a forced labor gulag during Stalin’s time. Alexei Navalny was formidable. And complicated. In a 2015 New Yorker essay, Masha Gessen described Navalny as a committed Putin foe who at times had been inclined toward “extremely objectionable and potentially dangerous views.” 

In 2007, Navalny dressed up as a dentist and recorded a video in which he compared migrants in Russia to cavities. Aggressively treating the decay or pulling the tooth, he suggested, was the only way to prevent fascism in Russia. It’s a creepy performance. In 2008, Navalny supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia. In 2014, Navalny made ambivalent comments about the future of Crimea after Russian annexation. His positions evolved and softened. By the end, he apparently thought of himself as a moderate nationalist who could tame Russia’s malign nationalism.

We’ll never know how Navalny would have led Russia. We’ll find out now whether his death can be a catalyst. His widow has vowed to continue his work. Western media have lionized him with some heralding a new era. Russia’s neighbors, Ukrainians in particular, have been more restrained.

“My initial reaction to Alexei Navalny’s death was a word ‘beznadyoga’ in Russian—which means ‘hopelessness,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) senior Ukrainian correspondent Rostyslav Khotin told me. “Navalny was controversial but he gave that glimpse of hope.” Says Khotin: “The fact that we don’t see huge protests in Russia after Navalny’s death shows how sick, how fearful and passive much of Russian society has become under Putin.”

Navalny insisted on going back to Russia. Elena Bonner, a champion of liberal democracy and an anti-imperialist to her core, was cut from a different cloth. Dissidents in her day fought for the right to leave. American Purpose author and friend Vladimir Tismaneanu reminds me that we just passed the anniversary of Bonner’s birth. 

Elena Bonner was born in the Soviet Union on February 15, 1923, in Merv (today Mary), Turkmenistan. Hers was the first call I received during my initial stint as president of RFE/RL in Prague. That was 2007, when Bonner was already warning of the re-Stalinization of Russia under Putin.

Bonner’s life with physicist, dissident, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov was extraordinary. But then Bonner was exceptional. Sakharov was born into privilege. His father Dmitri Ivanovich was a physics professor and pianist. Bonner was the daughter of a Jewish communist activist from Siberia and an Armenian father who died a year after Bonner’s birth. Her stepfather founded and led Armenia’s Communist Party. He was arrested in 1937 and executed in one of Stalin’s purges. Bonner’s mother served ten years in the gulag, followed by nine years of internal exile.

For Bonner and Sakharov, their internal exile lasted six years. Mikhail Gorbachev released the couple in 1986. They had been confined to Gorky, the city on the Volga River that at the time was closed to foreigners. This was punishment for Sakharov’s criticism of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

Bonner was a pediatrician by training. She was fierce on principles and tender in temperament. Natan Sharansky reflected on Bonner after her death in Boston on June 18, 2011. The story of a letter Sakharov wrote to U.S. President Jimmy Carter about human rights in the Soviet Union told it all. Sakharov drafted the letter in Russian. Sharansky translated. But it was Bonner who made sure the names of prisoners were included. She knew sixteen of the most difficult cases by heart. 

“The philosophy was Andrei’s,” Sharansky said, “but the names came from her, the constant worry about these individuals; he was the spirit . . . she was the energy and the warmth.” “There are no little people or unimportant lives,” Bonner liked to say. 

We’ve asked Tismaneanu for his reflection on Navalny and the future of the Russian opposition. Watch for his article later this week. The distinguished scholar of communism has his own interesting family background. Tismaneanu’s parents fought in the Spanish Civil War. His father lost an arm at twenty-four-years old. In 1939 he traveled first to the Soviet Union, where he filed dispatches for Radio Moscow, and then home, where he became a leading propagandist for the Romanian Communist Party.

Watch Greg Feifer’s series—co-hosted by his Institute of Current World Affairs, American Purpose, and the U.S. Institute of Peace—with distinguished Russian exiles on the future of the Russian opposition. Keep an eye on the evolving roles of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Garry Kasparov. 

Watch for Natan Sharansky’s interview with Syd Lipset and me this week. Natan addresses Navalny’s death and Putin’s hostage-taking spree. A German citizen was taken last week. Another U.S.-Russian dual national was added to the list this week. 

Next month will mark one year in pre-trial detention for the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich. Ex-Marine Paul Whelan has been behind bars since 2018. RFE/RL’s culture reporter Alsu Kurmasheva has been trapped since last summer.  

Alsu is still awaiting the State Department designation as “wrongfully detained.” Both Bonner and Navalny understood the power in initiative, in setting an agenda—and of language, symbols, gestures, and solidarity.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Alexei Navalny participates in a march in the memory of politician Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in Russia. (Flickr: Michał Siergiejevicz)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropePolitical PhilosophyRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine