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Vladimir Putin’s intended strategy to dispose of his most outspoken foe seems evident: slow-motion assassination. Russia’s hero for our time, Alexei Navalny, sits in Penal Colony No. 2 awaiting his fate, which is probably death by disease. Conditions are so bad in the prison, which is currently beset by a tuberculosis outbreak, that Putin can simply let the institution do his dirty work for him. Navalny is being tortured in his cell — guards wake him up eight times a night to deny him rest — and as he complains of a cough (though a high fever he cited earlier this week has subsided) he seems not to be getting platinum-club medical care. He has two herniated disks and is starting to lose feeling in his hands, according to his lawyers, citing an MRI scan. He has lost 30 pounds in the past three weeks.
Navalny, 44, is the world’s greatest journalist (his exposé of what is thought to be Putin’s billion-dollar Black Sea palace, which is so ornate it would make a Romanov blush, was the scoop of the century). He is also our leading dissident (he tirelessly campaigns against the authoritarianism and corruption of the Putin regime) and a fantastically gifted entertainer. Picture a Borat who, instead of ridiculing easy targets at no risk of anything except possibly of spraining a wrist picking up all of the awards sent his way, actually rides out into the wilds to oppose one of the world’s most evil men, under constant threat of assassination. That’s the best way to understand how Navalny, going undercover posing as an agent of state security, managed to get on tape a phone interview with one of his own (failed) assassins. Navalny even got the would-be murderer to explain how he did it: by putting the lethal nerve agent Novichok in Navalny’s underwear when he was campaigning against Putinism in Siberia. Navalny then got on a flight (to Moscow) that was so long that the killers assumed Navalny would be dead by the time the plane landed, but instead the pilot made an emergency landing and called an ambulance. First aid extended Navalny’s life. His wife arranged for him to get first-world attention in a German hospital, but even so he spent five weeks in a coma.
Lesson learned? No. As soon as Navalny woke up, he announced he would return to Russia and fight Putinism some more. Putin joked that he couldn’t possibly have ordered the hit because if he had, his spies would have finished the job (he laughed while he said this), and his regime announced that Navalny would be jailed if he came back. When Navalny did indeed return, this past January, the lawyer-turned-shareholder-activist-turned-unofficial-leader-of-the-opposition was immediately arrested at the airport. At his urging, Russians gathered in the street from coast to coast to protest the kleptocracy. Yet in his initial weeks in prison, Navalny continued to post jaunty updates on social media. He called his lodgings “our friendly concentration camp.” In recent days, his posts have taken a turn for the grim and he began a hunger strike last week.
Courage of this sort simply isn’t seen in Russia. It isn’t seen anywhere. It is incomprehensible, perhaps more today than before. As our world gets safer and safer, genuine physical courage grows rarer and rarer. It has become common, in the United States at least, for prominent persons to claim the status of political martyrdom when suffering nothing other than rude criticism. To all who claim to be soldiers for truth, defenders of democracy, and devotees of human rights, the existence of Navalny and his woes ought to at least be instructive — and humbling. He is determined to oppose Putinism with everything he’s got. If it costs him his life, as it probably will, so be it. “I’m not going to be able to persuade everyone but I will persuade some people simply because I stand on the facts and the truth,” he told The New Yorker.
Assuming Navalny’s life is about to be snuffed out by Putinism, it’s hard not also to feel a twinge of resentment and guilt about how little we in the West have done to draw attention to what is happening. Alexei Navalny ought to be the most famous person on the planet. There ought to be schools named after him from Seattle to Warsaw. The news shows ought to kick off every night with somber updates on his condition. World leaders ought to begin every press conference furiously demanding his release from prison. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Barbra Streisand ought to be hitting the talk-show circuit to plead his case. College students should be wearing T-shirts with his face on them. Taylor Swift should be toplining benefit concerts for his party, which is banned from participating in parliamentary elections. The Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys should be chock-a-block with tributes to him.
And yet what happens as Navalny’s life gets crushed out of him? His plight barely registers in the West. We’re all so obsessed with our own nano-disputes that this gigantic historical figure somehow remains an unknown. Most of what little reporting comes to us in America about him is from Russia boffins, niche writers. He is such an obscure figure that the New York Times could run this headline less than three months ago: “Who is Aleksei Navalny?” Who indeed. A tennis player, maybe?
Putin has been slightly knocked off guard by all of this; who could have expected the troublemaker actually to return to Russia, and how unruly might the protesters become should Navalny become a martyr? Unbudgeable Russian leaders — Putin just signed a law generously extended his own potential term as ruler until 2036, at which point his reign would be longer than Stalin’s by more than a decade — have been toppled in Russia before, and though Putin controls television and much else in the media, the Internet has proved to be powerful counterprogramming. Navalny’s YouTube videos have earned more than 100 million views, and he has millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter as well.
Navalny already speaks of the assassination attempt as the time “when I died,” and he lives as though he cannot be destroyed. Should he somehow survive to walk out of that prison cell, he will become a mythic character on a plane with Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. But Putin is aware of this possibility and disinclined to let it happen. It would be very much in character for him to cause Navalny’s death without making it too obvious. Meanwhile we in the West fret about whether it’s voter suppression to forbid interest groups to hand out water bottles at polling places.