Putin in Reverse, or, Talking about Aleksei Navalny

What do Vladimir Putin and Aleksei Navalny have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit.

ALEKSANTERI iNSIGHT 2/2021. In a recent piece in The New York Times, Oleg Kashin, a Russian journalist, argued that Aleksei Navalny is the real leader of Russia. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist, may be in a penal colony, but he, not Vladimir Putin, deserves to be in the Kremlin. Kashin’s narrative is built around a binary between Putin and Navalny: the former is evil, the latter is good. Yet the narrative is also structured, unintentionally, around two similarities.

First, both Kashin’s Putin and his Navalny are unencumbered by institutions. In 2011, Putin, for example, “decided to become president of Russia again and his party, United Russia, gathered a wildly improbable majority.” Navalny’s relationship with modern political institutions is uncomfortable, too. In describing Navalny’s expulsion from Yabloko in 2007, Kashin writes: “It was obvious that such a man would feel cramped in a stuffy old party, and so it turned out.” Second, both tower above the people. Putin “rule[s]” and exercises “power.” Navalny, at mass protests in 2011, stood with other opposition leaders who “found themselves looking out at tens of thousands of citizens.” Later, he “would rise to be the undisputed leader.” Putin and Navalny, then, lay claim to a surprisingly similar mode of authority: the occupation of an apex of power, which offers untrammeled space for action. In Kashin’s article—and many like it—Putin may be evil and Navalny good, but both are power personified.

Putin may be evil and Navalny good, but both are power personified

This reading of Kashin’s and similar articles becomes less surprising if placed in the context of Russian history. The personification of power in the sovereign as well as the dissident has shaped Russian political culture since the late eighteenth century. Under the tsars, the role of the dissident fell to the Russian writer. As Harsha Ram, a professor of Slavic literature at Berkeley, has written, the Russian poet of the imperial era sought to “transcend the exaltation of the monarch, and to claim […] the holy power of the king.” This personification of power continued to shape political culture under the Soviets. Alexander Zholkovsky, a professor of literature at the University of Southern California, has shown how the poet Anna Akhmatova, together with her admirers, “narrated herself as […] locked in a direct and mortal combat with Stalin the supreme villain.” In doing so, Akhmatova and her acolytes replicated Stalin’s image; they cast the poet as a world-historical personality, “chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict.”

Navalny is an anti-corruption activist, but he also stands in the above tradition: he is a writer—of blog posts, essays, and speeches. Indeed, his supporters often highlight his writerly identity and, in the same breath, elevate him to rarefied heights. The journalist Anna Dement’eva has noted that Navalny’s “last speeches to the court [before his sentencing in February] need to be […] published as a work of literature.” The writer Maxim Osipov has compared Navalny to Alexander Pushkin: “we had made Pushkin our national symbol,” “why not” do the same for Navalny? Osipov also draws on the trope of divine right, casting Navalny as a “chosen man, a person endowed with a sense of destiny.” From these and other narratives, the Navalny that emerges is a “grandiose phenomenon,” and “the only person in Russia commensurate [in size] to Putin”—a kind of superman in his own right.  

At his article’s close, Kashin writes of Putin looking in the mirror and seeing not himself, but the true leader, Navalny. Given Kashin’s and other narratives, the image could be a different one. One might write of Navalny looking in the mirror and seeing, if not Putin, then power personified, and the weight of the Russian past.

Anatoly Pinsky is a Visiting Professor at the Aleksanteri Institute