When Life Is A Trashy Thriller: Dissent Tips From Alexey NavalnyBloombergQuintOpinion
How does one man inspire thousands to come out on the streets in -50 C temperatures and defiantly cry ‘freedom’ in the face of armed riot police? Russians marched on Jan. 23, in support of Vladimir Putin’s best-known dissenter Alexey Navalny, six days after he was arrested by the state on trumped-up charges yet again; around 3,100 people from 109 cities were detained that day. “There’s always hope that something will change,” one schoolteacher told The New York Times. Navalny’s supporters say this is just the beginning.
So what is it about the 44-year-old blogger-activist-lawyer-politician that inspires so many people, fed up with their corrupt, dictatorial government, to hope—and act? I did some reading on your behalf. As angry farmers storm the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort in protest, students languish in jail for speaking up against the unjust Citizenship Amendment Act, and azadi is a word in the “anti-national” lexicon, these lessons seem only too relevant.
Allow Your Life To Be A “Trashy Thriller”
That’s how Navalny described the attempt to poison him—using highly toxic nerve agent Novichok—in an interview with The New Yorker. He collapsed on a plane over Siberia which made an emergency landing. He was evacuated to Germany where he was kept in a medically-induced coma for 18 days before eventually recovering.
“I find myself living inside of a James Bond movie. If you told me that they planned to kill me using Novichok and administer it in such a way that I would die on an airplane, I would say that’s a crazy plan, because there are so many ways for it to fail,” he told the magazine. “It’s like if someone asked me if I believe that I’m at risk for being beheaded with a lightsabre. I’d say no, even if I saw that someone I know is missing an arm and it looks to have been lasered off.”
Aside: He’s clearly a Western pop culture reference junkie. In the same interview, the Rick & Morty fan also said he had felt like he was being touched by a Dementor from a Harry Potter novel and that he was like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz who had lost all flexibility.
Don’t Leave The Battleground Even If You Have An Opportunity
After Navalny recovered in Germany, not many expected him to return to the country that wanted him dead. He’s always had international support and seeking asylum would have been the easy option. Instead, he chose to return home, announcing his imminent arrival via a video on Instagram. “Come meet me,” Navalny said.
He added that Russian authorities were doing everything they could to scare him “…all Putin has left to do is hang up a poster over the Kremlin saying ‘Alexey, please, do not come home under any circumstances’.”
He was arrested as soon as he landed. But days later—and almost exactly a decade after Egyptians used Twitter and Facebook to organise landmark protests—thousands responded to his protest call, standing with hands interlocked in the roads leading up to the Kremlin, chanting “Putin is a criminal”, in a classic face-off of police batons and err snowballs.
Be The King Of The Internet
Navalny is funny, defiant, and he live-messages his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction life across social media platforms to his mostly-young supporters. How many people do you know who use Instagram to tell their 3.8 million followers they’ve woken up from a coma and survived an assassination attempt?
“Hi, this is Navalny. I’m missing you. I still can hardly do anything, but yesterday I could breathe the whole day on my own. Completely on my own. No external help, not even a simple ventilator in my throat. I liked it a lot. A surprising process that is under-appreciated by many. I highly recommend,” the Guardian newspaper translated his September post on Instagram.
Navalny clearly knows how to work social media. More importantly, he also puts in the work required to play watchdog, a role mainstream Russian media has rapidly lost in the Putin era. To give you a better idea of how bad it is, Russia was seven spots below India on the 2020 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
A few days after he was arrested, his team released a feature-length YouTube video about an opulent palace allegedly owned by Putin. Since it was released on 19 January, “History of the World’s Largest Bribe” has garnered more than 100 million hits. It’s more exciting than anything you’re watching on Netflix (and it has English subtitles too).
Incidentally, while Navalny was recovering in Germany, he conducted the mother of all stings on a Russian agent who revealed how the Novichok had been planted in his underwear.
Do The Groundwork
Navalny’s tweets and videos may be edge-of-your-seat stuff in a burning world run by dictators, but they come after at least two decades of hard work on the ground. He’s fought local elections; purchased shares of Russia’s biggest oil and gas companies to better track corruption; run a wildly successful blog; launched projects that track government transparency; collected documents and undertaken investigations of high ranking officials; started at least two political movements and been arrested more than once. He’s a marathon man, not a sprinter.
Also read: What Navalny’s Arrest Says About the Kremlin
Be Ready To Fight To The End
Navalny may use humour to illustrate how serious his predicament is but the bottom line is that his life is in grave danger and he’s aware that he might end up making the ultimate sacrifice. In an Instagram post on Jan. 22, he issued this eerie warning: “Just in case: I don’t plan to either hang myself on the window or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon. I use the staircase very carefully [and] they take my pressure every day so a sudden heart attack is ruled out. I’m in a stable psychological and emotional state.”
That, in short, is what it takes to make your fellow citizens believe in you.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.