Global outcry as Putin critic Navalny jailed
Can one brave individual defeat a powerful state? By returning to Russia and risking imprisonment after an attempt on his life, Alexei Navalny has thrown down the gauntlet to Putin.
There was a commotion on the aeroplane as the pilot made his announcement. “For technical reasons”, the flight bound for Moscow’s Vnukovo airport would land at Sheremetyevo instead. But everyone knew the truth was more sinister. On board was Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny – a man threatened with prison if he returned to the country. The authorities must be waiting to arrest him.
That indeed was the case. The plane had been diverted because thousands of Navalny’s supporters had gathered at Vnukovo to greet him. The government, worried that they would intervene to save him, had filled the arrivals hall with riot police. Some of Navalny’s top associates were arrested as they sat in the airport café.
On landing, he was coolness itself. “I know that I'm right. I fear nothing,” he told his fellow passengers, who included many journalists. When he arrived at passport control, he asked the black-uniformed officials: “Have you been waiting for me long?”
The officials told him that unless he came with them quietly, they would use force. As his wife Yulia kissed him goodbye, she wiped something – perhaps a tear – from his cheek. Then, he was led away. His lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.
Navalny’s journey to his homeland from the safety of Germany was either extraordinarily brave or ridiculously foolhardy, depending on how you look at it. Just five months ago, he collapsed on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow after being poisoned. Only emergency treatment in Germany, made possible by pressure from the international community, saved his life.
It emerged afterwards that the FSB had followed him to Tomsk. In a phone conversation, Navalny managed to fool an FSB agent into confessing that they had tried to kill him using Novichok.
Navalny would not have been the first of Vladimir Putin’s critics to meet a violent end. In 2006, ex-Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea poisoned with a radioactive substance in a London hotel. That same year Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist investigating state corruption, was shot dead at her apartment block.
In 2013, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found hanged at his home in Berkshire. And in 2015, the former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow.
The official reason for Navalny’s arrest is that, after receiving a suspended sentence for embezzlement, he violated probation. New charges have now been added, accusing him of defrauding charities including his own Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Navalny maintains that all these accusations have been fabricated for political reasons. But a judge has ordered that he be held in custody for 30 days, until a parole review that could result in a prison sentence. Navalny has called for mass protests next Saturday.
Can one brave individual defeat a powerful state?
Disputing with Putin
Some say, no: the forces supporting Putin are too huge. In 2000, he took direct control of the FSB, with its 66,000 personnel; in 2003, he added the Border Guard Service, with a further 200,000. He is also commander-in-chief of all of Russia’s armed forces. He has shown himself to be completely ruthless, and criticism from other countries would not stop him having an enemy locked up or murdered.
Others point out that other apparently immovable governments have been toppled by opposition led by an inspiring person. The apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end thanks to Nelson Mandela’s leadership. The playwright Vaclav Havel played a key role in undermining support for Communism in Czechoslovakia. Like Mandela, he ended up as president after years in prison.
- Some of Putin’s supporters argue that every country needs a strong leader, even if he or she behaves badly. Do you agree?
- Thomas Carlyle argued that the 18th Century produced a new type of hero: the writer. Has our century produced a new type of hero?
- Write a letter to the prime minister demanding action against Russia for its treatment of Navalny.
- Imagine that you are conducting a murder investigation into the alleged victims of Putin’s regime. Put together a board with pictures of them and the basic facts about their lives and deaths.
Some People Say...
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882), American poet and essayist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Putin will do anything to stay in power. He has already engineered changes to the constitution which will allow him to remain president until 2036. What the rest of the world thinks does not worry him: when Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser criticised Navalny’s arrest, a foreign ministry spokesman responded: “Deal with the problems in your own country.” But Navalny’s criticisms may cause Putin problems in September’s parliamentary elections.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around the “great man” theory of history put forward by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. He argued that world-changing events are brought about by heroic figures. They have extraordinary intelligence, courage or leadership qualities, and are able to defeat their opponents against all odds. But others believe that leaders such as Navalny are simply the focus for popular movements which have already gained enough momentum to bring about change.
- A city in Siberia, to which many dissidents were exiled in the 19th Century. It is not to be confused with Omsk, which is also in Siberia.
- Russia’s secret service. It is a successor to the KGB, which inspired terror during the Communist era.
- A poison which attacks the nervous system. It first came to general notice when it was used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
- Alexander Litvinenko
- As an FSB officer he accused his superiors of ordering Boris Berezovsky’s murder. He then fled to Britain, where he was granted asylum. He is credited with coining the phrase “mafia state” to describe Russia.
- Anna Politkovskaya
- Her reporting on the Russian army’s conduct in Chechnya earned the government’s wrath. She wrote that journalists who defied Putin faced “the bullet, poison, or trial”.
- Boris Berezovsky
- A businessman who made a fortune from the privatisation of state property after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He initially supported Putin, but then turned against him and moved to Britain.
- Boris Nemtsov
- Shortly before his death, he said that he was afraid Putin would have him killed. A court decided that his murderers were hired killers, but did not establish who had paid them.
- Theft, particularly of money you have been put in charge of. It comes from an old French word meaning to damage or destroy.
- The release of an offender, subject to a period of good behaviour. The terms of Navalny’s probation were that he had to report to authorities twice a month.
- Invented. It derives from a Latin word for craftsman.
- A country in Central Europe that existed during the 20th Century. It came under totalitarian Communist rule in 1948 and eventually split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.