Alexei Navalny Did Not Die for Nothing

IAN BURUMA |The Russian opposition leader faced a dilemma that all dissenters in authoritarian states must grapple with: live in exile and fade into obscurity, or confront an oppressive regime and risk imprisonment and torture. Navalny’s choice will inspire dissidents for generations to come.

By Ian Buruma*

On January 17, 2021, when Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny boarded a plane to Moscow from Berlin, where he had been treated after being poisoned in Russia with the nerve agent Novichok, he said he was pleased to be going home. But he knew the risks involved: a long prison sentence, torture, even death.

Navalny, who died on February 16 in an Arctic penal colony, faced a dilemma that all political dissidents must grapple with: live in exile and fade into obscurity, or confront an oppressive regime and risk ending up a martyr. Either way, the chances of overthrowing the governments they oppose are virtually zero.

Even those who do not actively defy oppressive regimes, particularly those with the means to flee, face a similar choice: build a new life abroad, where they might not be warmly received, or stay in their home countries and live under the corrupting influence of dictatorship. Corruption is often made sweet by regimes that richly reward conformity – and crush the few people who refuse to conform.

This dilemma is especially bitter, because it creates a rift between dissenters who stay and those who leave – a rift that benefits oppressive regimes. People can decide to stay for all kinds of reasons, but the mere fact of them staying will get them quickly condemned by exiles as immoral stooges of the dictatorship. The leavers, meanwhile, are accused of betraying their country in exchange for the luxury of living abroad.

This was the case in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Thomas Mann, who was famous enough to remain an important voice in exile, denounced German writers who continued to live in the Third Reich; their work, he later declared, was so tainted that it became worthless. Some of these writers – also opponents of the Nazi regime – reproached Mann for preferring to live comfortably in California rather than bear witness to what was happening at home.

A similar dynamic has been a constant feature of modern China: people who oppose the Communist dictatorship at home sneer at Chinese dissidents abroad for being irrelevant and out of touch. And it is apparent in Russia today. For example, the immensely courageous journalist, Dmitry Muratov, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for his defense of intellectual freedom, has been criticized by some Russian exiles for deciding to stay in Russia, despite his courageous opposition to the war in Ukraine.

There is no right answer to the dissident’s dilemma. There are equally good reasons to leave as there are to stay, and they often depend on personal circumstances. So, what was the point of Navalny’s decision to risk his life for a cause he could never realize, at least not in the short term? Neither his probable murder, nor the alternative of staying in Western Europe, would have brought Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule to an end. 

But there was a point. Open defiance chips away at a dictatorship’s façade of total control. A dictatorship cannot rely on military might or fear of the secret police alone; the people must be convinced that their subjugation to a tyrant is normal,and that resistance is abnormal, even a form of madness. That is why Soviet dissidents were often locked up in psychiatric facilities rather than prisons. 

 Navalny’s return to Russia, however futile it may have seemed, showed that standing up for freedom of thought and expression is a rational response to tyranny. His defiance signaled to others who felt the same way but lacked Navalny’s extraordinary courage that they were not alone.

There is another point, too. By rewarding conformity, by making people repeat lies and propaganda, by forcing friends and relatives to betray one another, dictatorships bring out the worst in people. They create a culture of fear, mistrust, and betrayal. There is nothing peculiarly Russian, German, or Chinese about this. Many nations, at different times, have been warped by oppressive rulers, but not necessarily forever. Regimes are defeated. Tyrants die.

It is then that the example set by political martyrs plays a vital role. Societies warped by dictatorship have to find a moral basis for building something better. The morale of a people used to slavishness and persecution must be restored. That some brave people stood up for freedom, even when it appeared to be fruitless, helps in this process, by providing a model. 

Jean Moulin, the civil servant who led the French resistance and was tortured to death by the Gestapo in 1943, never saw the end of the Nazi occupation he fought. The Nazis executed the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in April 1945, three weeks before Adolf Hitler killed himself. Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who returned to China during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, spent the rest of his life in and out of jail and died in custody in 2017, having failed to dismantle his country’s one-party regime. Navalny had no chance of toppling Putin’s neo-czarist rule. 

But the only hope of building societies that can protect freedoms and bring out the best in people lies in the examples of what they have done.

*Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah (Yale University Press, 2024).

Special: The Novichok Archipelago
Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, has died in prison, age 47. In October 2020, two months after being poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok, he spoke with Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor-in-chief of Dozhd TV, Russia’s only remaining independent broadcast network at the time.