“I don’t know why foreigners love to always photograph me in vests. A possible explanation is that, in every foreign article about me, it’s necessary to cautiously mention that my ‘general views are somewhat nationalist.’ To Europeans and Americans, the vest is a symbol of the four-eyed nerd. Maybe a “nerd-nationalist” is somehow less scary.”
~Aleksei Navalny, February 24, 2011
On April 4, 2011, the New Yorker published perhaps the longest, most detailed English-language analysis ever of Aleksei Navalny. Authored by Julia Ioffe, the article covers Navalny’s tumultuous personal past and his recent rise to political stardom in the Russian opposition. As Navalny himself noted with a certain exhaustion, Ioffe and the New Yorker staff hounded him for weeks, following him to the corners of Russia as he worked, phoning his relatives to fact-check the minutia of the article’s text, and generally “driving him batshit crazy,” as Ioffe put it. This might be the thoroughest, most intimate study of Russia’s hottest political figure today.
So what did it leave out? In a single word: nationalism.
Before elaborating, I want to make it clear that Ioffe’s New Yorker piece is excellent journalism, rigorously researched and beautifully written. The final product is something that any writer would be proud to call his or her own. I also want to explain that Ioffe’s article doesn’t literally ignore Navalny’s nationalist past or present. The general details are all there in the text, and she rightly avoids making nationalism the primary focus of her Navalny biography. Navalny’s nationalism is not (to a Western audience) his most attractive feature, and neither is it his most important political feature today. That prize goes to his anti-corruption campaign, which Ioffe of course makes the center of her piece. Молодец.
But even if it’s secondary and less relevant in the current climate of corruption-busting, what exactly is the full story behind Navalny’s nationalism?
I don’t have access to Navalny’s office or family, but I am able to comb the archives of his LiveJournal blog, which was my primary resource for this post, along with the standard array of RuNet media sources. With these tools, I’ve pieced together (what I’d describe as) a “fuller picture” of Navalny’s nationalism. Mostly, I’ve expanded on Ioffe’s general outline, adding details to help readers better understand its context. There are some areas, however, where I think she mischaracterized Navalny’s nationalist past. Whether or not this will (or should) challenge Navalny’s growing popularity among Westerners, I’m not sure.
Here are the two key paragraphs from the New Yorker that address Navalny’s nationalism (emphasis is mine):
By then, though, Navalny was deep in conflict with Yabloko’s leadership. The party had been excluded from the government in 2007, when it lost its last four seats in the Duma. After this disaster, Navalny publicly pushed for the ouster of Grigory Yavlinsky, a founder of the party and hero of the democracy movement in the nineteen-eighties. Navalny recalls being summoned to a meeting called by the party’s federal council (of which he was a member) to discuss his “membership in the party.” The stated reason was Navalny’s espousal of nationalist views. He had been photographed attending planning meetings for the Russian March, a hardline nationalist march that has coursed through Moscow, sometimes violently, every November since 2005, chanting such slogans as “Russia for Russians!” Liberal parties had reacted to the Russian March with horror, branding it a neo-Nazi parade. Navalny argued that the event attracted more “normal” participants than “sieg heilers,” and that liberals were making themselves irrelevant by failing to address an upswell of nationalism in a constructive way. At the meeting with Yabloko’s leadership, Navalny delivered a sarcastic speech, at the end of which he jumped up and yelled “Glory to Russia!” and stormed out of the room. The whole council, except for one member, voted for his expulsion.
Part of Navalny’s appeal is his rejection of Russian liberalism, which he sees as being hopelessly out of touch with a country that is fundamentally conservative. His nationalism is unapologetic and even shocking. In a series of humorous videos on YouTube, he can be seen advocating the repatriation of illegals (while footage scrolls of people of Asian appearance moving swiftly through an airport) and the use of pistols against lawless undesirables. But he is adamant that he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. “There’s a huge number of questions that we should be discussing, and not handing over to the nationalists,” he says. Migration, for example, is a major issue in Russia, which has the most immigrants in the world after the U.S. Current estimates range from seven million to twelve million, many of them from the North Caucasus or former Soviet republics like Tajikistan. Most of them are undocumented. This, Navalny argues, keeps migrant laborers in the shadows and without basic rights, and is also a major source of friction. When Moscow exploded in ethnic riots in December, a poll showed that more than sixty per cent of Russians felt suspicious of or irritated by people of non-slavic nationality. “When we make these questions taboo and don’t discuss them, we hand over this extremely important agenda to the radicals,” Navalny says.
Let’s start with the biggest event in this montage: Navalny’s expulsion from Yabloko in December 2007. Ioffe implies that his nationalistic views — the “stated reason” for his ouster — were only a cover for the Yavlinksy crowd moving against Navalny, the young, upstart rabble rouser who dared to criticize the liberal Old Guard. This interpretation resembles Navalny’s own theory, which he voiced in the “sarcastic speech” delivered to the party’s leadership just before being voted out of the party. Navalny alleged that he was being kicked out because he openly called the 2007 parliamentary elections an embarrassment for liberals, refusing to accuse the state of “stealing victory” on the grounds that the state’s falsification of ballots couldn’t be blamed for Yabloko’s unpopularity.
In fact, Navalny had been trashing Yabloko’s popularity since well before the Duma elections. In April 2007, months before the liberals’ electoral bust, Navalny said: “It’s impossible in our country to build an influential liberal party. [...] Even if there is no falsification and [liberals] get access to television, their number of votes won’t increase.” Were such comments a part of his unsubtle campaign against Yabloko’s older generation of leaders? Undoubtedly, yes. Just before the Yabloko tribunal in December, Navalny co-authored a paper presented at a conference called “The Death of the Russian Opposition and Possibilities for Its Revival: The New Opposition Discourse.” In that paper, he called on leftists, liberals, and nationalists to unite into a single opposition. Lamenting the Communists’ refusal to boycott the parliamentary elections (a project spearheaded by Navalny’s intellectual ally Stanislav Belkovsky), Navalny declared that the opposition had no future within “systemic” (or ‘establishment’) politics. He called on the opposition to “abandon the political era of Soviet stagnation,” charging that its old-fashioned hierarchy was, ironically, too reminiscent of the failed design of the Soviet Communist Party. The opposition, he claimed, needed a “network structure” to replace the system of formal, registered political parties.
To achieve this “new opposition,” Navalny had already taken the pivotal step of co-founding his own new political movement almost six months before the conference paper. The Nationalist Russian Liberation Movement (‘NAROD’) published its manifesto on June 25, 2007. NAROD’s three main values were: national revival, freedom, and justice. Its main principles included the following:
- The main purpose of the state is “stop the degradation of Russian [Russkii] civilization and create conditions for the preservation and development of the Russian people, their culture, language, and historical territory.”
- It’s necessary to restore the “organic unity of Russia’s past,” from Kievan Rus to the USSR.
- Right of return and citizenship for all ethnic Russians.
- Free elections.
- Unilateral amnesty for Chechen militants is “unacceptable” and should only be available to Chechens who fought with the federal forces.
- Recognition for the sovereignty of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
- Banning state monopolies on the media.
- Economic diversification away from fossil fuels.
- Tax exemptions for small businesses.
In Navalny’s remarks to the Yalboko council in December 2007, he argued that nothing in NAROD’s manifesto or working paper included anything that contradicted Yabloko’s party platform. Is this why Ioffe described the speech as “sarcastic”? Surely, Navalny didn’t really believe that “stopping the degradation of Russia’s historical integrity” or “restoring the organic unity of Russia’s past” were compatible with Yabloko’s anti-Soviet, socially liberal agenda?
And yet, affirming the compatibility of liberalism and nationalism is precisely what NAROD was all about. As it turns out, “I’m a nationalist-democrat” was Navalny’s catchphrase for much of 2008. True to NAROD’s manifesto, he celebrated Russia’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian sovereignty in August 2008 as a “responsible and long overdue decision,” writing facetiously but sincerely that Russia, by recognizing the territories’ independence, was “giving Georgia the chance” to break free of its expansionist impulses. “Moldovans also deserve such a chance,” he concluded, hinting that Russia should ‘rid’ them of Transnistria.
And what of Navalny’s final outcry to Yabloko, “Glory to Russia!” (which he “jumped up” to deliver)? Certainly this was some kind of obvious goof, given that he would have known better than to bandy about such loaded words in the company of liberals? And yet, as early as April 2006 (when Navalny was still in the first month of his LiveJournal blog), he was already teaming up with Masha Gaidar to defend exactly the phrase “Glory to Russia!”
Yes, Navalny was committed to challenging old liberal dissidents from the Soviet era. This certainly played a major role in his getting kicked out of Yabloko. But Navalny’s ouster was largely because he chose to attack the Old Guard by building bridges between liberals and nationalists. In this sense, the “stated” and “real” reasons for leaving Yabloko (Navalny’s nationalist and anti-Yavlinksy activism) were inseparable.
Indeed, even after leaving Yabloko, Navalny continued to criticize and upset the elderly ranks of the liberal opposition. In March 2008, he mocked then-66-year-old Lev Ponomarev, who had recently stated publicly that NAROD was banned from participating in events held by the movement “Za Prava Cheloveka.” Navalny responded on his blog, writing: “What a cruel world and how cruel of Lev Ponomarev! Now we can’t take part in the filming of the next installment in that soap opera “Opposition United,” which they make specially for CNN!” Later that year in June, he provoked the disapproval of the godmother of Russian liberalism, Liudmila Alexeeva, when he attended a conference held jointly with the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).
DPNI, coincidentally, was just last week declared an illegal extremist organization. In that 2007 speech to Yabloko, Navalny had downplayed the odiousness of DPNI, arguing that “they look like girl scouts” when compared to the brutal forces of the state. In a June 2008 interview, he said that the reputation risks of working with DPNI were “a myth,” given that “nowadays DPNI is one of the least radical [nationalist] organizations.” As recently as March 9, 2011, when asked about the future of Russian politics, Navalny told Russkii Reporter:
Everyone at once is worried, [wondering] who might exploit the situation. They’re afraid of another Manezh, of the fascist rabble seizing power. First, they won’t seize anything. Second, well, go ahead and let them seize power. It would be nothing to fear if DPNI got forty percent in elections.
This forty percent figure, incidentally, is the same number of Russians Navalny described as “naturally inclined towards nationalism” in June 2008. (Whatever Navalny is, he’s consistent.)
One of the most infamous moments in Navalny’s pre-superstar history is likely the night of October 29, 2007, when one of his debates was interrupted by hooligans, after which he brawled with and shot one of the scoundrels in the street outside Club Gogol. The case file on this incident was 137 pages. Prosecutors apparently relaunched the inquiry four times, despite repeated attempts by the police to end the investigation. Navalny says that his lawyer saw the words “POLITICAL MATERIAL” written on his case file.
Navalny’s traumatic handgun was finally returned to him from police custody in May 2008. Unrepentant about having used the weapon to shoot the hooligan, he wrote, “I acted absolutely correctly and completely legally,” adding that the shots were “(a) outside the debate hall, (b) not to the head, and (c) from an acceptable distance.” Responding to criticism that he used excessive force, Navalny dismissed the idea that he should have been carrying a knife for self-defense instead, arguing that a blade’s “stopping action” is too weak, and that wielding a knife non-fatally is too difficult “when adrenaline is in the blood” during a fight. He complained that most traumatic guns “are total crap,” writing that their rubber bullets are about as dangerous “as a plastic fork,” and that they don’t inflict enough pain to stop an intoxicated assailant. He points out that, to seriously injure someone with a traumatic gun, you need to shoot them in the head, “which is illegal.” Then, despite having criticized its firepower, Navalny “advised” that people buy a “Wasp” pistol, which he described as a marginally more powerful traumatic firearm.
Ioffe wrote that “Navalny was arrested for roughing up one of the intruders.” The full truth is that he also shot that intruder. Also, he shot that “intruder,” after the event, when both men were standing outside in the street. (See here for a photo montage of the aftermath.)
Navalny says it was okay for him to shoot the party crasher, because he didn’t aim for his head. He didn’t use a knife because, in a fight, who can be sure he won’t make a mistake and slice open his enemy’s arteries and kill him accidentally? In other words, “when adrenaline is in his blood,” Navalny has more confidence in his ability to avoid a headshot with a rubber bullet gun than stab too deeply with a blade. (He’s confident, but he’s not that confident.)
Navalny concludes this post with a link to a YouTube video produced by NAROD, in which he promotes gun ownership rights. This is the video that Ioffe described as depicting Navalny advocating “the use of pistols against lawless undesirables.” Indeed, that is what Navalny advocates in this video. But, as you’ll see if you watch it, he also compares “lawless undesirables” (labeled “homosapiens bezpredelius”) to cockroaches and flies. Firearms, the video implies, are to “undesirables” what the slipper and swatter are to bugs.
NAROD’s gun-rights advocacy video was published in September 2007. In June of that year, Navalny had blogged briefly about the ethnic violence then terrorizing Stavropol. He offered an eleven-point plan of action to the local authorities. Point No. 7 called on the police to convey to representatives of the diaspora that immigrants are in possession of “too many weapons.” He advocated raids on areas where illegal immigrants live, in order to capture these firearms, supplemented by “enforcement of passport laws” (in other words, mass deportations). “Of course, they won’t find any weapons,” he added. “They’re all stored with the diaspora leaders,” he joked, “but it will still be fun.” Well in advance of recent nationalist initiatives to the same effect, Navalny added (in Point No. 10) that there needed to come an end to “the strange practice” of diaspora representatives arriving at the scene of any conflict.
This behavior is perhaps legally consistent — Navalny advocated legal gun ownership and criticized illegal gun ownership — but there are undeniable racial overtones in his thinking.
Consider a post from January 30, 2008, when Navalny attacked Yaroslavl’s Migration Service for combating its demographic decline by simplifying citizenship and work permission processes to attract immigrants and promote births in that community. This was a legal campaign to accommodate immigrants and put their reproduction to the service of the country. Navalny was horrified by what he might have called ‘anchor babies,’ were he a resident of Arizona. When a commenter asked, “What else is there to do, if the indigenous population is dying out?” Navalny answered, “Perhaps it makes sense to take certain measures against the extinction of the indigenous?” He then added:
“These migrants will NEVER assimilate. And neither will their children or their grandparents. The French example proves this. So, by solving the immediate problem of a lack of janitors, we’re planting a bomb under our future.”
This led to an argument about pay for manual labor in Russia, in which Navalny argued that Russians would do menial work, if the pay was better. Amusingly, Navalny returned to the issue of ‘fair pay’ again in March 2008. Criticizing Russian oligarchs for paying only slave wages, his conclusion starts off amicably enough:
“Ridiculous, dangerous, and stupid are those people who, trying to defend Russians’ interests, catch an unlucky Tajik on the street and beat him up. The Tajik isn’t the occupier. The Tajik isn’t guilty of anything.
Navalny next argues that Russians should direct their anger at the oligarchs, instead, but then he shifts gears, declaring, “The Tajik needs to be paid his wages and deported.” (My emphasis).
Also worth reviewing is a June 2008 debate Navalny conducted with human rights group SOVA representative Galina Kozhevnikova. This debate left such an impression on Navalny that he recalled specific details six months later in January 2009 on Ekho Moskvy, when he shared the airwaves with SOVA’s director, Aleksandr Verkhovskii. The spiciest, most disputed part of both conversations was when Navalny raised the issue of ethnic hatred committed against ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus. He was concerned that SOVA’s statistics exclude that region of Russia from its research, skewing the numbers and making it seem that violence against Caucasians in Russia is proportionally more common than it really is. Verkhovskii, like Kozhevnikova before him, replied that the security situation makes data collection difficult and useful comparisons impossible. Both explained that the internal displacement and physical violence of the Chechen Wars and subsequent unrest has likely impacted ethnic Caucasians worse than ethnic Russians, in any event. Each time, Navalny only repeated suspiciously that it is “a very interesting thing” that the violence against ethnic Russians in that region is excluded from SOVA’s reports.
In a question-and-answer session on The New Yorker’s website, Julia Ioffe stated boldly: “I think Navalny is Russia’s best hope.” Certainly, the various episodes of racism and chauvinism don’t change the fact that Aleksei Navalny is a uniquely brave crusader in the campaign to clean up Russian politics. I wager that anyone would be hard pressed to name another public figure who so boldly and so intelligently challenges the status quo in Russia today. If that is enough to make him the nation’s “best hope,” then so be it.
Then again, is the search for heroes what Russia needs, or is it merely an impulse that overtakes anyone confronted by a seemingly hopeless situation? Andrei Piontkovsky has quipped that Russia would be better off with 10-20 well-placed, talented economists than 1000 Navalnys. But given the former’s unlikelihood, “it’s left for us to wait until 1000 Navalnys emerge.” Stanislav Belkovsky has announced the birth of “Navalnian politics” and called him a modern-day partisan.
If Russians are indeed waiting for a knight in shining armor, is Navalny the one?
Dost not see? A monstrous giant of infamous repute whom I intend to encounter.
It’s a windmill.
A giant. Canst thou not see the four great arms whirling at his back?