The Dissident: Alexey Navalny: Profile of a Political Prisoner

Image of The Dissident: Alexey Navalny: Profile of a Political Prisoner
Release Date: 
October 31, 2023
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The Dissident: Alexey Navalny is both interesting and depressing—a valuable guide to understanding contemporary Russia, its boss, and a major opponent.”

This is the story of a brave and industrious man who aspires to replace Vladimir Putin as Russia’s top leader—a dangerous ambition. Another such aspirant, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in 2015 as he and his girlfriend walked near the Kremlin. At least ten other challengers to Putin have been removed in various ways. Both Navalny and another dissident, Vladimir Kara-Mirza, have been poisoned—each two or more times—but recovered. Having recuperated in Europe or the USA, each returned to Russia. where each is now in prison for long terms. From prison Navalny has sometimes managed to send out messages to Russians and people everywhere.

This book details the attempted murder of Navalny as he prepared to fly back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20, 2020. Navalny fell ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and was treated  in the Emergency City Clinical Hospital No. 1 in Omsk, where the plane made an emergency landing. The assassination attempt failed when Navalny received urgent medical care. Soon he was flown from Omsk to a hospital in Berlin. Doctors there found that Navalny had been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor. 

Having survived but still in Germany, Navalny was aided by the British investigative group Bellingcat to identify his attackers. The film Navalny shows how he placed phone calls to his would-be assassins, which included two medical doctors. Believing that the caller worked for the Russian state, one of the aspiring killers talked to Navalny for nearly 50 minutes, revealing how he had placed poison in Navalny’s underpants and later returned to the crime scene to disinfect the evidence. This film won many awards and was viewed by millions.

Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation also produced and released the film Putin's Palace. History of World's Largest Bribe (Russian: Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки). It tracked not only the building of the palace on the Black Sea coast but the entire network of cronies and fake organizations that helped Putin become one of the world’s richest individuals. The palace grounds extend many miles in all directions, and include a vineyard, a wine factory, and an oyster-harvesting operation.                                      

These events are nearly unimaginable. How would Americans react if they learned that a sitting president had used the security services to follow a rival politician and, when conditions ripened, poison or shoot him? What if they also learned that the same sitting president had diverted donated contributions for medical equipment to build a private palace at Big Sur with a hockey rink, sound stage, a pool and multiple spas, a casino—all embellished with hand crafted furniture by Italian artisans and guarded by state security forces?

The second half of the book asks: What forces shaped this death-defying rebel (whose wife was also poisoned but survived, even as their daughter tried to study at Stanford University). The author asserts that Navalny was unbending to his own principles and, even as a child, defied, authorities of all kinds. He comes from an Orthodox Christian military family whose antecedents fought in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War.

Navalny was born in 1976 to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He is an ordinary Slav—not a Jew, not an oligarch, not from the intelligentsia or the Soviet nomenklatura. He spent half a year on a fellowship at Yale University but realized he could not live anywhere that lacked black bread. He has a college-age daughter, a younger son, and an understanding wife.

Like many Russians (and many Americans), Navalny is condescending or even hostile to ethnic minorities. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed two of its borderlands, Navalny called for a complete blockade of Georgia and expulsion of “all Georgian citizens . . . from the Russian Federation.” He referred to Georgians as “rodents,” but later apologized for the rodent remark.

Herszenhorn observes that suspicions about Navalny’s nationalistic leanings were fanned by his statements about annexed Crimea. But apologists say that Navalny is a pragmatic nationalist who sees that he must pander to popular feelings—hardly an endorsement of the man’s principles.

Navalny complained in 2017 that liberals branded him a nationalist while nationalists called him a liberal. “And everyone has me down as a fifth columnist.” He was expelled from Grigory Yavlinsky’s liberal Yablako [Apple] Party in 2007 for trying to dialogue with nationalists.

This book pinpoints the ups and downs in the life of today’s major opponent to Putin and Putinism. Even before Navalny nearly died from the poisoning in Tomsk, green paint was thrown in his face, doing serious harm to one eye. He was often arrested, incarcerated, and denied permission to compete in elections.

Herszenhorn brings the saga up to August 4, 2023, when Navalny was sentenced to an additional 19 years—this time in a “special regime” prison colony, which would bar him from family visits and even letters for a decade. If he survives, on release he will be 74 years old and Putin 98.  

The Dissident: Alexey Navalny is both interesting and depressing—a valuable guide to understanding contemporary Russia, its boss, and a major opponent. It is very well written and so reliable as is now possible without documents unlikely to appear in the foreseeable future.