This is an English translation of the article published in Der Freitag. For German version, see the link below.

With the assassination of Alexey Navalny in a penal colony in the Russian North, one of the possible paths to the future for Russia was shut. A hero of biblical stature and a leader with an unrivaled ability to mobilize people, Navalny remained a viable alternative even behind bars. When things start to go south for Putin, Russian elites may be forced to look for a strong leader with genuine popular appeal who can serve as a mediator to restore the international relations that Putin has recklessly destroyed. Navalny would be their only option. It was a scenario that numerous Russian dissidents craved and members of the ruling class secretly contemplated.

Now, however, this hope has died along with Navalny. There is no replacement for him in a country where the political scene has long been reduced to a fight between two men.

When there was still hope, it was impossible to raise a number of questions that are now becoming inescapable for Russia. What is the alternative to Putin’s crass tyranny, which offers no hope for the future but at least makes the present predictable and even comfortable for many Russians? Why should Russia’s cynical elite and desperate masses risk ditching Putin, even if they are unhappy with his war adventures? What would Russia gain from this, both domestically and in terms of its international standing? Simply put, what is the trade-off? 

Setting an alternative agenda is the work of political opposition (or perhaps “resistance” is a better term for Russia, where political competition is suppressed by the means of wartime). Since the invasion of Ukraine began, foreign observers have learned the names of many Russian politicians and activists, most of whom are now in exile and who are usually termed “Russian opposition”. While they have managed to maintain access to Russian audience through social media, and many have shown personal merit, they have yet to articulate a political offer compelling enough to provoke change in their home country.

One of the important reasons why such a proposal was not made is ideological. Most of the figures familiar to foreign eyes represent a particular brand of right-liberalism that emphasizes individual human rights, laissez-faire economy with extremely limited government and catch-up modernization designed to copy the institutional design of Western liberal democracies. This agenda emerged at the time of the proclaimed “end of history” and is strongly associated in Russia with the transformational period of the 1990s, when brutal neoliberal reforms destroyed social safety nets, unleashed unprecedented inequality and elevated organized crime to commanding positions. Many opposition figures reinforce this association by promoting the narrative that in the 1990s Russia was a democracy, albeit imperfect, but Putin turned it into an autocracy. The intuitive plan is to go back to the nineties and not allow power to slide away to authoritarians.

This agenda, no matter how attractive it may be to the West, is a non-starter with the Russian public.

Anyone who bets on nostalgia for the 1990s is doomed from the start. Navalny understood this perfectly.

One of his most recent interventions was a blog post a few months ago in which he lambasted the corrupt elites of the 1990s, whom he blamed for the rise of tyranny in Russia. Instead of contrasting the liberal 1990s with the Putin years, Navalny underlined the continuity between them. 

Indeed, Vladimir Putin himself was deeply embedded in the liberal elite of the 1990s, serving as deputy to the ultraliberal mayor of Saint-Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. His connections helped him not only seize power in Russia, but also maintain it. Until now, his economic team that fends off sanctions, consists of the same neoliberals, and the oligarchs around him got rich from predatory privatization in the nineties.

In 2021, immediately after his arrest upon arrival in Russia, Navalny released a blockbuster about Putin’s palace near Sochi – the story of country’s elite being a mafia financing the luxurious life of its boss. The storyline mercilessly links Putin’s disturbing greed during the years of early Russian capitalism with his obscene tastes and insatiable desires manifested in the monstrous palace. The pro-Kremlin political strategists I spoke with were suddenly worried: the investigation suggested a platform to attack both Putin and the nineties. It was probably one of the reasons why almost all Russians watched the video, even though it was based on facts that had long been made public.

The fact that the right-liberal agenda does not generate overwhelming enthusiasm among the Russian public is hardly indicative of Russia’s specificity. On the contrary, it is rather proof that Russia is similar to many present-day European societies. In Germany, for instance, the FDP struggles to get more than 5% of the vote, and it would be surprising if the Russian public were more attracted to such an agenda, given the calamities of the Boris Yeltsin era. 

The real question is why Russians are offered nothing more than a disappointing invitation to give “liberal democracy” a second try.

Most of the country suffers from extreme political and economic inequality, struggles with excessive consumer debt, abhors the despotism of the central government over the lands in what is nominally a federation, lacks a working network of highways, railroads, and air routes, agonizes over crumbling infrastructure, fears massive industrial pollution, is denied access to treatment for life-threatening diseases and forced to pay for education. It is anyone’s guess how these concerns might be addressed with another round of neoliberal reforms. 

Why is there such a manifest discrepancy between political discourse and the popular demands? Part of the blame, naturally, lies with the Kremlin. Aware of the expanding niche for social-democratic politics, the administration always banned those who tried to promote this agenda even within the confines of Russian puppet politics. Both the Communist Party and the Just Russia Party, which act as placeholders for left-wing politics, actually pursue an extreme right-wing agenda that combines imperialism, militarism, chauvinism and worship of the Orthodox Church. 

Once again, Navalny was the one to realize this genuine demand, which is particularly palpable among Russian youth. While his early flirtations with nationalists were largely irrelevant for his political career, his later projects exploited the sense of extreme injustice widespread in Russian society. He set about organizing trade unions in a country where strikes are virtually prohibited, and advocated radical decentralization of the federal union. Even his signature fight against corruption took on a different flavor: in addition to investigating violations of the law, he increasingly exposed luxurious life of the ruling class, attacking its deep immorality in a country where the majority struggle to make ends meet.

A wise tactician, Navalny invented “smart voting” technology that turned every election into a referendum on the ruling party. The approach was to consolidate all protest vote behind the “second worst” choice, that is, the puppet candidate with the highest ratings after the representative of the ruling party. The main beneficiary of this strategy was the Communist Party, which usually stood a better chance of defeating Putin’s United Russia. 

However, this sudden influx of protest votes towards the communists sparked internal processes within the party. Realizing that new voters were up for grabs and the outcome was no longer fixed, the party dared to field a cohort of young leftist candidates who were no longer obedient to the Kremlin. The party has moved from nostalgia for Stalin (a topic largely irrelevant to Russian voters) to promoting a social-democratic agenda. On election day, it was already difficult to tell whether voters supported communist candidates simply to annoy Putin, or because the communists began to talk about real issues. This strategy culminated in 2021, when Navalny was already in prison, but the Communist Party, in all likelihood, came in on par with United Russia in the parliamentary elections, gaining 31-33% of the vote. This, of course, was covered up by election fraud, and after the invasion, elections no longer matter in Russia anyway.

A Russian political leader must seek support from Russians and therefore has to care about Russian interests in the first place. This by no means entails confrontation with the neighboring countries, as evidenced by Navalny’s unwavering respect for Ukrainian sovereignty. The challenge, however, is to articulate why Russians, too, would be better off in the post-war European order, for it is the only guarantee of lasting peace.

Alexey Navalny’s trajectory in the last years of his life and struggle is a crucial part of his political testament. The time has come to reimagine the Beautiful Russia of the Future – the country in which he believed and for which he sacrificed his life.

Show full article >>