The Russian politician Alexei Navalny has long been viewed by Western media, and presumably by others interested in such things, as the possible leader of some sort of anti-Putin movement in Russia.
So he may well be. But let’s not get carried away.
I was struck this morning by the description of him in the Murdoch Times newspaper as a ‘dissident’. Under the headline ‘Moscow shows its true colours in trying to silence a dissident’, my old adversary Michael Binyon (some of you may recall our clash earlier this year in a debate organised by Standpoint magazine) wrote:
‘Alexei Navalny is a classic Soviet-style dissident — inflexible, uncompromising, daring the state to do its worst while sabotaging any face-saving formula that could blunt western criticism of the Kremlin.’
This reminded me of earlier attempts to compare the trial of the fashionable ‘Pussy Riot’ group to that of the dissident writers Daniel and Synyavsky under the Brezhnev regime, in 1965, also in The Times in a leading article on 18th August 2012.
Both comparisons are ludicrous.
The Pussy Riot trial was held in the open, and the defendants were charged with an offence which would be met with prosecution in many countries, namely disrespectful and disruptive behaviour in a sacred place, or one believed by Christians to be sacred, as the BBC would these days put it.
Daniel and Synyavsky’s trial was closed to the foreign press (and, so far as I can recall, to the defendants’ own families) and was for an ‘offence’, of publishing their works abroad, that was not and should not be subject to prosecution in a free country.
I have argued that the Pussy Riot group would have got into trouble in plenty of other places for what they did, raucous protests in major places of worship being generally frowned on, but that prison was both harsh and unjustified, and not a fitting punishment for what they did.
See here, and note the predictions of a new Cold War, whose proponents have been seeking one for years and now have it.
But is Mr Navalny a ‘dissident’, to be classed alongside Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Koryagin (whose hand I am proud to have shaken, now largely forgotten, though his battle against the abuse of psychiatry was particularly courageous and costly to him, so much so that his own wife could not recognise him when she was eventually allowed to visit him in prison), or their equivalents in the Soviet Empire, the forgotten Robert Havemann, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa?
Mr Navalny is a master of publicity and knows how to use the internet. But is he to be compared with such figures?
Is the fact that some people do compare him with such figures a lesson to us? When will we understand that modern Russia is not the old USSR?
When will we grasp that, since the death of Lenin’s Party, Russia simply does not contain the clear moral battle between good and evil which a tiny few very courageous people were able to fight during that era? (Most of us would certainly have done as most Russians did, and learned to live with the disgusting thing).
I have noticed that liberally-inclined Westerners tend to accept Alexei Navalny’s claim that a creepy video (I think this is the one), in which he used the word ‘cockroaches’ to refer to terrorists from the Caucasus, is a joke. Some joke. While actual cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says in the 2007 recording, ‘for humans I recommend a pistol’.
Can this be the hero of The Guardian and, in the view of The Times, the modern-day equivalent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mstislav Rostropovich?
Things have changed, if so.
Very few seem to know of Mr Navalny’s past associations with Russian nationalism, a political position which makes UKIP, which The Guardian regards as appalling and The Times never ceases to condemn and harry, look like the vanguard of political correctness.
This association is said by some Russians to have led to his exclusion from the liberal Yabloko (Apple) political party of which he was once a prominent member, to which event I have found just one glancing reference in the Western press (The Financial Times of 14th May 2011), which says he ‘left’ the party ‘after being accused of being a nationalist’ but also notes that his ‘hardline stance on guns and immigration grates with Moscow’s smug liberal elite’.
Do The Times and The Guardian, flagships of London’s liberal elite, know about this stuff?
I should have thought it certain that two prosecutions of Mr Navalny, and one of his brother Oleg, on criminal charges are politically-motivated.
It is also interesting that, though his brother now has been, Mr Navalny has not actually been imprisoned, despite being convicted of charges under which he might have been locked up.
Do the authorities want to keep in circulation, while restricting his movements and blackmailing him?
But I'd still like to see it shown beyond doubt.
British coverage of his trials seems more or less to assume that the charges are politically-motivated. Doubtless it is so, but I should myself like to see some analysis of the evidence that has actually been presented against him and his rebuttal of it.
To indulge in my own unsuitable parallel, as Mr Navalny is in no way comparable to the Bolshevik old guard murdered by Stalin in the late 1930s, the greatest damage done to Stalin’s appalling Moscow Trials in the 1930s was effected when it was proved beyond doubt by the Dewey Commission that various defendants could not possibly have been in the places where their acts of treachery had been said to have taken place,
See especially the case of Yuri Pyatakov, who couldn’t have flown to the airport he was accused of using because the flight he was alleged to have taken didn’t exist.
It’s all very well assuming that tyrants lie. It’s much more effective to show that they are doing so.
Perhaps if the all-pervasive prejudice against Vladimir Putin’s Russia were absent, this would happen because journalists and reporters would see it was necessary to persuade rather than just to conform.
It is interesting that the same metropolitan intellectual classes that were so inclined to apologise for Soviet tyranny are those who now most fiercely condemn the Putin tyranny.
Can it be that it's not the tyranny that troubles them, but something else? And if so, what?
In any case, I wonder what sort of Russia would emerge were Mr Navalny to be propelled into the Kremlin by western-backed mobs, as some doubtless hope.
I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be a cockroach, or a ‘cockroach’, under his rule.
As for his famous attacks on corruption, this is of course easy for those seeking power.
Russian friends commented on this to me that Boris Yeltsin had made his political name by being the loudest enemy of corruption, even riding, as Communist Party chiefs never did, in Moscow trolleybuses.
‘And look at what happened to him,’ they add, pointedly.