Bykov comments about Navalny

March 5, 2024
Dmitry Bykov speaks before an audience in an auditorium.

During any public events - marches, processions, debates - I always tried to stand next to Navalny and get into the same frame with him. The reason was not vanity, although vanity for a writer is like the spotlight for an actor. “Lyosha, Lyosha, I’m trying to stick to the authorities, just in case,” I repeated. “Like in the thirties, when the secret police in black leather coats would show up at revolutionary protests. Let them at least see a photo of the two of us together and be taken aback for a moment.”

Navalny smiled sadly, because, firstly, he was extremely far from being the head of anything, and even in his Anti-Corruption Foundation he was not at all a king or a god. And secondly, we both understood that before we can start renaming months like they did in the French Revolution, at least one more revolution would be required, one that, in Russian conditions, would be problematic, causing large-scale unrest and the complete self-destruction of the government, and that Russia may not survive this, since it would immediately collapse. In other words, we would reach not the stage of Thermidor but the stage of decay. There was a third reason he smiled sadly. We both understood perfectly well that the historical development of Russia is cyclical, and that therefore, with the inevitability of a pendulum, a period of repression always replaces freedom and destroys the freedom fighters. This predictability, of course, is a source of humor, but one that is altogether too grim and joyless.

I can predict a lot, but not that I would be writing Navalny’s obituary. He seemed immortal and he very competently gave this impression. I don’t know whether psychologists worked with him or whether he took pills, but the eternal Russian disease—the panicky, paralyzing fear of arrest and torture—seemed completely unfamiliar to him. In Russia, they can do whatever they want to a person—I would even add, they can and should, since Russian domestic policy has no other content other than torture. And what can distract you from torture, what could be a more powerful occupation or more ardent vocation? Navalny seemed completely invulnerable to this basic practice of the Russian state, its only method of influence, the only art in which it has achieved perfection. During his three-year imprisonment, he was regularly tortured by insomnia, solitary confinement, hunger. He was deprived of medical care and housed with the most repulsive cellmates. He endured it all with his icy mockery. Sometimes, in fact, there was a feeling that Navalny had some kind of indestructible support, that the President of the United States, the Secretary General of the UN, the Archangel Gabriel, or someone higher had given him some sort of personal security guarantees. Everyone who thought about the future of Russia, or at least admitted that it had a future, associated it with Navalny, the swiftest, strongest, smartest, most selfless and popular figure in the opposition. Naturally, therefore, he was perceived as part of his own personal project of the future. And it’s even more natural that after his death, such deep despondency reigned in the opposition press of Russia, in blogs and streams—despondency about one’s personal fate or that of the Motherland.

While Navalny was alive, it seemed to many that the task of building a new Russia was not hopeless. When it turned out that the authorities could kill the most popular opposition politician and get in response neither a mass uprising, nor new sanctions, nor further attempts at external pressure—in other words, that nothing had changed except the self-perception of several thousand people—the general melancholy reached its apogee. It was briefly weakened by Navalny’s funeral, at which, oddly enough, people rejoiced at each other’s company and admired both how many mourners came to say goodbye and the fortitude of Navalny’s mother and mother-in-law. But neither the pile of flowers on the grave, under which the entire Orthodox cross disappeared, nor the hundreds of thousands lining up to say goodbye, consoled anyone: the authorities wanted to kill Navalny and they did, and the belief in his irrational, magical invulnerability turned out to be another illusion. Some habitually consoled themselves on the basis of the theory of small deeds—that even under the most authoritarian and bloody government, during the most cruel and bloody war, you can still help each other, raise children, care for the sick and for dogs, weave a network of horizontal solidarity and remain a decent person. These self-consolations sound especially nauseating. Some of them hope to save themselves abroad and avoid becoming another generation of emigrants who can only talk about Russia and never know how to assimilate into their new society. Others believe in a new generation of fearless young people who have no future in Russia, and therefore nothing to hold them back. The most optimistic version so far seems to be that in fifty years, most likely, there will be no Putin and, perhaps, some of those who survived will be allowed to visit the graves of their loved ones, from which, let’s be honest, they themselves will no longer be far away. Against this background, my optimism looks almost indecent, but I would consider it insulting to the memory of Navalny to fall into an incurable despondency after his death. This is, firstly, hypocrisy and pharisaism, and secondly, weakness.

I remember some funny little things about Navalny—like how, under house arrest, he spent half a day on an exercise bike so as not to gain weight, and then asked people not to send him cookies in solitary confinement for the same reason. How he promised to preserve Putin’s life and freedom in the event of his voluntary resignation, and when I said that I could not reconcile myself with this promise, he said: don’t be afraid, he would not be able to physically leave and, in any case, we wouldn’t have to keep our word. How former Putin security guard and now head of the Russian Guard Zolotov challenged him once to a duel and promised to make mincemeat out of him, and Navalny joyfully agreed by sending him incriminating evidence that turned Zolotov into mincemeat before the duel could even begin. Zolotov never brought up the duel again.

You could always feel cheerful and confident around Navalny, believe me, and not only abroad. And, for the record, Navalny never condemned those who left. He himself returned to Russia, although many considered it a mistake. He returned solely because he was already fully overcome by the gravitational pull of fate. He chose the hero's path, and there is no retreating on this path. I will add that there are no mistakes on this path, either: the hero is in the hands of a force that knows what it is doing. We can only respect this force and peer into its logic.

Navalny was a wonderful husband, who always made life interesting, and a wonderful son, who never made you ashamed. What a striking contrast to the current Russian government, whose president hides his wives and is embarrassed to recognize his children publicly. I once asked Navalny, “Aren’t you ever tempted to cheat on your wife or at least get drunk? Your image is so clean that people may get suspicious. Shouldn’t you have at least some kind of vice?” “You won’t believe it,” Navalny answered very seriously, “I would really love to, but spies are watching my every move. They follow me into the restroom, they lie down in my bed! No matter how much I might want to, I can’t do anything immoral. My bright and shining image is entirely the merit of Putin.” I think, I will add on my own behalf, that this will be Putin’s only merit.

I know that the majority of people in this room are not Russian emigrants, but Americans and Canadians, both students and guests, who have come to our university from hundreds of miles away. And our meeting today is taking place precisely on the initiative of American professors, although they speak Russian better than many Russian patriotic aggressors. So, Americans’ curiosity about Navalny is understandable, and not at all because he is a product of American policy or was implementing an American program in Russia. No, Navalny is an exemplary public politician, a self-made man with a law degree, who made his way into the leadership of the opposition without any help from notorious foreign curators. His career unfolded before my eyes, and I know what I'm talking about. He brilliantly adapted to new circumstances: at first, Russian protest politics was predominantly club-based, with oppositionists meeting in Moscow clubs and cafes for political debates. Then, with the growth of censorship restrictions, it moved to the street—and Navalny turned out to be the leader of protests on streets and in squares, quickly adapting to the new scale of the audience, and to the new number of listeners, and to the new social composition of the protesters. This was no longer the narrow audience of metropolitan political gatherings. It was a mass movement of the Russian middle class, and most leaders were not ready for this. But Navalny was.

He learned to talk to everyone, put his political agenda ahead of the economic one, and moved from exposing corruption to exposing political authoritarianism and military psychosis. He seamlessly evolved from a street fighter to someone doing the necessary work of unifying and coordinating the efforts of a variety of protest forces. He knew how to find a common language for everyone, be they minority shareholders, provincial youths or writers and directors fighting for freedom of speech. He managed to find a common language with prisoners, when most of his life began to be spent first in administrative arrests, and then in serving an endless prison sentence that increased without any legal basis. In the last year of his life, having already survived poisoning by an aggressive chemical substance, he just as organically assumed the role of a saint. In his December 2023 address from his remote Arctic prison camp, known as the “Polar Wolf Colony,” he sent the world greetings as the new “universal protest Santa Claus”—an example of political satire and human compassion for all those who left, for all those thrown out of work, for all those whose voice was taken away. It is surprising to compare the appeal of the protest Santa Claus (in Russian, “Ded Moroz”) with the appeal of Vladimir Putin, who, of course, is to a much greater extent both dead and morose.

Navalny even managed to come to terms with death, and in his new state of posthumous glory, he looks extremely organic. He continues to create problems for Putin and does it much more successfully than the living: after all, nothing can be done to the dead, he is invulnerable. By killing Navalny, Putin cut off any path to negotiations. Now the only scenario for him losing power remains the option of Gaddafi, whose fate he feared the most. Like Gogol's hero from "A Terrible Revenge," he gallops away from the grave and the grave itself crawls towards him.

When I asked Navalny about his attitude towards the people (I asked this question more often than others, because my attitude towards the people always left much to be desired—there was a considerable amount of irritation and even contempt in it), he invariably answered: “We have a wonderful nation, I’m just mostly familiar with a specific part of it. My contacts with the people take place in temporary detention centers and police stations where we are detained. Most people are imprisoned not for crimes, but because they do not have the standard 50 thousand ruble bribe for the police. So, when I am placed in a prison cell, I go straight to my electorate.” And Navalny also knew how to negotiate with this electorate, which is why today you can find the following joke on the Internet: “Lyosha has probably already created a trade union of angels and a fund to fight devils.” Yes, there is no doubt about it: he now has an excellent electorate There and a lot of organizational work. And yes, his death has already become the topic of jokes and anecdotes, which Andrei Sinyavsky called the main genre of Russian literature of the twentieth century.

One woman—I don’t want to say who so that her sour name doesn’t sound next to Navalny’s cheerful one—has already written: “I don’t want a funeral like Navalny’s where they laugh a lot and take selfies.” I can console this unfortunate woman: she may turn herself inside out, but she and her employers will never have such a funeral. The revolutionary democrat Pisarev, to whom Navalny was imperceptibly similar both in appearance and stylistically, said everything about people like her in 1862: “The capital has been placed under martial law, the government intends to act with us as with irreconcilable enemies. It is not mistaken: there is no reconciliation. On the side of the government are only scoundrels, bribed by the money that is squeezed out of poor people by deception and violence. On the side of the people stands everything that is young and fresh, everything that is capable of thinking and acting. Dynasty and bureaucracy must perish. That which is dead and rotten must fall of its own accord into the grave. All we can do is give them the final push and throw dirt at their stinking corpses.”

In September 2018, I began my interview with Navalny with a question: “Lyosha, why are you alive?” To which Navalny nonchalantly replied: “Well, someone has to be alive. I cannot penetrate Putin’s sick, insane logic: perhaps the elders on Mount Athos whispered to him that he should not touch a person with the initials AN.” In the same interview, he also predicted a foreign war, pointing out that this is the last resort when one wishes to legitimize a regime in the context of the gradual loss of the government’s popularity. Navalny also said that Putin’s henchmen would begin to defect en masse to the side of the protest at the first signs of a financial crisis, at the first hesitation among the representatives of the security forces.

We see very well fierce conflicts in the Russian corridors of power. We are aware that there is no unity in the Russian government nor is any in the offing. You can never rely on selfish and immoral people; their loyalty is only enough for times of prosperity. This testament of Navalny will always be relevant, because among the comrades he selected, the number of traitors was minimal. Perhaps we did not defend Navalny well, perhaps we lacked his confidence and determination. But none of us, his friends and supporters, turned away from him. And this is an excellent contrast with the selfish, rotten public that today is trying to take the place of the professionals who left, and who are begging the authorities for financial assistance.

Navalny did not want to die, but he died a hero. I remember the words of Golda Meir: terrorists will stop attacking us when they love their own children more than they hate ours. I think people will stop passively waiting out the nightmares of Putin’s government when they are more afraid of a humiliating, impoverished and vile life more than they are afraid of death. Navalny himself told me back in 2011 that the question of preserving his own life had lost relevance for him. I quote verbatim the words from that interview: “Consider me your battering ram, whose head you need to break through the wall.”

Yulia Navalnaya asked me to convey her greetings to you all. Here is her message: “Alexey knew that I loved him, and my love was important to him. And this was how he felt about his supporters—not that they obeyed him, and not that they believed in him, but that they loved him. He had everything he needed, and above all, fearlessness. Life without him is unthinkable, unimaginable. You just have to live with him, as if he were still here. That’s what I do, and that’s what I wish for you.” He was a person worthy of love—fallible, unpredictable, not perfect. But he was the most alive person in Russia and remained so. It remains for us to catch up with him in this sense. The best memory of Navalny is to finally become alive, so alive that entire hordes of the dead can do nothing about it.