There is little room for complexity in the theatre of Russian politics. In this mediatised performance, the characters are assigned their roles. The constant struggles of daily life are ignored. To be for one thing is to be in opposition to another.
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent oppositionist, eludes simple characterisations. He is at once Russia’s most visible anti-Putinist, its most successful investigative journalist, and its most dogged anti-corruption campaigner. He commands the support of a broad section of Russia’s urban progressives, but, in 2007, was ousted from Yabloko, post-Soviet Russia’s liberal party, for attending an ultranationalist march alongside neo-Nazis.
He endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic Party primaries, but had a spell as a pro-gun advocate, praising the Tea Party for ‘hammering’ Obama. He was a stock trader, whose motivation to tackle corruption in Russia arose out of disgruntlement with the inadequate dividends paid on his stocks in Gazprom, Rosneft, and Transneft. Early in his political career, he referred to migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and, in interviews in 2017 and 2020, declined to qualify or renounce his statements.
Navalny was thrust into Russian public consciousness as a result of the 2011 protest movement. He was part of the small group of protest leaders who became totemic figures of the opposition. Since then, exile, assassination, and co-option have left Navalny as the only figure with enduring influence. In 2013, he ran for Moscow mayor, coming second to incumbent Sergei Sobyanin. Five years later, he put together a platform for the presidential election, only to be barred from running.
During these forays into organised politics, Navalny continued to publish investigations into official corruption, chiming with the ‘kleptocratic moment’ in Western book publishing and journalism. In fact, his appeal as an investigative journalist and anti-corruption advocate increased in the years following the 2011 protests, as the quality of his investigations, and the importance of his targets, reached new heights. He took aim at oligarchs, former president Dmitri Medvedev, and then, this month, at Putin himself. Now, when Navalny calls for action, people listen. They organise, they turn out, they protest.
But, in the last few years, Navalny’s focus on anti-corruption has hollowed out the broader contours of his politics. The mediatised Navalny, churned through the maelstrom of Russian political theatre, is an anti-Putin, anti-corruption icon. All other political content is cast aside.
Navalny did outline a broader sweep of his views as part of his 2018 presidential campaign, but they are faintly remembered. He promised modest increases in redistribution, public spending, infrastructural development and tax cuts for small business owners. He also admitted that his proposed documentation regime for Central Asian and Caucasian migrants could be likened to Donald Trump’s policies. Since then, Navalny has done little to elaborate on these views or to curate an appeal based on his wider politics. Few people have asked him to.
This, I think, suits Navalny. It is part of his political calculation. Anti-corruption has become his raison d’etre. It is the aspect of his appeal which elicits broad support, and binds together Navalny the politician, Navalny the investigative journalist, and Navalny the activist. It provides a simple message around which anti-government activists can coalesce. A well-sketched out, visible policy platform would weigh Navalny down among battles of left, right, and centre.
Instead, the anti-corruption message cuts across political divides and provides the supple clay from which his mediatised image is moulded. And as Jeremy Morris, an anthropologist of post-socialist Russia and Associate Professor of Global Studies at the University of Aarhus, told me, one reason Navalny ‘gets all of this traction with the Western audience is because he’s focussed on this quite simplistic message of anti-corruption.’
Navalny, though, is pragmatic and opportunistic. In line with wider political trends, he now speaks the language of anti-corruption with a populist accent. As Ilya Budraitskis, a historian and supporter of the Russian Socialist Movement, told me that Navalny emphasises the ‘idea of antagonism between the people and the ruling elite’. According to Budraitskis, the core of Navalny’s populism is that government corruption is ‘stealing the future of the majority of people’.
It’s a broad message, targeted at those who want change. It’s why, at his protests, the red flags of the Revolutionary Social Workers Party flutter in the breeze, while right-wing libertarians hand out leaflets. It’s why he flirts with nationalism, while tweeting, one morning last year, that he woke up happy to see Bernie had taken New Hampshire.
For now, Navalny’s anti-corruption populism holds his coalition together. It’s burnished by the drama of Navalny the icon, the defiance in the face of authority, the refusal to succumb to poisoning, the will to return despite the known unknown of arrest and prison. But at some stage Navalny will need to say which direction he’s travelling. If the future has been stolen, Navalny will need to offer a vision of the sunlit uplands in the distance. If money has been siphoned away, Navalny will need to say how it might be better spent.
Morris and Budraitskis both see problems for Navalny here. A vision of the future, leaning left or leaning right, would, inevitably, alienate some supporters, while pleasing others. Morris told me Navalny is ‘stuck in a cul-de-sac’. Despite his unifying anti-corruption message, Navalny, Morris said, ‘can’t really break out into a wider political set of ways of selling himself.’ Budraitskis explained that Navalny ‘is not very clear about the alternative he’s trying to propose. He doesn’t give any final answers of what this beautiful future Russia should be.’
As Budraitskis told me, Navalny ‘opened the way for the politicisation of large sections of young people’. Left and right, Budraitksis said, can ‘use this politicisation to promote their ideas and their alternative.’ The libertarian right, who have grown in force and number in recent years, would like the state to be stripped back, removed from people’s lives. The left, a small bunch of groups and tendencies, would use the state for redistribution, to combat economic inequality.
On the ground, these left groups are active in the politics of daily life. The Russian Socialist Movement and the Socialist Alternative, the two most prominent groups, agitate against state corruption at the local level. They protest at untreated landfill sites, they battle against sexism, they agitate against local officials. Close to my old neighbourhood in northwest Moscow, bound by trees, parks and Moscow’s orbital motorway, the local left came out to protest against plans to develop housing on a large park. These actions, though not aligned with Navalny, draw on his message. They share his enemies, but not his solutions.
Today, though, Navalny has little chance to elaborate on his vision for Russia’s future. He is battling for his own. Locked up in a prison in north-east Moscow, his fate is unclear. There is not much to be gained from predictions, but it seems unlikely that he will be free to walk the streets of Moscow in the near future. In his absence, calls for further protest meetings ring out. They will probably continue until his fate is resolved.