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Challenging a top Kremlin critic to a ‘duel,’ the head of Russia's National Guard broke all the rules of dueling

Source: Meduza
Niday Picture Library / Alamy / Vida Press

How Zolotov challenged Navalny to a duel

Viktor Zolotov addressed Alexey Navalny publicly in a YouTube video, accusing him of insults and defamation, demanding “redress in single combat.” In his remarks, Zolotov referred to officers’ tradition, stating, “From time immemorial, scoundrels have had their faces smashed and been called to duels.” He specified no terms, offering merely to fight Navalny “in the ring, on the judo mat, or wherever.” Zolotov also promised to make “juicy mincemeat” of his opponent. Navalny, meanwhile, is currently in jail, serving a 30-day sentence for staging an illegal protest in January. In his YouTube video, Zolotov repeatedly insults Navalny, calling him a “scoundrel” and a “coward,” and he threatens to “mop the floor” with him while the whole National Guard staff watches.

How Zolotov’s challenge violates the actual rules of dueling

Explanation by Yakov Gordin, historian and author of the books “Russian Duel” and “Duels and Duelists: The Panorama of Metropolitan Life”

This whole story bears no resemblance to real dueling tradition, and it’s not — as many are saying — because Navalny isn’t a soldier. Those kinds of duels certainly happened. For example, Dantes-Gekkern was an officer and Pushkin was a civilian. There were cases when a civilian killed a soldier in a duel (the nobility, as a rule, knew how to shoot).

First, General Zolotov is the head of Russia’s National Guard. It is his duty to uphold the laws, but here he is inciting others to violate the law. I know of no case where a state official of any rank responded to corruption allegations by challenging his accuser to a duel. All dueling, whether it was pistols or swords, was prohibited. Dueling could get soldiers locked up, demoted, or deployed to the Caucasus.

Second, a duel challenge never came from the powers that be. There were duels involving high-ranking figures, but the initiative always came from the younger party who felt he had exhausted all alternatives to defend his honor. In the early 1820s, there was a famous duel between the generals Kiselyov and Mordvinov. Brigade Commander Mordvinov challenged Army Chief of Staff Kiselyov, and in the end he was fatally wounded.

Third, in the time of duels, aristocrats agreed on the weapons and it was understood that they both knew how to use them. In Zolotov’s case, it’s someone trained in hand-to-hand combat proposing a fight against someone who perhaps has never in his life been in a ring.

Fourth, if we’re talking about dueling tradition, it excludes fist fights. A great connoisseur of dueling rules, Pushkin wrote with contempt in the 1830s about a group of young cavalrymen who had a fist fight instead of a duel. When he heard about this incident, though he was hardly a fan of duels, Tsar Nikolai I booted the soldiers out of the Guards in disgrace.

General Zolotov has plenty of ways to respond to Navalny within the bounds of the law, if he’s certain that he is correct. Resorting to a “duel” is too simple. It’s no different from screaming, “I’m stronger, which makes me right!”