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Done apologizing for Putin Nobel laureate Andre Geim describes his lost of faith in the Kremlin and hopes for Alexey Navalny

Source: Meduza
Colin McPherson / Alamy / Vida Press

Alexey Navalny has been on a hunger strike since March 31 to protest his medical treatment in prison. The incarcerated opposition politician demands access to his own team of doctors, and his spokespeople now warn that his health is deteriorating so rapidly that he could die “in a matter of days.” In the West, open letters in Navalny’s defense have attracted the support of cultural celebrities and scholars, including Nobel laureates. One of these people is Andre Geim, the Russian-born Dutch-British physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Geim first spoke publicly in support of Navalny in early February. In an interview with Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova, he explained why he’s no longer “a Putin apologist” and why he’s decided now to criticize the Russian authorities’ treatment of Navalny.

Andre Geim says he doesn’t like getting political. “Life has taught me that I always lose whenever I vote for someone or participate in a referendum,” he told Meduza. Geim also says he’s not very familiar with Alexey Navalny’s political platform. “If I start looking into it, I expect I’d object to a lot of it,” he guesses. As recently as 2015, he describes himself as a “Putin apologist.” The award-winning physicist says historical context is needed to understand Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and he dislikes the West’s tendency to vilify Moscow. Initially, Geim was also skeptical that Russian spies used a deadly poison to try to assassinate Sergey Skripal in Great Britain in March 2018, but the two suspects’ embarrassingly unconvincing interview on Russian state television robbed him of his lingering faith in the Kremlin.

Now Navalny’s supporters say he’s dying, and Geim says the world will hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible if the oppositionist dies in prison. What’s happening to Navalny, Geim says, is a “watershed moment” for Russia, and he warns that Navalny’s death would unleash “chaos” comparable to the Stalinist era’s political terror. 

“It made quite an impression on me when he decided to return to Russia from Germany. Ninety-nine percent of people wouldn’t have done that. He’s become the kind of dissident and human rights activist who’s willing to sacrifice his life,” Geim told Meduza. “From the outside, you get the sense that Navalny wants to be Jesus Christ, but it’s wrong and unfair to say this because it has negative connotations. It would be more correct to say that he’s made his name and devoted himself to the fight against corruption and become a political figure.”

Despite Navalny’s courage, however, Geim says he wouldn’t back a Navalny presidency. Oppositionists, he explains, “too easily divide everything into black and white.” Positions of actual power require more nuanced views of the world, the physicist told Meduza. “In any case,” says Geim, “this is an abstract conversation and I don’t think Navalny has any chance of becoming president in the next two decades. He should stick to what he enjoys and where he excels — acting as the opposition’s leader.”

Geim says he’s aware that not everyone will welcome his decision to share his opinions about Navalny and Russian politics. He renounced his Russian citizenship after emigrating to the Netherlands in the 1990s, but he says he still considers himself “at least half-Russian.”

In the past few years, interactions with other scientists from Russia have also caused him some alarm. “In conversations with me, colleagues and friends from Russia have started avoiding political subjects and stopped sharing their opinions about events. It’s largely because people have nothing to say now; they’ve grown accustomed to it. But I think we got this fear — these genes — from our parents or our grandparents from Stalin’s times,” Geim told Meduza

Historical memory plays a big part in Andre Geim’s thinking about Russians and Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy in Russia. He worries that average people embrace authoritarianism to the degree that they’d even accept the return of monarchy. “And there’s no opposition currently strong enough to overcome either this view or [popular] support for Putin’s royal guard, who benefit from everything happening,” says Geim.

Remembering history cuts both ways, however, and an appreciation of the past could also remind Russia’s oligarchs and politicians that a return to anything resembling Stalin’s repressions would threaten them, as well. “All the oligarchs who are now silent and the politicians who rose by supporting Putin, as well as his friends — they all have Stalinism’s genes, just like the rest of us,” Geim told Meduza. “That’s my last hope.”

Tune in and help Meduza!

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Abridged summary by Kevin Rothrock