‘At last, the Kremlin and opposition see history the same’ Journalists, analysts, and opposition figures respond to Alexey Navalny’s manifesto on the wicked 1990s and failure of Russia’s democrats
A week after a Moscow court added another 19 years to Alexey Navalny’s prison time (for various supposed “extremist” crimes), his associates published an essay written in his name titled “My Fear and Loathing.” In the manifesto, as it soon became known in the news media and on social networks, Navalny argued that the root of many of Russia’s most fundamental problems today can be found in the 1990s — specifically in the compromises and expediencies liberals then embraced at the expense of democracy. Navalny also criticized multiple individuals by name and warned that figures in Russia’s contemporary opposition are repeating their predecessors’ mistakes. The text sparked a discussion among Russian liberals about the legacy of the 1990s and whether Navalny has the right to castigate that era’s politicians and public figures when his allies today have sometimes exhibited questionable judgment. Many even question whether Navalny even wrote the essay. Meduza collected some of the reactions to the 1990s Manifesto.
Responses from individuals named in Navalny’s essay
Novaya Gazeta Europe editor-in-chief
I never participated in the NASHI movement. The editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta is Dmitry Muratov. And I also never defended anyone at the center of one of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigations. I ask the authors of “Alexey Navalny’s Letters” to be a bit more careful with their fact-checking. Writing letters from political prisoners isn’t Twitter.
Navalny issued an appeal yesterday, the details of which I will not address, although I’m named there, among others, as one of the people Alexey hates. I refuse to get into an argument like this with someone in prison who’s actually enduring torturous conditions and is completely isolated from the outside world.
Alexey and I will argue when he’s free. I hope he’ll be okay.
However, regarding the discussion that arose yesterday, I want to talk about one idea that I think is dangerous — an idea that occupies the minds of Russian oppositionists and their supporters. This is the idea that our main task now is not to repeat the mistakes of the democrats of the 1990s and to prevent a new Putin from coming to power when we get our chance to influence the situation.
There are several problems with this approach. First, democrats were in power for just a year and a half back in the infamous 90s, and they had no chance. Second, we won’t face what they did because the changes will follow a completely different scenario. And third, a living, breathing Putin still exists right now in Russia, and it would be nice to oppose him now however we can — preferably together in coordination.
Journalist and former editor-in-chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow
Dear Mr. Alexey Navalny! None of your letters change my opinion that the investigation against you was conducted unfairly, that the trial against you was unjust, and that the sentence was wrongful. And that it would be just to close your case and release you (and the other political prisoners).
Exiled businessman and former oil tycoon
I’m disappointed that another article published in Navalny’s name contains a blatant lie. (I say “in his name” because I’m not convinced that it’s possible to write such articles while in punitive confinement. They never allowed me to do it, anyway.) The lie is of a fundamental nature: a call to “join Prigozhin’s ranks” is very different from a call to help Prigozhin square off with Putin and stockpile weapons so they can take power themselves.
It’s the difference between wanting to shift concern for one’s destiny onto some other “hero” (who isn’t a hero at all) and the desire to determine your fate yourself. To become a force yourself that will lead the country to democracy and prosperity. It’s a shame if this went misunderstood, and it’s even worse if it was, in fact, understood, but…
P.S. I don’t want to comment on the article in more detail — it’s too frustrating. Russia needs Navalny as a talented politician (we don’t have many of them). And making him out to be a poison-spitting hater is a job for the presidential administration, not for his own teammates.
Other noteworthy reactions
Political Science Department dean at the European University at St. Petersburg
I agree that democratization’s failure was largely due to the anti-democratic attitudes of the 1990s political class; that these same attitudes were partly connected to the fear of losing power and, with it, the opportunity for quick personal enrichment; and that the result of these attitudes was a foundation for reforms that lacked the necessary legal (especially constitutional) basis. And what does all this tell us? That such mistakes must be avoided in the future. What doesn’t it tell us? That the exact same people as in the 90s are certain to make these mistakes again, and that entirely new people (or, put another way, the same old people who didn’t reach the top of the mountain in the 90s) will enjoy immunity against such errors.
Journalist who covered the attempted coup in Moscow August 1991 and later reported in President Yeltsin’s press pool
I pulled myself together and didn’t limit myself to just the excerpts. I sat down and read the entirety of this confession/rebuke by my homeland’s main political prisoner. This is his first public message to the city and the world since the announcement of an insane sentence that’s tantamount to murdering this prisoner. I’m not a destructologist, but I can’t remain silent. I don’t think he wrote this text. Or, if he did write it, then all his previous texts belong to someone else. I’m not talking about the context at all, by the way. I’m better off saying nothing there — let [the one-time chief KGB ideologist] Filipp Bobkov conduct a thorough examination. I urgently demand freedom for all political prisoners.
Navalny’s post today, dedicated to the failure of democratization in Russia in the 1990s (I agree with him for the most part), looks like an afterword to the preface for my book “Authoritarian Russia.” [...]:
Former deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation
I hope that Navalny understands that plenty of similar allegations against him can also be crammed into this style — stuff just as vulgarly primitive and tailored for the uncritical view of fans. […]
What’s happened, unfortunately, is what had to happen: Navalny, locked away in prison, has lost touch with the context of current events, with the news of the day, with the pulse of the times. He’s still living with the same pre-war ideas about the scale of certain processes. It’s perfectly natural, and it’s pointless to blame him for this.
He ceases to be relevant. Regrettably, even his courtroom and prison saga, as well as his monstrous prison sentence, are events that have become more important and interesting than what he now says and thinks. Because he’s recycling all the same talking points from Putin’s propaganda as 10 years ago, thus repeating the fate of [Yabloko party founder Grigory] Yavlinsky. And with the same ending, I fear.
But most important is something else. The most important thing is what he doesn’t understand (or his lawyers or those paying them don’t explain to him): there’s no longer any electoral maneuvering inside Russia. There’s no clearing to consolidate supporters, no means of unleashing this protest, and no chance to turn people’s silent support into public action.
Everything is crushed under Putin’s boot, and it’s not even close. Put simply, it’s 1937 all over again. [...] The truth is that the window of opportunity for building a free and democratic Russia depends directly on Ukraine’s victory in this war. And no amount of exposing the “young reformers” from the 1990s will affect this at all. It’s just a shot into nothingness.
Political scientist and former Moscow State Institute of International Relations professor
At last, the Kremlin and the opposition finally see the past the same way: the damned 1990s are to blame for everything! At the same time, the designated “culprits” readily communicated with those same oppositionists during the 2000s, hoping for their political and financial support. And sometimes they got it, by the way.
Journalist, former longtime Echo of Moscow radio host
It turns out that Russia’s main enemies aren’t Putin (who’s the Moon’s enemy after all) and his gang, but the late Yeltsin, [Yeltsin’s younger daughter Tatyana] Dyachenko, [Valentin] Yumashev, [Vladimir] Gusinsky, the reformists, the “independent media” and “democratic society,” Russia’s leadership from 1991 to 1993, [Alexey] Venediktov, [Ksenia] Sobchak, [Maxim] Katz, and [Kirill] Martynov.
Journalist, former longtime Echo of Moscow radio host
My position in a nutshell (with all the reservations about the fact that Navalny is in prison and just got another 19 years and that debating somebody behind bars is the last thing anybody needs) is that I think Navalny is right that you shouldn’t applaud those actions that you consider to be unacceptable and help the regime. And you can criticize them — why not.
On the other hand, I don’t think that criticizing the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigations (or even the foundation itself) marks someone as an enemy of democracy or as a secret assistant to Vladimir Putin. Especially since, as it was recently revealed [likely a reference to Leonid Volkov stepping down as chairman amid a scandal involving his private lobbying on behalf of billionaire Mikhail Fridman] that the principled people there every now and again “make mistakes.” But the main thing is that Vladimir Putin’s opponents have so many political allies today that it’s the right time to draw red lines and decide who’s genuine and who isn’t.
Soviet, British, and Russian journalist
I tip my hat! I don’t agree with everything — I’m still not convinced that Venediktov took money for supporting electronic voting, but I agree completely with everything Navalny writes about the compromises of the 1990s, about how they pissed away a great chance that might never appear again in our century.
Whatever happens later with Russia, the most important thing is that we need to help Ukraine win the war. What we’ve seen is that the mistakes are ours, but it’s Ukrainians paying for them with their lives. That’s why I don’t really care who wins in distant future elections. What I need today is to weaken Putin’s power, I need more sabotage, more of a “split in the elites,” and so on. […]
A split in the nomenklatura is the only scenario that can remove [Putin] relatively soon. And instead of this, we split the camp of his opponents… Just imagine people answering [Navalny] by recalling how the 2011 protest movement was “drained.” [This is a reference to debates last decade about whether it was acceptable to negotiate with city authorities for demonstration permits.] Or they recall the idiotic (it’s clear today that it was a mistake) “Smart Voting.” And it’s off to the races from there.
In his long article from the dungeons, Alexey Navalny asks the rhetorical question: “Who are we really? And why are we needed?” Alexey considers this question to be rhetorical, but answers abound, for example:
It seems that, for more than a year and a half now, the Anti-Corruption Foundation has preferred to fight for the purity of ranks over fighting for peace (or at least for power). It’s certainly an important issue, but it would be nice to know: in the context of one of the greatest catastrophes in Russian history, are we fighting to stop the monster or to avoid dirtying our hands with an accidental handshake in the process?
Economist, political scientist
I confess that I always respected Alexey Navalny as a political warrior but without any reverence for him as an analyst and thinker. Today’s text changes everything. He’s emotionally said all that I’ve been writing, at least since the mid-2010s in both Russia and the West. […] I still believe that the scale of stupidity, shortsightedness, and selfishness of Russian democrats of the 1990s simply defies rational explanation (even if you reason that their main motive was their rabid appetite for grabbing whatever they could). And I really don’t understand how there can be silence from the honorable Russian emigre opposition, which is from that time and from that class entirely, with only minimal exceptions. It’s simply inconceivable — as inconceivable as the reasons our emigrants still hope to return to power. Apparently, only the adversities that befell Mr. Navalny can switch on the brains of many in our intelligentsia.
I think the author [of the Navalny essay] is wrong to lump together corrupt officials from the 1990s with today’s politicians and journalists. When Navalny accuses the former of failing to create a system of normal democratic institutions, the claim looks perfectly justified. But that hardly means that the current radical opposition should refuse to interact with the moderate opposition.
In a situation where you’re in power and you’re building democratic institutions, you might consider it unacceptable to adopt an approach of “the ends justify the means.” But in a situation when you’re fighting for that power — when you haven’t yet achieved it — it’s an unaffordable luxury to reject potential allies just because they once entertained such an approach. […]
To overthrow the regime and come to power, you need the widest possible coalition. As the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers.