On January 13, 2021, when I learned that Alexei Navalny intended to return to Moscow, I posted the following to my Facebook page: “Once, at the circus, I saw a highwire act. The orchestra fell silent, and the audience did too. High up above our heads, a teenage boy was making his way along a nearly invisible tightrope. I was so afraid for him that I grew dizzy. And then a child’s voice burst through the silence: ‘Good boy! Hold on!’ Today’s news inspired the same sense of dizziness, as well as the urge to shout like that child.”
In those January days, our admiration for Navalny — who had only recently, miraculously, recovered from poisoning — outweighed our fear for him. He knew what he was doing. Or so it seemed. We compared him to Napoleon on the bridge of Arcole, to Ivan, the lucky fool of Russian fairy tales, even to Pushkin’s Pretender (“Providence watches him, of course; / Well then, my friends, we’ll not be downcast either”). Simply put, we saw him as a chosen man, a person endowed with a sense of destiny. This feeling was only intensified when, upon arriving at Sheremetyevo, Navalny selected the ideal background (a wall-size photograph depicting the towers and domes of the Kremlin) for an interview — his final interview while still at liberty.
Looking at photographs of Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia, we thought to ourselves: might we really live to see this beautiful young couple reach the heights of political power? Why not? After all, we had made Pushkin our national symbol — a cheerful genius in a land where geniuses abound, but are usually far more somber. Tyrants (and not just Russian ones) tend to be short and unattractive, to have swollen, beady eyes set in puffy, sickly faces, to be deprived of the joys of family life. What a contrast Alexei and Yulia provided!
Navalny’s lightness and wit, his gift for improvisation, were unprecedented and shone most brightly in his famous conversation with one of his poisoners, which reached millions of Internet users. Some professional filmmakers — quite famous ones — objected to Navalny receiving an award for this production, but they were wrong: it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything remotely as interesting.
Many of us still remember the German aviator Mathias Rust landing near Red Square on the evening of May 28, 1987. Navalny’s conversation with the hapless chemist gave rise to the same sensation we experienced then, 33 years ago: life will be different, the barriers are sure to collapse, the window has opened a crack and cannot be slammed shut. The terrible, almighty “Organs of State Security” have been placed in a funny, ridiculous light. Actors of enormous masculine charisma — so it seemed — will no longer play spies in the movies, and those pimply boys who line up for FSB academies might also think twice.
“Why won’t the judge show herself — what is she, naked?” Navalny asks in court. Imagine the presence of mind it takes to joke under those circumstances. And then his final exclamation: “Russia will be happy!” — a cheerful phrase in place of the far darker, albeit accurate, slogans of previous years.
Heroism as a gift, as a form of genius that cannot be faked or imitated — this is what elicits such admiration from one segment of the population and such envy from another (mostly male). It’s strange to envy a gift for politics as one might envy a gift for music or poetry, but it’s quite natural to envy personal heroism — natural and shameful. People, including those who nominally belong to the political opposition but haven’t discerned this envy in themselves, are now writing manifestos, expressing their disagreement with Navalny’s views. They fail to understand that this is no longer a matter of views. “I’m going out!” countless brave young people posted on social media after the Navalny trial, and then immediately took to the streets of their cities. Theirs was the only healthy way to respond, though it could land them in serious trouble.
Now the cheerfulness has evaporated, ceding way to profound despair. Navalny is in prison, being tortured with sleep deprivation, refused medical assistance. Every day brings darker, more depressing news. The political world has turned black and white. It’s pointless to reason in terms of right vs. left, parliamentary vs. presidential republic, nation state vs. empire. The nature of the conflict is plain as day: life vs. its absence, light vs. darkness. Society has been plunged into a state of moral catastrophe, of impotence, once again especially pronounced among men. Neither immersion in our work, nor retreat into our private lives, nor emigration can save us. Sure, there’s your small circle of friends, there’s Facebook — which has taken the place of real social institutions and fostered the illusion that we’re among our own kind — but take a closer look and you see Russian life shrinking, growing faint. First one, then another decides to leave: but how will that help Navalny and hundreds (if not thousands) of other political prisoners? No, even if you leave, even if you distance yourself from the tragedy, you won’t stop watching it. “We’ve got to do something…” “Well, we lived through the Soviet era…” “What does the Soviet era have to do with it? If you’re going to draw comparisons, then let’s talk about Germany in the mid-’30s…” These are the conversations that make up the whole of Russian life.
I’d like to end on a consoling, if not entirely optimistic, note, but where can I find one? All I can do is to repeat what I started with, but quietly, under my breath: good man, hold on… Just think — maybe he’ll make it?
Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Maxim Osipov is a Russian writer and cardiologist based in Tarusa, 101 kilometers outside Moscow. His English-language debut, Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson) appeared from NYRB Classics in 2019, and individual stories and essays have been published in The Paris Review, Granta, Hazlitt, and other journals.
Photograph by Evgeny Feldman, 2017.