David M. Herszenhorn is Russia, Ukraine and East Europe editor for The Washington Post. His latest book is “The Dissident: Alexey Navalny, Profile of a Political Prisoner” (Twelve).
In January 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was arrested and later imprisoned, following an assassination attempt by the Kremlin. Can you explain the charges?
He was [initially] accused of not checking in with his parole officers, based on an earlier conviction for fraud. In Russia this often happens in criminal cases. Essentially, the state strings together a flimsy basis for a conviction. The [combined] charges against Navalny means he will spend more than 30 years in prison. Some of these charges came from the fact that the Anti-Corruption Foundation – a non-profit organisation he established in 2011 – was touted as an extremist organisation. Navalny is only an extremist in the sense that he has demanded democracy and free elections. He has never advocated violence for political purposes. But in Russia if you are an enemy of the state, they will find a way to prosecute and convict you.
Your book makes comparisons between Navalny and Nelson Mandela.
Navalny is now starting to accept that he is a political prisoner in the sense that Mandela was. But his chances of being president, in the way that Mandela became president of South Africa, are actually pretty slim. The title of my book is The Dissident. But Navalny never wanted to be known as a dissident. He has always wanted to be known as a politician. It’s taken a while for him to accept that he is a political prisoner and a dissident. There is no guarantee that he will survive prison. Also, it would be extremely difficult for him to form a political career going forward.
Why would a political career be difficult, aside from Putin’s opposition?
There would have to be a sea change of public opinion in Russia. Navalny is on the record saying that he thinks Putin’s war in Ukraine is a war of aggression. He has also said that Russia should withdraw its troops immediately from the [occupied territories] in Ukraine and that Russia needs to compensate Ukraine, using gas and oil revenue. Coming out against a war in which tens of thousands of Russians are losing fathers, sons, brothers and husbands will not sit well with Russians. For them to believe that this was pointless and, in fact, a mistake is going to be hard. Unless Russia has some kind of reckoning with its own history, similar to what happened to Germany after the Second World War. But that seems unlikely.
Navalny’s views on Ukraine are complex, aren’t they?
Yes. In Ukraine Navalny is despised. Mainly because of his past views. Navalny has said that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people. Putin has made similar comments too, but in a much more sinister way. But for Navalny, it is literally true for him personally. His father is Ukrainian, his mother is Russian. Navalny spent many summers as a child in his grandparent’s village in Zalissia, about 20 kilometres north of Kyiv, and close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster had a big effect on his life, because he knew the Soviet authorities were lying. So Navalny has intense personal connections to Ukraine. But at the same time, he is very, very Russian.
What is Navalny’s position on Crimea? He believes it belongs to Russia, right?
Navalny has said Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal and violated international law. But he has also said some complicated things about Crimea. A Moscow radio show in 2014 asked him – in a scenario where he became president of Russia – whether he would give back Crimea to Ukraine. Navalny said: “Crimea is what, a sandwich with sausage to be returned here and there?”
His position at this time was that Crimea was de facto part of Russia. However, he has since adjusted his previous views. Today, his view is that the 1991 borders of Ukraine need to be respected: that means Crimea goes back. But he is not exactly shouting that Crimea needs to be returned.
Is Navalny a Russian nationalist?
Well, he has, after all, claimed that personally. He founded a movement called NAROD (The People), which attempted to be progressive and nationalist at the same time.
Why do you refer to him as “an ethnonationalist”?
Navalny did have a flirtation with far-right and xenophobic political movements. But I think he realised he was getting nothing but grief for this brief flirtation, so he retreated. He was attempting to do something political that did not pan out. But he was not supporting neo-Nazis ideologically.
So, in your view, his flirtation with far-right nationalism was a political experiment?
Navalny’s own views on this topic are a bit more nuanced. We have to understand them in that way. In his mind, Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians are one and the same people. But if you are going to be putting your brother people on a pedestal, you are, by definition, saying: others are less than that. Navalny would dispute that. But Navalny does indeed see himself as part of a white Slavic Russian nation that stands apart. Also, some videos he has made in the past have troubled people. Especially videos displaying his pro-gun, anti-immigrant views.
What about the conspiracy theory that he is a paid Kremlin stooge?
I get why these conspiracy theories come up. But how much do people think Navalny would have to be paid, in order to spend years in a solitary isolation cell in a brutal prison colony? It’s impossible to believe that Navalny is some sort of Kremlin lackey.
What do we know about Navalny’s present condition in prison?
He is in brutal conditions and being treated very badly. Right now, Navalny is being treated as an extremist and a terrorist by the Putin regime.
Navalny is still active on X (formerly Twitter), with millions of followers. How does he communicate?
In some cases, he has to write handwritten notes. There have been times, though, when he has complained that he has been denied paper and pen. But we do know – and I’ve seen this personally – that he has written notes on pages, then he will give them to a lawyer who will take a cell phone picture and then send them to their intended recipients.
Is the information that gets out to the public in Navalny’s name always accurate?
I really don’t think we can be certain about that. Especially given the current conditions he is in. Navalny and his closest collaborators are extremely well aligned in their political views, however. Of that we are certain. But can we say that every single word that comes out in his name is written by him? That is difficult to verify under circumstances where he is not allowed to speak for himself.
But this is not new. For long stretches when Navalny was under house arrest, he was banned from using the internet. Under such conditions, he would take questions, and then his wife, Yulia, would post information online in his name. In fact, some people who know Navalny well have said that he is not one person but two: Alexey and Yulia. This theory says that that he and his wife are actually a political team. And that Yulia Navalnaya is a much bigger political force than she wants to take credit for.