Foreign Relations & International Law

The Lawfare Podcast: Benjamin Nathans on Alexei Navalny

Benjamin Wittes, Benjamin Nathans, Jen Patja
Wednesday, March 27, 2024, 8:00 AM
What is Alexei Navalny's legacy?

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Brookings

Benjamin Nathans is a professor of Russian and Soviet history at the University of Pennsylvania, with a particular specialty in the history of Russian and Soviet dissidents. He joined Lawfare Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Wittes to talk about the legacy of Alexei Navalny, his life and death, and how Navalny was similar to and different from other dissidents, both recent and historic. They talked about how his death was related to the sham elections in Russia and the protests that he earned in response to those elections, whether there is anybody who can carry the flag that he bore going forward, and the future of the Russian liberal movement.

Click the button below to view a transcript of this podcast. Please note that the transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.

 

Transcript

[Audio Excerpt]

Benjamin Nathans

And I think Navalny's calculus was, if he didn't return to Russia, if he essentially accepted the Putin government's permission for him to leave, and in his case go to Germany for medical care, and remained in Germany or somewhere else in the West, that he would be betraying his own loyalty to his country, and he was most definitely a Russian patriot. But more than that, he would be sending a message of defeat to any actual or potential followers and allies inside Russia, and that there was very little he could do outside Russia to influence the situation.

[Main Podcast]

Benjamin Wittes

I'm Benjamin Wittes, and this is the Lawfare Podcast, March 27th, 2024. Benjamin Nathans is a professor of Russian and Soviet history at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a particular specialty in the history of Russian and Soviet dissidents. He joined me in the Virtual Jungle studio to talk about the legacy of Alexei Navalny, his life and death. We talked about how Navalny was similar to and different from other dissidents, both recent and historic. We talked about how his death was related to the sham elections and the protests that he earned in response to those elections. We talked about whether there was anybody who could carry the flag that he bore going forward and the future of the Russian liberal movement.

It's the Lawfare Podcast, March 27th: Benjamin Nathans on Alexei Navalny.

So I want to start with some background information. I suspect a lot of Americans really learned about Navalny when he went back to Russia and was imprisoned and then reiterated knowing about him when he was killed. Give us a little background. Who is he and how did he become the most prominent of the Putin opponents?

Benjamin Nathans

The first thing, I guess, I want to tell you about Alexei Navalny is that he was a lawyer by training, and it's rather unusual for opposition figures in Russian and Soviet history to have had legal training. It's something new, and it marks him as professionally oriented towards public policy and eventually to politics. Most of the Soviet dissidents that I've been working on were mathematicians and scientists and computer scientists, occasionally humanists, but there was hardly any lawyer among them, which did have a big impact on their approach.

So Navalny was, I believe 47 when he died. As a young man, he came from the provinces. He actually studied at Yale for a year. He was brought over on an exchange program. And my impression is that that was an eye-opening experience for him. But there was never any doubt, I think, either for him or the people who knew him that he was a Russian patriot. His first foray into public activism had a rather pronounced nationalist tinge. He said some things about keeping out people from the Caucasus from Chechnya and Armenia, Azerbaijan, that he probably regretted later because they sounded a little xenophobic, but he modulated that. And if you are interested in what and how Russians knew of Alexei Navalny, it was overwhelmingly through the internet, because he and his foundation created a whole series of exposé videos, which were very professionally done, insightful, funny, and narrated by Navalny himself, in which they mercilessly exposed the corruption of the political elite, up to and eventually including, Putin himself, and along the way, targeting figures like Putin's sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev one of Putin's daughters. People who couldn't possibly have come by the hundreds of millions of dollars of property inside and outside Russia that Navalny revealed them to have.

And he was also a charismatic public figure. He was an electrifying presence at rallies, very self-confident, over six feet tall, very good-looking, very good with people, very good interacting with people. And he had, essentially, one and only one relentless message: that this regime was thoroughly corrupt. Up until very recently, there wasn't much by way of an actual political program of what should be done with Russia. Navalny attracted people in Russia by exposing what was being done and what shouldn't be done.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah. So that's a fabulous overview. And I do think one of the--I was at the You at Noon voting at the Russian embassy in Washington, I guess on Sunday. So let's work backward and tell us a little bit about You at Noon and what it was and how it worked.

Benjamin Nathans

Sure. To really understand the significance of the call that Navalny and after his killing his widow, Yulia, made for people to show up at Russian polling stations at noon, you have to know a little bit about the electoral system in Russia. In the old days under the communists, there were also elections, very frequent elections, but they were strictly performative. And it sounds ludicrous to say this, but these were elections in which there was only one candidate per office. Just a brief digression, the word for elections in Russian is “vybory,’ and that's the plural of the word that means choice, vybor. And so the old joke in the Soviet era was that what they had there in the USSR was elections without choices, “vybory bez vybora.” And people said that because your only choices were to either tick the box for the party's candidate, or deface the ballot, or write some nasty message on it, or not participate in the elections. But there was pressure at your workplace and from the party to participate because the party wanted to constantly create the facade of overwhelming public support for the Communist Party's candidates and policies. And Soviet elections were famous for producing margins of victory of 97%, which basically meant virtually the entire population appeared to be voting for the communist candidate.

So Putin who was born in, raised in, formed by the Soviet system is no dummy. And he understood that that farce of a popular mandate was just not going to cut it anymore. So the post-Soviet era has featured elections, which are nominally multi-party elections. There really are multiple candidates, but as we all know, including from our own experience in this country, there are many things you can do to tilt the scales in favor of one candidate. You can control the media, you can plant fake news. You can have a completely asymmetric funding base, the ability to buy advertisements and get them on the air. So what Russia has now is the facade of a multi-party system, but de facto, Putin is able to either eliminate his opponents or cripple whatever chances they have of actually gaining votes. And so he too is able to produce polling results that any Western politician would kill for. Putin, of course, literally does kill for them by eliminating people like Navalny.

So the elections are essentially a farce. In my observation, ever since Putin secured his hold on power, I would say starting shortly after the year 2000, so going on a quarter century, among my Russian friends and acquaintances, there has never been any sense of surprise at the result of an election. There's never been a sense of uncertainty or anticipation about what might the outcome be. Everybody knows what the outcome is going to be. The only question is by how many percentage points will Putin be reelected?

So the noontime strategy that was articulated by Navalny while he was still alive was to have opponents of Putin, not necessarily coalescing around an alternative, but coalescing around opposition to Putin's rule, to have them all show up at the polling station at the same time. The theory was, first of all, they would not be in physical danger because the police can't punish people for showing up to vote. And it would look terrible for them to close the polling stations temporarily in anticipation of this surge of anti-Putin voters. But the real purpose of this type of action, which I think is very unfamiliar to Americans, I don't know of elections or instances of protest votes where that's been the strategy, let's all show up at the same time at the polling stations. the purpose, and this was articulated by Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, in the video that she made very shortly after his death, was to let opponents of Putin see that they are not alone. Was to make visible the substantial, hopefully substantial, numbers of people who do not want to support that government, that regime. And she emphasized in her video, which is very powerful, over and over again, we are more than we think we are. We need to stop being invisible to each other because of our fear.

And this was a very clever tactic, not to change the outcome of the vote. Nobody is under any illusions that this is going to tip the scale away from Putin. But this was done, I believe, for moral and psychological reasons, for an opposition that is almost incapable of visualizing itself, because people are so afraid to dissent openly.

Benjamin Wittes

I have put up, for those who are seeing this as a video as opposed to a podcast, I've put up on the screen an example of the sample ballot that the Navalny people suggested that people use. And this was, I think there were probably a about a thousand people at the Russian embassy who turned up at noon, which the embassy was a polling station. And turned up at noon, many of them with very anti-Putin signs. And there was this, people were walking around with a sample ballot. And it has both of, or two of, the non-Putin candidates checked. And as somebody explained to me, the idea is by checking two, you ensure that the ballot is invalid. So it won't be counted and won't legitimize any electoral process. And then on Putin's line, it says, “The czar is not real,” or the czar is, I guess it means illegitimate, right?

Benjamin Nathans

It basically means it says the czar himself is a fake.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah. So obviously Putin gets to decide how much information about the balloting—they can just make up whatever numbers they want and presumably did, but they can't entirely make up what people see. And so, what did people see? It was very moving in Washington. What did people see in Russian cities, do we know? I mean, there were a million people or something in Berlin. It was, it was a huge thing in Berlin, but what about within Russia?

Benjamin Nathans

Yeah. So in Russia, there were surges at polling stations, but they were much more modest than what you're describing in Washington, D.C. or in Berlin. Berlin, by the way, as you probably know, is one of the leading outposts of refugees from the Russian Federation. There's a whole brand-new wave of Russian emigres now who've set up camp in Berlin. And I say a whole new wave because this is a story that has repeated itself really since the early 19th century. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were also refugees from Tsarist Russia. And it's just astonishing to see this pattern repeat itself now across three centuries, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. And the numbers are quite substantial. Over a million Russians fled from Russia in the immediate aftermath of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

So there were surges at Russian polling stations. But my understanding is that they were quite modest in size. They happened in multiple polling stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities. I don't know that there's been a calculation of the total number of people, but it didn't do anything concretely to change, I think, the desired impression of the election, which was this overwhelming landslide of support for Putin, at least according to the official data.

You're right that Putin could essentially doctor the numbers at will. But he doesn't really need to do that much to get the results that he wants. And a lot of people ask me, what would happen if these were really free and fair elections? And Putin would win. Putin would absolutely win a free and fair election at this point, if only because he has eliminated all credible alternatives. And so the question is, well, if he would win, why bother with all of this manipulation? And the answer is it's not enough to win. It's not enough just to have a majority consensus. He wants to create the impression of overwhelming support so as to intimidate and demoralize whatever pockets of opposition there might be.

The defacing of the balloting, and that's a wonderful example that you showed, the Soviets saved everything. So historians have discovered in the archives the defaced ballots from the Khrushchev era and the Brezhnev era. And the depth of Russian folk humor and indignation knows no depth. And they're just amazing.

Benjamin Wittes

They do dark humor really well.

Benjamin Nathans

Oh, they're, they are masters of dark humor. And it really does seem like a bottomless well of creativity. Having said that though, those are exercises in the venting of frustration and anger. They do not change the political situation.

Benjamin Wittes

And so why do we assume that in a free and fair election in which Alexei Navalny were alive, in which Boris Nemtsov were alive, in which the media were not fully state monopolized, in which opposition media existed anymore, other within the country? Why do we assume--and in which, by the way, the opposition, therefore, had an incentive to show up? One reason quite apart from manipulation that the polls would skew to Putin is that if you're opposed to Putin, you really have very little incentive to show up at all. Why do we assume that we know anything about Putin's actual popularity?

Benjamin Nathan

Good question. Let me begin by pointing out that turnout at elections in the United States is not so great either. Even in the absence of pervasive fear, barely half the population bothers to show up for presidential elections and less than that for elections at a lower level on the political pyramid. So just as a baseline. You mentioned a whole slew of really cardinal conditions, which if they were in place in the long-term and in a stable way, that might change things; genuinely free press, lack of government censorship of television, which is still the leading source of news for most Russians. So I wouldn't want to say that if the conditions you described were in place for five years or 10 years, that the outcome wouldn't be different.

But here's why I think Putin would win any such election in the short term. He has run what I think is a fairly competent government. In some areas, very competent government. It's not enough to cite the authoritarianism. You also have to ask, how good is the Putin regime at running the country? What is the material standard of living of the population been like in the quarter century that he's been in power? What has Russia's place in the world been like? You can find plenty of things to complain about. There's still a huge disparity of wealth between Moscow and the rest of the country. Russia is more isolated these days, certainly from the West than it was when Putin came into power. But Putin has some very talented people working for him. And the most striking example of that governing competence is the ability of Russia to withstand a withering regime of sanctions imposed on it by the West without falling apart. It's been a really impressive act of defiance to keep the ruble from plummeting, to keep exports up by finding new purchasers abroad, which is really shifting geopolitical alliances in a fundamental way.

So this is not a government of screw-ups. This is not a government that has failed in the fundamental tasks that most Russians want it to do, namely preserving public order, keeping crime down, and keeping living standards reasonably high, and also just sheer stability. Russians have had to live with so many episodes of the kind of instability Americans have really not experienced since the Great Depression. Putin, I think, scores pretty well on the stability front. It comes at a price, of course, of just an enormous compromise of civil liberties. You shouldn't underestimate just the sheer governing competence of him and his team.

Benjamin Wittes

And yet, the last two years honestly do not look especially competent, right? Blundered into a completely unnecessary war, which they wildly overestimated their capacity to prevail in. They've created a meat grinder for, I don't know what their casualty estimates were for taking Ukraine, but certainly, the couple hundred thousand people that they've lost or whatever it is, it's unclear. For the amount of land, the marginal land that they've taken is wildly out of proportion to any military gain that they've actually made. And they have also sparked a very substantial emigration of people, particularly men, who want to avoid conscription. So, why doesn't this diminish the luster of the Sochi Putin?

Benjamin Nathans

Yeah, it's true that the--first of all, I just want to tweak one thing you said. Russia didn't blunder into this war. This was a completely premeditated war on Putin's part.

Benjamin Wittes

Yes, you're quite right. What I should have said was, ran headlong into a colossal blunder.

Benjamin Nathans

Yes. And it took the vast majority of the Russian population, and from what I read, the vast majority of Russian soldiers, completely by surprise that what they thought was this elaborate military exercise designed to intimidate was actually a prelude to a full-scale invasion. People were shocked at that news.

But let's talk first of all about Putin's record up until then, up until February 2022. The takeover of Crimea was considered a huge success and almost completely bloodless reacquisition of a strategically and symbolically very important territory. The prosecution of these border wars, these frozen wars against Georgia, and then for a decade in eastern Ukraine itself, seemed to be costing the Russian population very little. The government was by that time in full control of television media, and they could manage the image of these conflicts basically at will.

But yes, the decision to go into Ukraine full-scale was incredibly poorly informed. Like many leaders, Putin thought this was going to be a short war. And that's what they thought about World War I, too. Six weeks maximum and that'll be over. He thought it would be a short war. He thought Zelensky would fold because he was, after all, a professional comedian, didn't know anything about politics. He thought Russian troops would be in Kyiv in a matter of days, depose the government, set up a friendly regime. Basta. And nothing of the sort happened. And not only did nothing of the sort happen, but the war exposed the weakness of the Russian military to a degree that I think almost nobody had imagined. There’d been so much talk about the modernization of the Russian military and the strength of the army under Putin. The performance in Syria seemed to be a presage of a very impressive ability to project power abroad. And nothing like that turned out to be the case.

But, if you look at the way things are going now, Putin has managed to stay on course for long enough for the fundamentals to emerge, namely, Russia is a much bigger country, Russia has many more males of fighting age to draw on than Ukraine does. And here I think is the crux of your question, the Russian population is willing to put up with a lot of things that other people would not put up with, like these kinds of casualty rates, despite the very meager territorial gains and the very dramatically scaled back ambitions that Putin now articulates as his criteria for success.

Then at the bottom of all of this is a Russian population that permits its ruler to act with impunity. Putin has done things that are incredible, like simply dismissing regional governors and instead of having them be elected locally, decide that he will appoint them himself with virtually no blowback from the population. He also was able to liquidate the entire remnant of civil society on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. I'm talking about the Memorial Society. I'm talking about the Moscow Helsinki organization. I'm talking about the Andrei Sakharov Center in Moscow. He was able to liquidate these organizations with just a few little ripples of protest. That's the core of the problem, there's no penalty for him for doing these things.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah, so against that background, let's return to Navalny for a moment, because Navalny was the center, particularly after the destruction of the rest of Russian civil society. He survives the poisoning attempt and then makes a super clever set of videos about it in which he basically hunts down the people who did it and confronts them. And then of course, in the final coup de grace, he comes back and live tweets his arrest and shows the creepy incompetence of the police system where they lock him up but don't take away his phone. And he's funny and he's awesomely courageous in a reckless way. And this whole universe of opposition coalesces around him. But at the end of the day, he's first in jail, and then in a Siberian penal colony. And so it becomes a bit of wit, but the joke is on him. I'm interested in whether you think that this strategy, it's impossible not to admire it, but I also think it was stupid that this is a cult of martyrdom that actually has very little prospect of improving or changing governance in Russia. And so, how should we understand the big picture of Navalny's last stand, protracted as it was?

Benjamin Nathans

You characterized it very well, and you characterized it in ways that resonate with figures going back to the 19th century. There was a famous Russian activist born into an aristocratic family, although as an illegitimate child, and then became what historians dub the father of Russian socialism, Alexander Herzen, who wrote probably the most famous memoir of any Russian person of the 19th century. And he reflected many times in his life on this combination of boldness and despair in the Russian opposition.

The logic, I think, for people in Navalny's position is that the range of options is extremely narrow because of the dictatorship that hovers over him and that hovers over all Russians. And the idea was not really to develop a cult of martyrdom and to make himself some apotheosis of suffering on behalf of some future Russian democracy. The idea was to show people that even in the darkest circumstances, there are moral choices to be made, and there are options that keep alive the hope that certain values of freedom and independence, and dignity can be sustained across generations.

And I think Navalny's calculus was, if he didn't return to Russia if he essentially accepted the Putin government's permission for him to leave and in his case, go to Germany for medical care and remained in Germany or somewhere else in the West, that he would be betraying his own loyalty to his country. And he was, as I mentioned at the beginning, most definitely a Russian patriot. But more than that, he would be sending a message of defeat to any actual or potential followers and allies inside Russia, and that there was very little he could do outside Russia to influence the situation. But that by returning, whatever that meant for him personally, he could send a message that he was not cowed and that he had not given in to the fear induced by Putin's strong-arm tactics, and therefore give some measure of inspiration to other people.

Benjamin Wittes

So, one of the things that--I spend a lot of time in Ukrainian circles these days-- and one of the things that's striking about the Ukrainians and Navalny is how little they admire him, and it's quite in contrast to their feelings about Boris Nemtsov. But the phrase, “There are no good Russians,” which you hear constantly in Ukrainian world, is often a reference to Navalny and his followers. And I have listened to many explanations of this, which all seem to come down to certain things that he said in 2012, that he has subsequently retracted, particularly about Crimea. And I don't understand why the hostility. And so I'm curious for your sense of the sociology of the Ukrainian attitude toward Navalny and also about why Navalny's evolution on the subject of Crimea and Ukraine doesn't seem to have moved people very much.

Benjamin Nathans

Yeah. I'm not aware of Navalny as a particular lightning rod among Ukrainians, but that may just reflect that I haven't had the right or the necessary conversations to elicit those views.

Benjamin Wittes

It's less that he's a lightning rod, that then there's a contempt for the Western admiration for him.

Benjamin Nathans

I see. Yeah. Well, as you said yourself, there is a pervasive suspicion of Russians on the part of many Ukrainians, activists or not. And I understand this as drawing on just the incredible horrors that have been inflicted on Ukraine since 2014, first with the annexation of Crimea and then more recently with the full-scale attack. So, I think part of my answer would be it's understandable that a people that is under pervasive assault by a very hostile, dangerous, large, former imperial master would just be suspicious across the board of things Russian.

Now the phrase, there are no good Russians, I reject out of hand. Of course, there are good Russians. There are many, many Russians and they can't--it's just farcical to think that they're all evil creatures bent on destroying Ukraine or the rest of the world. So I, as an American and as a historian, reserve the right to be a little bit more discriminating in my approach to Russians. But I will tell you, among my Russian circle of friends and acquaintances and colleagues, there were many who combined a visceral dislike of Putin with a tremendous pleasure at the annexation of Crimea. Many Russians, even those that I think could be fairly described as liberal and reform-minded and pro-Western regard Crimea as historically Russian territory that, but for a fluke of a gesture by the notoriously capricious Nikita Khrushchev, would have remained part of the Russian Republic within the Soviet order, and when the Soviet Union broke up, would have remained part of Russia and not Ukraine. So that's a separate conversation. I wouldn't hang everything on the Crimean case.

But yes, Navalny said some things early in his career that sounded rather xenophobic. The worst of them were directed against people from the Caucasus, as I mentioned, not against Ukrainians. But he's an ethnic Russian and he had a way of talking about Russia that, as with many other people, bore in an unselfconscious way, the traces of an imperial mindset. And that runs very, very deep, very deep in, in Russian culture, in Russian literature. That's the thing that's not going to disappear overnight. And Ukrainians are extremely sensitive to that, as they should be.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah, and they hear it in speech where it's not necessarily apparent to American ears. And I don't mean to criticize them for that. There is a sensitivity to--they would say a sophistication about what they're hearing that we lack, we might say a sensitivity. I think probably both are true.

Benjamin Nathans

Yes. There are certain linguistic nuances about how you use the word, the name Ukraine in a sentence. Like, you've probably noticed that we no longer say, “the Ukraine,” as if it's a territory of something else. We just say, Ukraine. I've been really stunned at how quickly that switch took over, as has the new system of transliterating the name of the city of Odesa, which now is spelled with one S, rather than two.

Benjamin Wittes

And Kharkiv.

Benjamin Nathans

And Kharkiv. And many others. And Lviv versus Lvov. These are subtleties, but there are many other subtleties that are just completely lost on non-native speakers and people who just don't have the fingertip sensitivity of all the cultural reference points. We have our own version of this, the names that we use for various minority groups in this country have changed over time and if you use the wrong one at the wrong time it's a real clunker for English speakers. But if you come from somewhere else in the world, there's no reason why you would be alive to those sensitivities.

So yes, Ukrainians are hyper alert for traces. And I'm not talking about microaggressions. These are a lot bigger than microaggressions.

Benjamin Wittes

These are just aggression aggressions.

Benjamin Nathans

These are just aggression aggressions. And of course, there's the big one, the macroaggression, which is inescapable. They're very alive to those. But, again, I don't always like what I hear by way of generalizations about Russians are this way and that way, and they're collectively guilty of this, that, and the other.  But what I am struck by over and over again when I talk to Ukrainians is their knowledge of Russia and Russians is so intimate. There are so many historical and cultural ties that they see things that I don't see and therefore those are enlightening conversations for me.

Benjamin Wittes

So your main field of study is the history of Russian and Soviet dissidents, or at least your current field. And I'm interested in how Navalny fits in with that history. It seems to me on the surface that there are some really striking differences. You mentioned one, that he's a lawyer, not a scientist. A second that comes to my mind is that a huge number of the Soviet dissidents were either retrograde but very backward-looking great Russian nationalists like Solzhenitsyn, or were from minority groups, particularly Jewish, and there were some Georgians as well, there were some Ukrainians, right? But they were people who were fundamentally interested in the well beings, and in the Jewish case, the right to emigrate of their communities. They weren't people who were, by and large, speaking for Russian civil society as our civic culture.

Navalny really seemed to be proposing not a positive agenda, but the idea, hey, we want to be a normal, non-corrupt democratic country. And that doesn't seem to be the mainstream of at least the Soviet dissident movement. So I've just simplified a whole lot of history and in a very reductive fashion, so correct me on everything that I got wrong.

Benjamin Nathans

Okay. The Soviet dissident movement had a very pronounced and particular strategy. It was not aimed at seizing control of the state. It was not aimed at toppling the communist party or even necessarily ending the communist party's monopoly on political power. And it was certainly not aimed at destroying the Soviet Union, even though people like to say that the dissidents helped bring down the Soviet Union. If they did that, it was the unintentional result.

The master strategy of the Soviet dissident movement was a minimalist one. And that was to simply pressure the Soviet government to observe its own laws. Just that. Can you just observe the laws that are inscribed in the Soviet Constitution? And over and over again, the dissidents were able to show that, in fact, no, this government of an allegedly modern, future-oriented state was incapable of obeying its own laws. And that had a tremendously discrediting impact, a delegitimizing impact.

But as strange as it may sound to our ears, Soviet dissidents almost without exception, insisted that what they were doing was not political. They didn't conceive of themselves as political actors. And of course, the political landscape was such that they didn't have the option of Navalny's strategy of actually trying to run for office. It was unthinkable. No one outside the Communist Party was allowed to run for office. It was an officially one-party system. So the menu of options that the dissidents faced was considerably different. But the overall strategy, whether it was pursued by legal means or, in the case of Navalny, by means of access to what was at the time of a very free and open internet, that the two sets of goals were not that dissimilar. They were to delegitimize the rulers, to show that they didn't even live up to their own laws and their own standards.

So Navalny's focus was partly on corruption in the form of law-breaking and his being a lawyer helped tremendously in that effort. But what he really focused on just relentlessly was the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of wealth and property that Russia's leaders had accumulated through completely opaque, non-transparent, and very, very suspicious means. And that resonated with a substantial portion of the Russian public. His videos, several of them garnered tens of millions of viewers. We don't know who they were or where they were, but the presumption is that the vast majority of them were in Russia.

Benjamin Wittes

Oh, you can tell that a huge number of them are in Russia. The comments are in Russian. The people are, I mean, there are a huge number of overseas Russians, of course, but YouTube is one of the few social media that at least, I haven't checked recently, but is generally not blocked in Russia, and he was incredible at exploiting that. And those videos are just, they're masterpieces of both investigation, but also just of explanatory journalism/propaganda. They're just amazing pieces of work.

Benjamin Nathans

Yes, they are. They're very funny too.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah, humorous in this very dark way. It was important for him to be there and one thing that he, I think, did not do effectively was create a movement separate from his personality. And a huge amount of the power of that movement was the fact that he was as courageous and compelling as he is. Now the movement is led by his wife who is a) a very compelling person as well, but not him and b) in Berlin, not in Russia, and I hope very much will not be going back.

And so my question is, has Putin here created another Garry Kasparov situation, where you have a famous person in exile who has things to say politically, but does not have an audience domestically, or is Yulia Navalnaya capable of a) continuing the momentum of this movement, and b) doing it from abroad?

Benjamin Nathans

Well, of course, the jury is still out on what she can and cannot do, but my own sense is that it will not be possible to recreate the energy and the breadth of Navalny's movement from abroad. And I say that mostly because over the past two years, the Russian government has been taking a page from the Chinese playbook and the internet is rapidly ceasing to be an arena of even remotely uncensored exchange of information. And any activist working from abroad who hopes to reach the Russian population needs some version of the internet or social media to get to his or her desired audience. And the Russian government is gradually choking off that access. So just the sheer means of communication are more and more limited over time.

It's true that there are very clever people on both sides and there are VPNs and there's shortwave radio broadcasts as there were during the Cold War, which were a huge factor for the Soviet dissident movement, absolutely a game changer. But it's just very hard to organize something like this from outside the country. And of course, there's always the stigma of, “Oh those people left. Are they really one of us? Are they really part of us?” And for them to end up in Berlin of all places, which still, in the Russian mind, stands for the headquarters of the country that unleashed the deadliest war against Russia that it has ever experienced in history. Those are problems that don't go away.

Benjamin Wittes

I want to close with your sense of what we know of the circumstances of Navalny's death and what its relationship was to the election. It happens in the run-up to the election. The Russian government insists that he just collapsed. We have every reason in the world to disbelieve that, as a matter of deductive logic, but do we actually know anything?

Benjamin Nathans

Well, I won't speak for we, I'll just speak for me. I have not seen, and I don't think there exists, really conclusive evidence that would account for the timing of his death. What I can say is that if Putin had wanted him not to die because he thought it would be bad PR on the eve of the election, he could easily have arranged for that. So at a minimum, Putin did not object or did not prevent Navalny's death.

My guess, and it's really nothing more than a guess, is that Putin wanted Navalny out of the way prior to the election to demoralize whatever remnants of opposition there might be and to show, as he showed with Prigozhin and the, wink wink, surrounding that alleged “plane accident” that killed Prigozhin midair flying from, I guess, Moscow to St. Petersburg to show Russians and the world who's boss and who controls things. These were displays of power meant to shock and awe, and to reinforce the idea that Putin is unassailable. And whether Navalny was poisoned or simply driven to a slow death by malnutrition and extreme low temperatures north of the Arctic Circle, I don't know. And I'm not sure that particular aspect matters very much. But that this was a political killing seems inescapable to me.

Benjamin Wittes

We are going to leave it there. Ben Nathans, thank you so much for joining us and please come back when your book is published this summer. I would love to discuss that with you in detail.

Benjamin Nathans

Thank you so much for having me, Ben, and I would be delighted to come back and talk with you.

Benjamin Wittes

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Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.
Benjamin Nathans is is a professor of Russian and Soviet history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.

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