Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition politician, has been in prison for almost two months and on hunger strike for two weeks. His lawyers’ regular updates chronicle his steady physical decline. After visiting Navalny in prison on Monday, the attorney Olga Mikhailova said that he had lost fifteen kilograms (thirty-three pounds). He is losing sensation in his hands; he has already lost partial use of his legs. He is coughing and running a fever. Navalny continues to refuse food and other nutrients until his demand to be seen by a medical specialist of his choice—a right guaranteed by Russian law—is granted. In response, the prison administration is threatening to start force-feeding him.
On January 17th, Navalny was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. He was returning from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He knew that he was going to be arrested, because Russian authorities had broadcast their intentions via state media, apparently in hopes of persuading him to stay out of the country. Navalny also knew what conditions he was likely to experience behind bars. Since the Kremlin cracked down in response to the 2011-12 protests against rigged elections, Russian activists have become well acquainted with the country’s prison system. In 2014, members of the protest-art group Pussy Riot—the first of many activists to be jailed for peaceful protest—marked their release from prison by starting an online news outlet that documented human-rights violations inside Russian prisons. (The newspaper, Mediazona, is still operating, but it has broadened its focus in the last few years.) One of the pillars of the protest movement that began in 2011 is a group called Russia Behind Bars, which has helped scores of nonpolitical prisoners. Its leader, Olga Romanova (who is living in exile in Berlin), has written extensively about the workings of the prison system.
Navalny’s anti-corruption work has also prepared him for imprisonment. In a recent letter posted to his Instagram account, he wrote, “The meat was stolen from our rations before they ever left Moscow. Butter and vegetables were stolen in Vladimir [the regional center]. Finally, on location, in Pokrov, the staff took home the last of the crumbs. All that remained for the inmates was glue-like porridge and frostbitten potatoes.” This is what Navalny does: he follows the money—or, in this case, the contents of prison rations.
He knows the system better than anyone; he knows that human life has no value in it, and he never imagined that the system would make an exception for him. Within weeks of his arrest, he sent a note to his friend and mentor, the journalist Yevgenia Albats. It read:
Zhenya, everything is O.K. History is happening. Russia is going through it, and we are coming along. We’ll make it (probably). I am all right, and I have no regrets. And you shouldn’t, either, and shouldn’t worry. Everything will be all right. And, even if it isn’t, we’ll have the consolation of having lived honest lives. Hugs!
Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, has no illusions, either. Last week, she sent a letter to the head of the prison colony where Navalny is serving time. The letter, which Navalnaya posted to her Instagram account, concluded with a reminder: “If the worst happens to Alexey, then you’ll have his death on your conscience, and Putin will have it on his conscience, but your Putin will eat you alive and lay the blame on you, too.” It’s chilling to see Navalnaya use the word “death” when she is writing about her husband, but this note didn’t require a leap of the imagination. She had already spent weeks sitting by Navalny’s bed, not knowing whether he would talk or walk again.
Back in the days of the U.S.S.R., the pro-democracy dissident movement lived by the rule that, given the choice between prison and foreign exile, one should choose exile. Early in the Putin era, when some former dissidents were still around, they passed this wisdom on to members of the new opposition. The late dissident Yelena Bonner, for example, persuaded the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky to leave the country rather than risk arrest. The notion was that one could do more good alive abroad than dead at home. This argument rested on the assumption that the Soviet totalitarian state would last forever, or at least a very long time, and that the battle against it would be eternal.
Putin, who became prime minister in August, 1999, and President at the start of 2000, has held power longer than any Soviet leader except Stalin. Yet Navalny, who was fifteen years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, understands that Putinism will not last forever. During his arrest hearing in January, Navalny told the judge that she would likely outlive Putin, and go to prison for sanctioning Navalny’s arrest (the judge then reprimanded him). Navalny’s note to Albats makes clear that he is not certain he will live to see a post-Putin Russia. But he believes that Russia after Putin will be—or at least can be—a fundamentally different place. Unlike his dissident forebears, who believed that they were fighting for principle and personal integrity but could never defeat the system, Navalny thinks that his actions can help shape a future Russia. He also believes that, by acting with courage and determination, he can inspire others to set aside their fears. And then, as he almost invariably says in public statements and private notes, “everything will be all right.”
At a court hearing in February, during his closing statement, Navalny talked about his vision for this future Russia:
I want Russia to be as wealthy as it has the potential to be. I want this wealth to be distributed more fairly. I want us to have normal health care. I want to see men live long enough to retire: these days half don’t make it. I want us to have a normal education system, and I want people to be able to get an education. I want people to make as much money as they would for comparable work in a European country.
For a decade, the slogan of the anti-Putin movement has been “Russia will be free.” Now, though, Navalny suggested rethinking it.
We should fight not only against the lack of freedom in Russia but against our total lack of happiness. We have everything, but we are an unhappy country. . . . So we should change our slogan. Russian should be not only free but also happy. Russia will be happy. That is all.
Last week, police raided the Navalny organization’s office in St. Petersburg and confiscated a number of large stickers bearing the phrase “Russia will be happy.” According to Leonid Volkov, who runs Navalny’s political organization, the police removed the stickers to conduct an expert analysis of whether the slogan constitutes extremist speech, which is illegal in Russia.
On Tuesday, Yulia Navalnaya visited her husband in prison. In an Instagram post, she wrote that he was weak, and thinner than he had been after weeks in a coma. “He said to say hello to everyone,” she wrote. “He didn’t have the strength to add that everything will be all right. So I’ll add that. He is the best. Everything will definitely be all right.”