Mr Navalny, the Muckraker

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Alexei Navalny is one of the leaders of the Russian democratic movement. His consistent fight against corruption, violence and abuse of power has made him the great challenger to the present regime in Russia. In reaction, Russian leaders first tried to poison him, then unlawfully imprisoned him, and now are torturing him cruelly and publicly.

A lawyer by education, Mr Navalny has reshaped himself into a single-purpose journalist and politician whose major target is corruption. By fighting it, Mr Navalny continues the noble tradition of the muckrakers—the journalists and politicians of the Progressive era in the US, one hundred years ago. Rooted in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the term ‘muckraker’ was coined by Theodor Roosevelt. Muckrakers were truly important for progressive politics; for example, the publications of the early female historian and investigative journalist Ida Tarbell led to the passing of antitrust legislation and the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company.

There are numerous examples of corruption that have been exposed by Navalny’s muckraking. Focusing on one major Russian official after another, he has exposed their illegal—and legally impossible—incomes and properties of incredible scale. But there is more to “corruption’ than financial crime of absurd proportions. When a modern state, with its monopoly on violence and taxation, turns into a storage of illegitimate wealth, it can project its concepts and means both internally and externally, tainting its own citizens and infecting other countries with massive distortions of truth and justice. This is why Navalny’s muckraking politics is so exemplary and commendable. It is the only peaceful, progressive way to resolve the global corruption crisis.

An unexplained cold shoulder from Amnesty International

Watching the entire Kremlin-Navalny affair, Amnesty International first decided to give its special ‘prisoner of conscience’ status to Mr. Navalny, but then withdrew it. The only justification for this reversal were obscure, unsupported references to Navalny’s ‘nationalist statements’—all of them produced a long time ago. Later, Amnesty International started an internal investigation of these moves, hinting at pressure from Russia and unspecified problems of coordination. We are surely looking forward to learning the results. Every detail is important in Navalny’s ‘cause célèbre’ which by its global impact competes only with the Dreyfus Affair.

To its credit, however, Amnesty should be thanked for turning public attention to the important issue of nationalism, and for helping to boost global interest in corruption. While the former has been marginal for Navalny, the latter is central.

Take, for example, the best known example of Mr Navalny’s alleged ‘Russian nationalism’: his 2011 slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus”. This slogan was aimed at the Kremlin policy of subsidising the Caucasian ‘autonomous republics’ of the Russian Federation on a scale that much exceeded the subsidies to other Russian regions. It can be noted that an interruption of these subsidies would likely result in a revival of separatist movements in those ‘republics’.

Clearly, this call had nothing to do with ‘Russian nationalism’, for which Navalny has been blamed, and it does not contain a hint of hate speech.

Mr Navalny has also talked about the pitiful conditions of labour migrants from the countries of Central Asia, who often worked (and still work) in Russia with no legal status or protection. He proposed regulating their status by introducing work visas, minimum wages, social security, etc. Many were opposed to such regulation, as it would lead to increased labour costs and a reduction of the enormous population of guest-workers. Again, there was nothing even close to hate speech in his statements and proposals.

Civic nationalism, not ethnic nationalism

By calling to liberate Russian citizens—the entire population of the country—from injustice and corruption, Navalny has promoted what in the social sciences is called “civic nationalism”, a positive concept radically opposed to “ethnic nationalism”.

In a talk at a conference of Russian nationalists (some of them extremists and racists) in 2008, Navalny said: “Nationalism is a movement for human rights, which focuses on the welfare of the population”.

In 2012, he gave an interview to the writer Boris Akunin: “There are no second-class people, and if someone thinks so, then he is a dangerous lunatic who needs to be re-educated, medically treated or isolated from society. There can be no restriction of the rights of citizens on the basis of ethnicity in principle.”

Since then, Mr. Navalny has produced myriads of public statements and speeches. In all these statements, as well as in his presidential program of 2017, he declared his allegiance to the ideas of social and political justice, ethnic equality and cultural diversity.

In his 1 October 2020 interview to Der Spiegel, Mr Navalny said: “Part of [the Russian] society echoes Putin’s rhetoric that Russia must follow its own special path. That means the establishment of a kind of super leadership similar to a monarchy, which should be based on some kind of spiritual values. On the other side, there are people like me who believe this amounts to lies and hypocrisy. We are convinced that Russia can only develop according to the European model.”

A champion of democracy

In defense of Mr. Navalny from the Kremlin’s discreditation campaign, we see him as a champion of democracy, the rule of law, and of a global anti-corruption campaign that will mark the 21st century. Equally importantly, Navalny rejects Russia’s exceptionalism and calls for the country to follow the ideals of democracy and peace the way other free countries do. The rule of law in Russia, he has unequivocally stated, should be achieved by political, non-violent means.

By revoking the ‘prisoner of conscience’ status from Alexei Navalny, the human rights organisation Amnesty International threw the baby out with the bathwater. Moreover, it left us all with a feeling that the water was pretty dirty. However, we are far from suggesting that Amnesty International had corrupt motivations for its move; we are simply calling on the organisation to make public its open and honest investigation of why they did so.

Amnesty is internationally known for its commitment to the struggle for human rights “wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied”. Its decision to revoke Alexei Navalny’s “prisoner of conscience” status is inconsistent with its own values. By reinstating Navalny’s status, Amnesty International will significantly contribute to the cause of human rights in Russia and the world, and will further empower the global fight with corruption.


Alexander Etkind is Professor of History at the European University Institute at Florence, after having taught for many years at the University of Cambridge. Etkind was born in St. Petersburg and defended his PhD at the University of Helsinki. He has authored or edited many books, including Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (2011) and Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied 2013), and an intellectual biography of William Christian Bullitt (2014). Etkind’s new book, Nature’s Evil: A Cultural History of Natural Resources, will be released in August 2021 by Polity Press. @AlexanderEtkind

Sociologist Sergei Erofeev works at Rutgers University. Prior to emigrating to the USA, he was a pioneering figure in post-Soviet global education and cultural sociology in Russia. He has led numerous large-scale international projects in the areas of cultural industries and policies, nationalism and ethnicity, and post-socialist transformation. He has also been Vice Rector of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, the Dean of International Programs at the European University at Saint Petersburg, and the Director of the Center for the Sociology of Culture at Kazan Federal University, Tatarstan, Russia.





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