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Hero Is Dead, Not Defeated

Maxim Trudolyubov
Alexey Navalny at a rally in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov on February 29, 2020
Alexei Navalny at a rally in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov on February 29, 2020

Today Alexey Navalny was buried in Moscow. The Kremlin managers did everything they could to make the memorial service a non-event. They would not release the body for two weeks; they designated a church on the outskirts of the enormous metropolis that is Moscow; they made sure no funeral parlor agreed to host the occasion; they intimidated people into inaction and silence. Yet thousands defied the suppression.

People formed a miles-long line in a spontaneous display of solidarity. They did not stand quietly in that line. People were chanting “Navalny” and “We will not forgive.” Later, people joined a similar line to pay respects to Navalny’s new grave. The Terminator 2 theme song was played after Navalny’s coffin was lowered into the ground. “He believed Terminator 2 was the greatest film in the world,” his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.

Given the circumstances, the farewell ceremony echoed louder than anticipated, revealing a collective outcry. It is clear now that even more people would have attended if they had felt safe to do so.

Still, the pervasive question haunting many Russians today is whether it was all in vain. People keep talking about the wisdom behind Navalny’s decision to return to Russia following his attempted poisoning in 2020. In January 2021, having undergone an extensive rehabilitation process in Germany, Navalny boarded a plane bound for Moscow.

Just a month ago Navalny reiterated his reasons for the fateful decision. “It so happens that in Russia now I have to pay for my right to keep my beliefs by sitting in a solitary cell,” he wrote from his confinement in the Arctic penal colony where he was later murdered. “Of course, I don’t like being in prison. But I will not give up my ideas or my homeland.”

If Navalny had stayed in Germany, he would have lost much of the moral high ground that allowed him to criticize officials and indict the Kremlin. Back in 2020, he investigated his own attempted murder. He and his colleagues discovered an entire department within Russia’s Federal Security Service that is dedicated to physical liquidation of the “enemies of the state.” 

It was crucial, Navalny thought, to keep telling the truth from inside Russia’s borders without fear of imprisonment or murder. Words about the FSB poisoning squad uttered by someone who had left Russia would have one meaning. The same words spoken domestically by a national politician would have quite another.

Voluntarily crossing the border eastward was necessary for him. Moral high ground was the only hope of a politician who could not act by force. He knew that he was in a duel with another politician who had all the power and force possible. Was this a losing game? 

Universally acknowledged as a hero in Russia, irrespective of political affiliation, Navalny is dead. 

When a hero is dead, does that mean the hero is defeated and evil triumphs? Everyone saw Putin smirking in the face of the world on the day of Alexei’s death, on February 16, 2024. But a brazen display of impunity is neither victory nor triumph. Putin smirked from behind the backs of his guards, from behind the iron fences of his palaces, under the cover of his anti-aircraft missiles.

We live in a culture that encourages winning. Mass culture is replete with stories of superheroes who usually end up defeating the villains in the last episode. As a rule, this Hollywood performer of “good” is well equipped with superpowers. The Hulks and Spidermen of this lore take justice into their own hands. They fly and jump, they turn into giants and scale walls.

Alexei did not take on the role of a superhero who could turn into a green-colored giant. This was intentional because he did not want to act like his opponents in the Kremlin. He did not claim to be a bearer of superior good, he acted in the realm of the political, within the law. He did not call for violence but for non-violent resistance. 

He was building a society willing to live by the rules, for the sake of peace of mind and the ability to work, rear children, and achieve prosperity. His plans boiled down to very simple things. What went against him was political force armed with all the violence possible, that placed itself outside the law—human and divine. It would be hard to find a law or a commandment that they did not break.

No one knows what evil is. Often, we know it when we face it, but evil defies exact definition. Evil is not the domain of law, there is no criminal code that would describe it. Codes describe specific manifestations of evil such as murder, theft, or violence, but they do not describe a villain who mocks his victims and spits in the face of the world. Evil has no definition because evil is not an entity. Since the ancients, it has been thought about as the absence of essence, light, truth and love. 

Whatever the immediate reasons for Navalny’s murder, they were likely to be nonessential, technical. They might have had something to do with Putin’s upcoming electoral ritual. Navalny wanted to disrupt that as much as he could, so he was taken off the field. The reason could be, Navalny’s allies said a few days ago, a planned prison swap, in which Germany would release an FSB killer, Vadim Krasikov, held in Berlin prison in exchange for two U.S. citizens and Navalny. 

“It was communicated to Putin that the only way he could get his agent Krasikov was to exchange him for Navalny,” Maria Pevchikh said in a statement on YouTube. “Hold on, Putin decided. ‘I can’t tolerate Navalny being free. And since they are willing to exchange Krasikov on principle, then I just need to get rid of the bargaining chip, then offer someone else when the time comes.’”

It does not really matter what the exact reasons for getting rid of Navalny were. Whatever they were, they were characteristic of the Kremlin’s style of government. This sort of government can plunge the country in darkness just because Putin needs to claim a landslide. 

It is much darker in Russia now. We only see the parts of it that are illuminated. There, in the darkness, anything can happen. We can only guess, since we cannot see in darkness. The only way to understand something about the darkness is to point a flashlight there and record everything the beam picks out. 

Evil flees from such a thing, but since the world is in darkness, it is not humanly possible to illuminate it completely. However, it is possible to illuminate most of it, the more the better. People of holy life, doctors, human rights defenders, helpers, fighters for truth, poets, artists, inventors, and many others can cast light. Even if we can give a little light, it is something, better than nothing. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more