One of the most persistent concepts in human psychology is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Thus, to Russian president Vladimir Putin, what makes Alexei Navalny so dangerous is his embodiment of that principle.
Because what has made Navalny such a significant force in Russian politics has less to do with the political ideas he supports than with the growing popular belief that his enemy Putin is their enemy, as well.
And as Putin uses the power of the state to kill or confine Navalny, reminding Russians why they find their government so shameful – its deadly brutality and its embarrassing incompetence – Putin’s prisoner responds with extraordinary examples of personal qualities ordinary people admire most: courage, wit and humor.
As bailiffs surround him and prosecutors harangue him at his sentencing hearing, Aleksei Navalny shapes his fingers into a heart and flashes them at his wife Yulia across the courtroom from his glass prisoner’s box. “Don’t be sad!” he tells her. ‘Everything is going to be all right.”
Then he expands his bravery from private reassurance to public resistance. “The main thing in this whole trial isn’t what happens to me,” Navalny proclaims in the kangaroo court, “Locking me up isn’t difficult. … What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. This is how it works: Imprison one person to frighten millions.” And then, Navalny sums up why Russians should not be afraid, because of the sheer lameness of their enemy, “this thieving little man in his bunker … Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants — that’s how he will go down in history.”
“All this,” Navalny says, “the National Guard, the cage — isn’t a demonstration of strength — it’s a show of weakness, nothing but weakness! You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. … you can’t lock up the whole country. And finally, as his two-year and eight-month sentence is pronounced, Navalny defies the president and his prison system: “The iron doors slam shut behind me with a deafening clang, but I feel like a free man.”
It was a performance that brought thousands of protesters to the streets of 180 Russian cities and towns from Moscow to Vladivostok, more evidence that thousands of Russians who have long had their doubts about Navalny are ready to embrace him because they share a target for their discontent.
Andrew E. Kramer is a reporter based in the Moscow bureau of The New York Times.
Previously, Mr. Kramer worked for The Associated Press in Portland, Ore.; for The Washington Post as a researcher and news aide; as a freelance reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle; and as a part-time reporter for The Ukiah Daily Journal, based in Ukiah, Calif.
In 2017, Mr. Kramer shared with Times colleagues a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for an investigative series on Russia’s covert projection of power. In 1999, he was part of a team at The Associated Press that was a finalist for the Pulitzer in international reporting.