Navalny’s Future Russia Did Not Include Everyone

The opposition leader garnered his support by espousing nationalist ideals, as well as opposing the Kremlin

Navalny’s Future Russia Did Not Include Everyone
A police officer stands among Muslims during Eid prayers in Moscow, Russia. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died (read: was murdered), most of the world’s reaction focused on his ability to counter President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. Some of it bordered on hagiography. But amid the maelstrom of appreciation, there were also dissenting voices, many from Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia, that offered more nuance.

They condemned Navalny’s Feb. 16 death in prison as a political murder while also recognizing how the forgotten or overlooked nationalism of his politics negatively affected them. At various points, Navalny was a staunch Russian nationalist who engaged in far-right discourse as well as a crusader against Putin’s violent regime. These two facets of Navalny are not mutually exclusive. They rather shed light on how he managed to build a dedicated and relatively large — at least for Russian opposition groups — supporter base as his political career grew in the late 2010s.

To be sure, the Navalny who took the West by storm articulated a political opposition rooted in anti-corruption rather than ethnic cleansing, and last year he sought to clarify his controversial views on Ukraine — although many Ukrainians felt it was too little, too late.

The “Crimea question,” of whether the annexed peninsula is Ukrainian or Russian, had dogged the resistance hero ever since the region was seized by Moscow 10 years ago. When pressed in an interview with a Russian journalist about the illegal occupation in 2014, Navalny replied, “Is Crimea some sort of sausage sandwich to be passed back and forth? I don’t think so.” His response outraged Ukrainians, who often see the annexation as an embodiment of Russian imperialist views on Ukraine.

At the start of 2021, Navalny returned to Russia from Germany, where he was recovering after being poisoned by Russian authorities, and was immediately arrested and thrown into jail. Addressing his arrest at the time, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba supported his release but also emphasized that if Navalny did one day become Russian president he would “have to give back the sandwich,” and noted that Navalny would have to apologize for Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

Last year, Navalny sought to change his stance on Ukraine when he issued a 15-point manifesto for the country, including using oil and gas profits to pay reparations for the damage Russia has caused. But its title, “15 Theses of a Russian Citizen Who Desires the Best for Their Country,” raised Ukrainian eyebrows for highlighting how Putin’s expansionist quest harmed Russians.

Shortly after his sudden death in prison in the Arctic Circle, some Central Asians took to social media to complain about the vigils being set up at memorials to those who died in the 1932-1933 Soviet famine, seeing it as disrespectful to honor Navalny at sites dedicated to people he denigrated. After the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages organized a poetry reading for Navalny at its annual conference, there was an eruption of anger. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s — my — back,” said Oleh Kotsyuba, who manages publications at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. “It strikes one as deeply inappropriate for a professional association … to formally organize a memorial reading for a Russian politician, whoever he might be. Does one really need to draw parallels from 20th-century history in order to make this clear?” Kotsyuba wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

But it is also worth exploring how Navalny’s nationalism often embraced positions that have become central to Putin’s espoused beliefs. Until at least 2014, Navalny, who had Russian and Ukrainian heritage, would state that he viewed Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as one people of shared culture, denying both Moscow’s oppressive history and the countries’ distinct identities. The idea of a veritable Eastern Slavic trinity of Russia-Ukraine-Belarus is gospel for Putin, and was part of the Russian leader’s justification for invading Ukraine.

Before Navalny entered national-level politics in 2013, when he ran for Moscow mayor, coming second only to the Kremlin-backed incumbent, he had engaged for years in the promotion of a Russian nationalism rooted in the idea of ethnic Russian supremacy within Russia. By the time he tried to rule the country — in 2017 he was barred from taking part in the presidential election — this had softened, but not disappeared.

Three primary episodes define Navalny’s activity as a political Russian nationalist before he became a people’s hero. In 2007, he had forged political connections with some of the most important Russian nationalist groups in the country, including the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DNPI, now outlawed in Russia), which organized and led the “Russia March” in major urban areas across Russia. These marches galvanized far-right and skinhead groups alongside ordinary ethnic Russians against the perceived overrunning of Russia by migrants and immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, most of whom are Muslim. Navalny joined the march’s organizing committee. Slogans such as “Russia for Russians” and various racial slurs against visible minorities abounded. That same year, he founded the group “Narod,” meaning “people,” which supported the ethnic nationalist themes and ideals employed by the DNPI.

This alliance led to two widely criticized videos from 2007-2008. In the first, which promoted gun ownership for Russians, Navalny compared Muslim migrants to cockroaches and flies. In the second, he proposed that Central Asian migrants be expelled from Russia like a dentist would dispose of a rotten tooth.

Turning Russia toward a European ethnic and civic nationalism is not, and has never been, a simple task. Since the imperial era that preceded the 1917 October Revolution, the country has had a multiethnic and multiconfessional population. In theory, the Russian state sought to limit conflict between different ethnic and religious groups by promoting tolerance. Yet in practice, for centuries Russia has treated its Muslim subjects, especially those from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, as second-class colonial subjects in need of civilization and guidance from European Russia. The majority of Russians are Orthodox Christians, but according to a report by the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, in 2018 there were 25 million Muslims in Russia, making up around 18% of the population. Muslims who live outside the Volga-Ural area and North Caucasus are generally found in the major urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, often in ethnically defined enclaves due to the availability of work and discrimination in housing.

Shortly after Navalny returned to Russia three years ago, Amnesty International stripped him of his “prisoner of conscience” designation for the Islamophobic commentary of his earlier years, only to reverse its decision several months later after the Kremlin used the change to its benefit.

In 2008, Navalny endorsed Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia, calling its citizens rodents and denigrating then-leader Mikheil Saakashvili. He called for the expulsion of all Georgians in Russia and supported the use of cruise missiles.

According to the political scientist Marlene Laurelle, Navalny also tweeted and wrote in support of the Biryulevo riots of 2013, which saw thousands engage in nationalist violence against ethnic minorities.

Over the years, Navalny at times walked back some of his discriminatory comments. Fifteen years after he supported Moscow’s bombing of Georgia, he apologized in a Facebook post. But he also demurred when asked by journalists about his previous stances on nationalism or suggested that he had not changed his views at all, even if he no longer announced them during his rallies and videos. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Navalny stood by his nationalist comments and argued that his juxtaposition of Chechens with cockroaches was “artistic license.”

Navalny’s evolution from full-throated ethnic nationalist to anti-corruption crusader demonstrates how Russian nationalists have sought to mainstream ethnic nationalism and make it compatible with their pursuit of liberal governance. Accusations of political corruption were part of the anti-immigration and anti-migrant stances of Russian nationalist groups from the mid-2000s. According to a 2008 report from the SOVA Research Center, the DNPI’s congress made the decision to shift its political strategy from far-right nationalism to “nationalism in the European sense” as a means of legitimizing the group’s political activity in Russia.

And while Navalny shed his “Russia for Russians” rhetoric, it remained a thread in his political program, woven through the anti-corruption theme. In a blog post from 2015, Navalny juxtaposed Europe’s struggle with terrorism to Russia’s increasing number of Muslim migrants from Central Asia and decried how easily “Islamists” could enter the country due to its lax immigration policy, once again an aspect of corruption. He wrote, “So, if in Europe there is an ‘orgy of tolerance’ towards Islamists, then in Russia it is simply a Sodom and Gomorrah of lies, hypocrisy, corruption and direct encouragement of aggressive Islamism.” In this vein, Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric against corruption is in line with the contemporary politics of far-right groups such as Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany and Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, whose comments about Ukrainian refugees mirror Navalny’s on Central Asian migrants.

In 2019, Navalny reiterated his call for a strict visa regime between Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia on the basis of religious radicalism and so-called cultural differences. However, no visas would be necessary for Western countries, or Ukraine. Even as Putin moved toward the right and adapted Navalny’s nationalism to his own ends, Navalny himself maintained that Russia and the West were fundamentally different from the “other” represented by Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

There certainly is an irony in Navalny’s calls for these restrictions: Central Asia and the Caucasus have become the primary destinations of Russians fleeing conscription and further crackdowns since the Feb. 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The years of Navalny’s political career were marked by increased violence against ethnic minorities and their continued ostracization in Russia. Now that he is dead, questions abound about the future of opposition in Russia and how Western countries will grapple with both its shape-shifting nationalism and an increasingly powerful and authoritarian state. Acknowledging past harm is not equivalent to a demand for perfection from Navalny. Rather, it is a recognition of a politics that has often undergirded Russian expansionism under Putin as well as state and social oppression of ethnic minorities within Russia.

Navalny’s death also underscores how support for dissent and opposition in Russia should involve more than placing all hope in one person. Thousands of dissenters from across Russia’s myriad ethnic groups remain imprisoned and face similar fates to Navalny. When we recognize them, we help to broaden the scope of the struggle and invigorate the hope for a free, equal and democratic multiethnic Russia.

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