I cannot possibly describe what happened in Russia this weekend as well as Joshua Yaffa, who posted his eye-witness piece to The New Yorker.
What I can do though is this: Sketch on a larger canvas where we are in this long running and ongoing struggle between Goliath, Vladimir Putin, on the one side, and David, Alexei Navalny, on the other.
- Navalny, who began his life as an activist on a platform of anti-corruption, has been a thorn in Putin’s side for at least the last ten years.
- Over time Navalny has evolved from political nuisance to Putin to political threat to Putin. Not yet, as Yaffa’s article makes clear, a mortal threat. But a palpable threat, nevertheless.
- For his troubles Navalny has paid a heavy price. In addition to being relentlessly harassed and intimidated, he has been repeatedly arrested and imprisoned. And, last summer, he was poisoned. So toxic was the attempt on his life – unquestionably with Putin’s complicity – that initially it was unclear he would survive.
- To recover his health in the wake of this last, worst attack, Navalny was moved to Germany. This transport could not, obviously, have happened without the approval of the Russian government. No question Putin assumed Navalny would be gone, even if not dead at least out of Russia for good.
- But, for Putin no such luck. After months Navalny was restored to reasonably good health. And, almost as soon as he was able, Navalny announced, to the astonishment both his friends and enemies, that he would by absolutely not remain abroad, he would return to Russia.
- Which, last week, he did. Navalny – an internet expert and activist – had made sure the world would be watching his landing. But, still, he was arrested immediately upon setting foot on Russian soil.
- Navalny continues to drive Putin mad not just by embodying the Russian opposition, but by disclosing the extent of Putin’s lust, specifically of his endless, outsized greed. For at this point in his life Putin’s lust for money is greater than his lust for anything else. In fact, if Putin’s lust for power had rivaled his lust for money he would long ago have disposed of Navalny once and for all.
Ironically, by failing to kill Navalny the Russian government has created a hero. This weekend’s widespread protests, across Russia, all of which were pro Navalny and anti Putin, suggest that Navalny will long be remembered as singularly courageous member of the Russian opposition.
What has Putin learned from this experience? For that matter what have other leaders similarly disposed – similarly intent on holding on, permanently if possible, to power – learned from this experience?
It’s really very simple. If in the third decade of the 21st century you are a leader who wants your followers to submit – to mildly and meekly toe the line – it’s up to you to keep them in line. Autocrats cannot afford to give their followers an inch, lest they take a mile. In other words, if you are an autocrat, and if you want to remain an autocrat, you cannot let up. You must continue without surcease to rule with an iron fist.