Alexei Navalny, a key figure in Russia’s opposition, outlines his perspective in a prison letter that doubles as a political manifesto. He discusses his views on judges and Putin after his recent conviction, shedding light on Russia’s underlying challenges. Navalny faces an additional prison term, ostensibly for “extremism,” which his supporters and human rights advocates believe is a result of his political activism and anti-corruption work. This adds to his existing nine-year sentence. While Navalny expresses discontent with judges, law enforcement, and the FSB, he reserves stronger criticism for those who squandered opportunities in the 1990s. He questions supposed reformers driven by self-interest and condemns architects of the 1993 constitution for masking autocratic power as democracy. The judicial system’s stringent sentencing predates Putin, underscoring a lack of interest in an independent court. This aligns with discussions on Yeltsin and early Putin era missteps.
Notably, Navalny refrains from blaming Western disregard for Russia’s democratic growth or Kremlin’s external justifications, focusing on internal factors instead. Navalny rejects attributing Russia’s state to security forces or Putin, placing responsibility on entities that once represented progress. This concept revolves around the “locus of control,” where external factors like NATO expansion are often scapegoats for internal accountability. Navalny embraces the idea of internal accountability. He addresses the 1996 election manipulation, admitting some support without endorsing the fraud itself. His perspective on “ends justify the means” contrasts with his present evaluation. Navalny’s narrative parallels Igor Shuvalov’s 2004 proposal for government-dominant legislation during Russia’s early 2000s transition. The 1996 presidential election serves as an example of manipulation for supposed noble ends. Experts sought autonomy, reflecting the “ends justify the means” mindset. Law, media, business, and civil society should cater to informed individuals, as envisaged by Russia’s architects. A temporarily closed voting booth awaits an educated populace. Currently, the same experts target “foreign agents” and “extremists,” revealing Russia’s trajectory. Hindered by unchecked expertise, Russia faces conflicts and repression. Here is the full translated letter from Russian into English. As you peruse the forthcoming letter, it’s important to bear in mind the dire circumstances of Evan Gershkovich, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and over 20,000 Russian opposition members who remain incarcerated, enduring a harrowing ordeal each day.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now. Well, let this be the first post after the recent verdict. Almost like a confession. I need to overcome these feelings of hatred and fear, perhaps you can help me with that.
Hatred. People always ask a lot about this, and the letters have started again: so, do you hate the judge? Do you hate Putin even more? And I’ve said many times before that hatred is the main thing you need to conquer in prison. There are so many reasons for it here, and your helplessness is the most powerful catalyst for the process. So, if you let hatred take control, it will crush and devour you.
But, I’ll admit honestly, I have it. And it’s quite strong. Internet veterans remember the meme: I hate fiercely, furiously. It’s something like that. Interestingly, it often comes after “trials.” The last one, by the way, where they sentenced me to 19 years, wasn’t like that. There, on the contrary, we all competed in showering each other with kindness. Throughout the process, no one raised their voice even once. This is the most dangerous type of judge: he’ll give you 19 years and make you feel sympathetic towards him.
I’m furious after the sessions at the local district court. These are simple cases, there’s no room for legal intricacies, and the judges blatantly and openly state falsehoods: ‘This is white, look, it’s written as white in the document,’ and they demonstratively pass unlawful verdicts. But even though sometimes, unable to contain myself, I shout at a certain “judge” Samoylov, my immense hatred is not directed at him at all. Not at the lawless and thieving cops from the prison. Not at the FSB operatives who command them. And even, you’ll be surprised, not at Putin. In those moments, I hate the people I once loved. The ones I stood by, argued for until I was hoarse. And I hate myself for having loved them once. You see, I’m in my cell reading Nathan Shcharansky’s book “Fear No Evil” (I recommend it). Shcharansky spent nine years in the USSR’s prison system and was exchanged in 1986. He went to Israel, formed a political party, and achieved great success. In short, he’s remarkable. By the way, he spent 400 days in solitary confinement and prison cells as well. I truly can’t imagine how he survived.
So here it is, Shcharansky describes his arrest and interrogation. It’s the year 1977. I was just one year old at the time. The book was published in the USSR in 1991. I was 15 then. And now I’m 47, reading his book, and sometimes I shake my head to rid myself of the feeling that I’m reading my own personal case. For example: the solitary confinement/isolation cell (SHIZO/PKT) building—a separate barrack behind barbed wire. The maximum duration in solitary confinement is 15 days. So, I wasn’t surprised when after a few consecutive ‘fifteens,’ they transferred me to the PKT for six months as a persistent offender. It’s a perfect match.
In the preface (remember, it’s 1991), Shcharansky writes that the virus of free thought was preserved precisely in the prisons, and he hopes that the KGB won’t find an ‘antidote to this virus.’ Shcharansky was mistaken. An antidote was found. Such an antidote that now, in 2023, it seems there are more political prisoners in Russia than during the times of Brezhnev and Andropov. But what does the KGB have to do with it? There was no gradual or overt coup led by individuals from the intelligence agencies in our country. They didn’t come to power by pushing aside the democrats and reformers. They themselves. They called themselves. They invited themselves in. They taught them how to rig elections. How to steal entire sectors of the economy. How to lie in the media. How to manipulate laws for their benefit. How to forcefully suppress opposition. And even how to initiate senseless and foolish wars.
That’s why there’s nothing I can do about it, and I fiercely, furiously hate those who sold, squandered, and wasted that historical opportunity our country had in the early 1990s. I hate Yeltsin with ‘Tanya and Valya,’ Chubais, and the whole corrupt gang who put Putin in power. I hate the con artists we somehow called reformers. Now, it’s as clear as day that they were preoccupied with nothing but intrigue and their own prosperity. In what other country did so many ministers of the ‘reform government’ become millionaires and billionaires? I hate the authors of the most foolish authoritarian constitution, which they shoved down our throats as a democratic one, effectively granting the president the powers of an absolute monarch.
I especially hate everyone for not making even a serious attempt to remove the foundations of lawlessness — to carry out a judicial reform, without which all other reforms are doomed to fail. I’m studying this a lot now. In 1991, even in the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), a good concept for judicial reform was adopted, but counter-reforms aimed at building a judicial hierarchy began in 1993. At that time, all political forces wanted honest courts. There was a complete consensus in society. If an independent judicial authority had been established, the new usurpation would have been impossible or significantly hindered. So don’t be mistaken: the mechanism that now efficiently hands down sentences of 8-15-20 years to the innocent began construction long before Putin. And now it’s clear: in the Kremlin and the government of the 1990s, no one wanted an independent judiciary. Because such a court would have been an obstacle to corruption, election rigging, and the transformation of governors and mayors into unreplaceable little princes.
I hate the ‘independent media’ and the ‘democratic community’ that provided full support for one of the most dramatic turning points in our recent history — the falsification of the 1996 presidential elections. I’ll repeat, at that time I was an active supporter of all this. Not election falsification, of course, I wouldn’t have liked that even then, but I did everything to not notice it, and the overall unfairness of the elections didn’t bother me in the slightest. Now we’re paying for thinking in 1996 that manipulating election results isn’t always bad. The end justifies the means.
I hate the oligarch Gusinsky (even though he hasn’t been an oligarch for a long time) for demonstratively hiring the deputy head of the KGB, Bobkov, who was responsible for persecuting dissidents. Back then, it seemed like a joke to them: ha-ha, he used to imprison the innocent, and now he’s working for me. Like a bear in a livery. In other words, not only was there no lustration, but there was also the rewarding of scoundrels. And now literally those who worked under Bobkov as young employees are imprisoning Yashin, Kara-Murza, and me.
It’s often heard that Yeltsin’s government couldn’t do anything because they were opposed by the Communists in parliament. But nevertheless, that didn’t stop them from the pledge auctions in 1996. However, it somehow hindered judicial and intelligence reforms.
I hate the entire leadership of Russia, which had absolute power in 1991 (after the coup) and in 1993 (after the parliament’s shooting) and didn’t even attempt to carry out obvious democratic reforms. What was done in the Czech Republic (where there’s now democracy and an average salary of 181 thousand rubles), Poland (democracy and 179 thousand rubles), Estonia (democracy and 192 thousand rubles), Lithuania (democracy and 208 thousand rubles), and other countries of Eastern Europe. Of course, there were different people in power back then. Some were very good, honest, and sincere. But they were a tiny minority, whose desperate and unsuccessful struggle only highlighted the corruption and shamelessness of the ruling elite of that time even more.
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This wasn’t with Putin in 2011, it was with Yeltsin, Chubais, the oligarchs, and the entire Komsomol-party gang calling themselves ‘Democrats’ that we headed not towards Europe in 1994, but towards Central Asia. We exchanged our European future for villas like ‘Tanya and Valya’ on the ‘Island of Millionaires’ in Saint Barthélemy. And when the infamous Putin-era KGB/FSB agents gained unrestricted access to political positions, they didn’t have to do anything. They just looked around and exclaimed in surprise: oh, was it possible to do this? And if the rules of the game allow for stealing, lying, falsifying, censoring, with all the courts under our control, then, let’s say, we’ll do pretty well here.
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We let the goat into the cabbage patch, and then we’re surprised that it ate all the cabbage. It’s a goat, its mission and goal are to eat the cabbage, nothing else comes to its mind in principle. It’s pointless to try and persuade it otherwise. Similarly, a Putin-appointed official from the FSB is fundamentally incapable of thinking or considering anything other than building a massive house and imprisoning those he dislikes. I might not be fond of goats, but I fiercely and furiously hate those who let them into the cabbage patch. Though, of course, I understand that it’s better not to hate anyone at all, but to think about how not to repeat these mistakes. And here I transition to my great fear. I don’t just believe, I know that Russia will have another chance. It’s a historical process. We will find ourselves at a crossroads once again.
In horror and cold sweat, I woke up in the middle of the night, imagining that we had a chance again, but we went down the same path as in the 1990s. Following the sign that says ‘the end justifies the means.’ Where, in small letters, it’s written, ‘falsifying elections isn’t always bad,’ ‘look at this population, are any of them suitable for jury duty?’ ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s a thief, as long as he’s a technocrat and supports bike paths,’ ‘give these people a choice, they’ll choose something crazy,’ ‘the government is still the only European in Russia,’ and other pearls of enlightened authoritarianism.
What I wrote about the 1990s is not a historical exercise, not reflection, and not meaningless complaining. It’s a crucial and highly relevant question of political strategy for all supporters of the European path and democratic development. A significant compilation of various opinions about our investigation into Alexey Venediktov and Ksenia Sobchak left a huge impression on me. They received tens and hundreds of millions of rubles from a budget fund that served as a common fund for United Russia. Moreover, Venediktov received 550 million rubles precisely when he was leading the observation headquarters and directly organized the theft of voters’ voices. He was the face, agitator, and controller of electronic voting, the goal of which was to take your vote and put it into a pile for United Russia. The falsifications of the DEG (Digital Election Guard) have been meticulously proven and are beyond any doubt. So, I was astonished to find a substantial number of people for whom neither the elements of the scheme ‘money from the common fund and election forgery,’ nor their combination ‘money from the common fund during election forgery’ are seen as tarnishing or significant. Oh well, just some nonsense. Yes, something was going on there, but there’s no evidence that they paid him for falsifications, they just paid him and there were just falsifications. All that was in the era of mammoths. It started only in 2019. No one remembers anymore. It doesn’t matter; the important thing is that he’s ‘against the war’ now. As clearly stated in one of the tweets on the topic: ‘What’s the big deal?’—as a national idea.
This is a specific example, but it, as well as the situation with Murzagulov, the calls from Khodorkovsky to take up arms and join Prihgovin’s groups, clearly demonstrates that even now, in 2023, amidst repressions, imprisonments, and war, our loyalty to principles is still subject to doubt and viewed by many as naive, romantic, and ‘white-coated.’ Personal loyalty, affiliation with a corporation, and old friendships are considered more important by many.
I am by no means suggesting to execute Alexey Venediktov, hang him, or give him a neat haircut. There’s no need for any brutalities. But surely, one can DISAPPROVE of what he has done (and continues to do, by claiming that the DEG didn’t falsify), and not consider him a political ally. Because, forgive me, if our political allies are those who sell our votes to ‘United Russia,’ then who are we, and what are we here for?
Let’s just join ‘United Russia.’ Let’s create a faction of staunch ‘Sobyaninists’ there (that’s what I call them for myself), the foundation is already there. Every target of FBK investigations rushes to justify the dream team: Ksenia Sobchak (once, twice), Alexey Venediktov, Maxim Katz (once, twice, thrice), and the former ‘our guy,’ now curiously the chief editor of ‘Novaya Gazeta,’ Kirill Martynov. Everything will be great. There will be plenty of money. We, the staunch Sobyaninists, demand: immediately remove the bad Putin from us and give us good Sobyanin and Mishustin, Shuvalov and Likhachev.
So do not hesitate. Tomorrow will bring a new chance — that very window of opportunities. Tomorrow, we will have to deal with those who believe that in some places, elections should be canceled or falsified (“otherwise extremists will be elected”), bribing journalists is normal (“we don’t pay anyone, we just asked a familiar oligarch to buy this TV channel”), it’s better to keep the courts on a leash (“otherwise judges and jurors will be bribed”), the power’s personnel foundation cannot be changed (“they are professionals, we can’t just hire people off the streets”), and so on and so forth. It might even reach a point where contracts for construction projects, like that bridge, should not be awarded through competitive bids but to a “reliable contractor” we’ve been working with for a while. And people with such ideas won’t necessarily be Putinists or Communists — they might once again label themselves as democrats and liberals.
Real life is complex, burdensome, and full of compromises with unpleasant people. But at least, we shouldn’t voluntarily become those unpleasant people ourselves and welcome corruption with cynical maneuvers even before circumstances demand compromises.
I am very afraid that the battle for principles might once again be lost under the banners of “real politics.” Please advise me how to rid myself of this hatred and fear. I would be very interested to read some of your thoughts on this. I’ll ask for feedback, and if I receive any, I’ll forward it by email. For now, it seems like there’s nothing better than remaining true to oneself and tirelessly explaining to people through numerous examples (by the way, the book “Dictators of Deceit” by Guriev and Treisman has been released in Russian, and it covers a lot of this; I highly recommend it) that democratic principles — pragmatism, an independent judiciary, fair elections, and equality before the law — are the best mechanisms for navigating the challenges of harsh real life on the path to prosperity. Secret slush funds and dreams of a benevolent dictator are merely illusions and naive nonsense.
Only when the overwhelming majority in the Russian opposition consists of those who, under no circumstances, accept rigged elections, unjust courts, and corruption, will we be able to properly seize the opportunity that will inevitably arise again. So that no one in the year around 2055 reads Nathan Shcharansky’s book in a mental hospital, thinking: how similar it all is to my situation.