Staunton, March 4 – Until the court case about slandering a veteran, opposition leader Aleksey Navalny had presented himself as a man of the future battling those who represent the past, a major reason why he has spent so much time talking about the young and presenting Vladimir Putin as a figure of the past.
But in his speech at the end of that trial, Navalny shifted and began to present himself as part of the tradition, especially strong in Russia, of Christian support for freedom. As a result, Carnegie commentator Aleksandr Baunov says, “Navalny began to be tried as one person but ended by being tried as another” (carnegie.ru/commentary/83988).
Many had urged Navalny to apologize to the veteran; but instead, he shifted his own position in a more fundamental way, one that challenges the Putin regime, which is based on a consensus about the centrality of victory in World War II and about the importance of Russian traditional values, from a different direction.
A distinctive feature of Russia, one that puts it at odds with Western Europe and the United States, is that it has a tradition, still very much alive, of appealing to Christian texts and values. This is particularly among those who are resisting the all-powerful position of the state, the commentator continues.
Because of the communism regime’s commitment to atheism, in 20th century Russia, a tradition emerged which “combined Christianity and freedom” at a time when those two things were ever less often brought together in the West. In fact, those in the West who fight for the one increasingly frequently are opposed to the other.
Navalny by his final speech to the court has now inserted himself in this Russian tradition by “citing the Gospels and acknowledging that he has become a believer. In saying this, he shifts from the image of someone who laughs about the past and the leader of progressive children” because “progressive children do not speak in that language.”
But “this new language returns Navalny to the Russian tradition of resisting tyranny via the words of the Gospels,” Baunov says. “If earlier Navalny tried to oppose to the power vertical an opposition vertical, now, he is seeking to oppose to the state tradition himself as part of the tradition of local liberal thought, speaking in part the same language as that state ideology.”
“This opens a new dimension in the case about the slandering of the veteran. Yes, the veteran represents the heroic and undoubtedly great past,” the commentator continues. “But for a Christian – and the powers assert that they are Christian – this all the same cannot be a greater past than the events of the Gospels.”
By taking this step, Navalny is seeking the Russian regime to deal with the contradictions inherent in its simultaneous presentation of itself as the heir of victory and the heir of Christian civilization. So far, the regime does not appear to have taken note of that, Baunov says. But it soon may have no choice.
Of perhaps even greater importance for what will happen next, the commentator argues, “this is the first significant move by Navalny beyond the limits of his own group.” Before this, he had been the leader of youthful protest against the increasingly decrepit Putin regime. Now, he is something more than that.
Some of his current supporters may find it difficult to follow him in this new direction, but many who were put off by his earlier position will likely be attracted to someone who is placing himself ever more squarely within a Russian tradition that they value and that speaks to them as well.
And for the latter group, the fact that Amnesty International withdrew its designation of Navalny as a prisoner of conscience may not be the defeat that many think but rather an indication that Navalny is now even more part of this Russian Christian tradition than they had imagined.