Aleksey Navalny is the most striking political figure to have emerged in Russia in recent years. I would indeed go so far as to say that he is the only genuine politician in Russia today. He provokes a wide range of reactions – enthusiastic, hostile, critical, perplexed.
The evolution of my own views on Navalny is quite typical. At first I had no reservations about approving of him, because his story was so good: a young lawyer who singlehandedly, and using purely legal means, challenged a monstrously corrupt system, and forced it to back off with its tail between its legs. I was then terribly disappointed and alarmed when Navalny took part in a ‘Russian March’. Aha! So was he a nationalist? Or an unscrupulous populist? Or simply muddle-headed? In which case his ever growing popularity could make him dangerous.
So I kept watching this young politician and thinking that we should try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.
We met during the preparations for a protest rally, and I suggested we have a public conversation, in the form of a written exchange, something I had tried before: three years ago I attempted to ‘get to the bottom of’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky in much the same way.
So here is our conversation. Read it, and make up your own mind.
I present it in three parts: the past, the future and what will put your mind at rest.
Grigory Chkhartishvili, a.k.a Boris Akunin
Part 1: The Bull by the Horns
G.Ch. Aleksey, very many people, both in my circle and in a much wider circle of people with similar views, have a rather ambivalent attitude towards you. They simply cannot fathom your political outlook and work out what to make of you, whether you are someone to ‘heartily approve of and support’ or ‘stop before it’s too late’. To put it dispassionately: what do you represent for democratically minded people – a temporary ally in the fight against a common enemy (criminal authoritarianism) or a possible long term collaborator?
The main reason for this mistrust is your allegiance to the idea of Russian nationalism, which is associated in the minds of the democratic intelligentsia with the black-hundredists of a century ago. I know that you have attempted to explain this many times, but so far without success. So let’s try once more.
Let’s start with an ‘infantile’ question. If I have understood it correctly, you believe in the idea of a ‘national Russian state’. What does this mean in the context of a federation whose population represents more than a hundred ethnicities, and where people of mixed race are almost in the majority in the larger cities? Should ethnic non-Russians and half-Russians feel like second class human beings in your Russia?
A.N. Grigory, with respect I honestly didn’t expect such questions either from you or from your democratic intellectual circle. The democratic intelligentsia surely read the papers, and if they are in the least interested in my activities then they should have some basic idea of my political opinions. They should know about my past with the liberal ‘Yabloko’ party, the ‘Democratic Alternative’ movement and current affairs in general.
And your question isn’t infantile, it’s insulting. You work and work, and then the ‘democratic intelligentsia’ decide to ask whether you consider anyone to be a second class human being. There’s no such thing as a second class human being, and anyone who thinks there is, is a dangerous lunatic who should be re-educated, treated or isolated from human society. As a matter of principle there can be no question of discrimination against people on ethnic grounds.
By the way, I’m a ‘half-Russian’ myself – I’m half-Ukrainian – and have no desire whatsoever to feel like a second class human being.
G.Ch. In that case, what is a ‘national Russian state’? Or do you distance yourself from that slogan of the ‘Russian March’ in which you took part?
A.N. I have never used that slogan, but I certainly agree with Khodorkovsky’s interpretation of it as an alternative to attempts to recreate Russia in the likeness of a 19th century empire. In the modern world that is simply not viable.
The source of power in a national state is the nation, the citizens of a country, and not an elite whose slogans speak of taking over half the world and global domination, and use this as an excuse to fleece a population which is marching towards the Indian Ocean.
We need a state in order to provide a comfortable and decent life for the citizens of that state, to defend their interests, both individual and collective. A national state is the European way for Russia to develop - our snug and cosy, but at the same time strong and secure, little European home.
Take the main ‘nationalist’ text that I signed. It’s the manifesto of the NAROD (‘the people’ – trans) movement. And I still agree with every word of it.
G.Ch. Well, I am not prepared to agree with every word of it. For example, the idea of every citizen’s right to possess a gun seems in our situation a little over-romantic. I have questions about other parts of the Manifesto as well, but there’s nothing that couldn’t be sorted out in the course of a normal working discussion. I identified its main thesis, with which I am in full agreement: ’Our country’s unity, power and prosperity will only be enhanced if we can ensure equality before the law for all its citizens, whatever their ethnic origins, social status and place of residence.’
‘I do not miss the Soviet Union as a nuclear superpower and a territory covering one sixth of the earth’s land mass; I have no nostalgia about that military-bureaucratic empire. However I have to admit to being an imperialist in a cultural-economic sense. I would like it very much if the attraction of our culture, the might of our economy and our enviable standard of living awoke in our neighbours a desire to join in a voluntary commonwealth and union with us.’ ...