Natan Sharansky: Why Alexei Navalny Is Playing With His Life

Talking to the former Soviet dissident about the man facing down Vladimir Putin.

“One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny,” said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident, who knew this to be true because he himself lived it. So did Nelson Mandela. So did Vaclav Havel.

It’s hard to watch Alexei Navalny’s recent moves against Putin’s Russia and not imagine that he could join that pantheon. 

Nalanvy, readers will recall, has been waging the battle against Putin for more than a decade — as a lawyer and a blogger, through his organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, during his run for mayor of Moscow, and in his 2017 run for president. He’s been arrested. He’s been imprisoned. (“During my campaign I spent every fifth day in jail. I got used to it,” he told 60 Minutes of his 2017 run.) And that’s to say nothing of how Russia has treated his wife, his brother, his supporters and his allies.

Navalny has become the most important opposition figure in Russia. His message is simple: Putin is a thief. He is stealing not just your money, but your country.

For years everyone wondered how this man was still alive, given what tends to happen to Putin critics. That question was answered this past August when Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, and fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. The pilot made an emergency landing and Navalny was flown to Berlin where he spent weeks in a coma. Somehow he survived

A normal man, at that point, would have thanked God for a second chance and remained in exile, speaking out against Putin’s regime from the safety of some European city.

Not Navalny. A week ago, he flew back to Moscow with his wife, Yulia, knowing he would face certain arrest for alleged “money-laundering.” He was arrested at the airport where he declared: “People keep asking me if I’m afraid. I am not afraid  . . . I’m not afraid of anything, and you shouldn’t be afraid of anything, either.”

A day after his arrest, Navalny’s team released a new documentary about the corruption of the Putin regime. The video has been viewed more than 86 million times on YouTube. “All we have to do is stop being patient. Stop waiting,” he says. “We will live normally only when we stop tolerating officials who steal and re-electing them. And if they refuse to hold fair elections, then we’ll take to the streets and remove them from power in this way.”

They did. On Saturday, Russians in cities across 11 time zones took to the streets, some in temperatures of minus 50 degrees. In Moscow, more than 10,000 people turned out. The New York Times has incredible photographs of the day.

The protests weren’t confined to Russia. They gathered, too, in cities like Berlin:

Watching it unfold I thought of one of the great heroes of the 20th century’s freedom movements, Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the gulag as punishment for his request to move to Israel. We spoke by phone from his home in Jerusalem. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Bari Weiss: I know yesterday was Shabbat, but I wondered if you were watching what was happening on the streets of Russia?

Natan Sharansky: I watched after Shabbat, and of course I watched everything he did before. It’s really amazing, it’s unbelievable. He is very courageous. But he is also very inventive and very targeted. Kol Hakavod lo

One of the things that reminds me of you when I watch Navalny is his sense of humor. You never lost yours, and it seems he hasn’t lost his. For a normal person watching him it’s impossible not to wonder: How can you be funny in a situation like this? When you are facing a matter of life and death?

On Hebrew radio they asked me: Isn’t he a stupid man to go to back Russia?

If your aim in life is to live a little bit longer, to guarantee that you are safe, then of course it’s very stupid. But if the aim of your life is to unmask the real face of this regime and you are ready to fight it — even risk your life to fight it — then it is a brilliant move. 

You have to understand, then, when you are leading such a struggle over death and life, it is like you are part of a world drama. If you only take it seriously, you’ll become frightened to death. You’ll have no strength to continue. 

What is the power of a sense of humor? It helps you to distance yourself from it, to look at it from the side, even to enjoy it.  

I remember when I overcame the fear of the first interrogation, when they explained to me that I’ll be sentenced to death. And I understood that the goal wasn’t to make my life longer but to remain a free person. Then it became much easier. 

What does it mean to be a free person? That you can make fun of all of it. You’re producing a spectacle. I think Navalny also feels like he is making a big performance. All the world is his stage and he is playing it. He is playing with his life.

If anyone has proven the formula that a single man can expose the weakness of an entire regime it is you. Do you think of yourself that way?

You have to be ready to face these challenges even when you are fully isolated. But if you feel you are really alone, as the KGB tried to convince me that I was, you’ll be absolutely powerless. I never felt like a single person. I never felt alone.

You feel as if you are in the middle of a historical struggle, one that millions of people are involved in or will be involved in. You feel that there is a deep connection between what they feel and think and what you are doing. And you feel that you are very lucky that history put you in this unique situation.

I write in my first book, “Fear No Evil,” about the interconnection of souls. How what you are doing now can be important for people who are not born yet. That’s a very important feeling. I don’t know Navalny personally, but I imagine for him it’s even easier for him to feel.

We had no internet. We had no CNN. We had no cable TV. As a spokesman I sometimes had to spend months to prepare a letter and to send it to Senator Jackson in the American Congress and then wait for the response. Here, in one second, Navalny can check that tens of millions of people are following him. That’s a very different situation.

He took a great risk going back to Moscow. And his success depends on two things.

First, how many people feel solidarity with him in Russia? For him, it is much easier to know and to check than it was for us.

The second thing is: To what extent will the free world be willing to link all their interests to this situation? That was a very important question for us. In some ways, we were in a better situation then. Because the difference then between the free world and tyranny was so clear and so single. There was an Iron Curtain.

Reagan called it an evil empire and broke diplomatic etiquette to do so, of course. But it was more than Reagan. The moral example of America and of the free world was obvious. Today, America is so obsessed with its problems. It is not such a clear moral case. And I don’t know if the primary challenge is Russia or China. Also Navalny went back at the most unfortunate moment. He went to Russia just after America had the riot on Capitol Hill. 

I am absolutely sure that when the FSB are deciding what to do with him they are evaluating all their threats inside Russia and all their threats in the international arena. When they were telling me that the world — and I was absolutely isolated from the world — has too many problems of its own, when they were telling me that I was forgotten and ignored, I knew it was a lie. But when they tell Navalny “the world has its own agenda,” I think those words might have greater weight. 

How will Biden use the position of America vis a vis Russia and vis a vis China and at the same time keep the American people as one. It’s difficult.

The leaders of the free world need to make it clear to Russian leadership that if they are poisoning then arresting and killing their citizens they cannot be part of civil society, whatever that means. In some ways, with Russia it might be easier than with China. Russia doesn’t have a strong economy. Russia looks strong. But in fact its economy is more dependent on the price of oil than even in the old days.

Were you surprised by how many Russians took to the streets yesterday? 

I was pleasantly surprised. And of course I’m so envious that now there are technologies that can do in one second what would take us months. But even with all these unbelievable technologies, the bottom line is that tens of thousands of people are ready to go into the streets in the middle of corona in the freezing cold knowing that they can be arrested, willing to risk a few days or maybe many years in prison.

Most people would say: You know, I’ve just been poisoned, I’ll live the rest of my life in exile. Help us get into the head of someone like Navalny. From where does a person like that summon his courage?

Sorry for the immodesty, but I’ll give you an example from my own life. Three years before I was released — and of course I didn’t know if it would be three years or 30 years — the Americans reached what they believed was a very good deal with Russia. They said: We’ll release Sharansky if he asks to be released on humanitarian grounds, because of his poor health from the hunger strikes and so on.

The Americans wanted me to accept, Many Jewish leaders also wanted me to accept. And they were very angry at me for refusing it, and with Avital, my wife, for refusing to pressure me. But it wasn’t a question for a moment that I would accept this deal. 

Why? Because this was a global struggle. The struggle was to unmask the real nature of this regime. The moment that they are perceived as caring about humanitarianism, you lose. 

It’s not a struggle of how to get out of prison. The struggle is how to defeat them. It’s a moral struggle. 

I’m sure, already long ago for Navalny, that his is not a struggle for his physical life. His address is all of Russia and the rest of the world. If he were to remain in exile, he would be one more respectable person in exile, writing his articles and so on. He can keep explaining the regime like I can do now to you over the phone. But he was put by history in this place to mobilize the Russian people and to reveal the nature of the Putin regime to the world.

Navalny says he is not afraid. Do you think he is genuinely unafraid or is he saying that to make other people feel unafraid?

I think both. Everybody is afraid at the beginning but you overcome it. You’re in the middle of a struggle where the aim of the struggle is not how to survive. It’s how to show the world and mobilize the world to change the regime. He’s saying: if you become like me you’ll see how enjoyable it is. To say to people, “I’m not afraid to be killed,”  makes no sense. Everybody is afraid to be killed. But if you say: Think about this. Think about how to enjoy the life of free people who are invincible. That’s the subtext of everything he’s saying.

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Further reading:

  • Matthew Kaminski is now the editor in chief of Politico, but back in the day he was my colleague at The Wall Street Journal. This profile he wrote about Navalny, just as he was emerging as a major figure, holds up.

  • For those who have never read Sharansky’s memoir of his time in the gulag, “Fear No Evil” is a must. But if you don’t have time for a whole book, read this interview Sharansky did with Tablet’s David Samuels.

  • Sharansky is the master at describing the condition of doublethink — the fact that in closed societies, people cannot say true or obvious things out loud. We live in a free society, and yet we seem to have more and more double thinkers. Why? The most important recent book about this phenomenon — creeping totalitarianism in this country and how to resist it — is called Live Not By Lies by Rod Dreher.