February in Russia: Navalny’s coming home5 min read

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February editorial. ‘Bring us some vodka,’ said Yulia Navalnaya, as she calmly removed her facemask on board the Pobeda Airlines flight from Berlin to Moscow, ‘we’re flying home.’ After a botched FSB assassination attempt involving a pair of poisoned underpants, Yulia and her husband, the man whose name Vladimir Putin refuses to utter, were finally on their way back to Russia. In Moscow, the authorities would be waiting for them, but Yulia’s spouse and long-time government critic Alexei Navalny was adamant he had nothing to fear. After all, if Putin really wanted him dead, surely he would be by now.

Navalny has certainly earned a reputation amongst the Kremlin elite as something of a pain in the neck over the last decade. In 2017, he organised an anti-government protest on Putin’s birthday, and in the same year published a video report connecting the Russian President’s right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev to a billion dollar property empire, funded entirely by suspicious ‘donations’ to non-profit organisations.

Yet before he arrived in Germany last summer to receive treatment for Novichok poisoning, Navalny wasn’t especially well-known outside his homeland. As it turns out, recovering from a state-sponsored murder attempt and then brazenly returning to confront his assailants did wonders for his international profile. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made sure she visited Navalny in hospital, and French President Emmanuel Macron called Vladimir Putin to try and establish some truth behind the rumours of Kremlin involvement. Putin’s explanation that ‘he-who-shall-not-be-named’ had probably poisoned himself as a publicity stunt reportedly left Macron furious.

Of course the suggestion that Alexei Navalny carried a radioactive nerve agent around in his boxer shorts just to get attention is clearly a bit far-fetched, but there’s no doubt he’s developed a knack for getting under Putin’s skin. Just days after his dramatic return and arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Navalny’s team released their latest video expose: ‘A Palace for Putin: History of the World’s Largest Bribe.’

It’s an epic two-hour long production, laying bare the web of corruption, which has allowed the Russian President to go about reinforcing his Western ‘Bond villain’ image by building himself a multi-billion dollar complex on the Black Sea coast. Set in an estate thirty-nine times the size of Monaco, Putin’s palace comes complete with a casino, hookah lounge, pole dancing room, and, curiously, one of those arcade dance machines you usually find in bowling alleys.

But in Russian politics, where image is everything, and inspiration behind Putin’s macho-man branding frequently comes from Hollywood, it’s probably not just Navalny’s detective work that irritates the Kremlin. It’s his blatant disregard for following the official script. After all, Putin has worked hard over the years to cultivate an image as a true Russian hero in the vein of ‘Soviet James Bond,’ Max Otto von Stierlitz. By escaping death against all the odds and then returning dramatically to reveal his enemy’s secret hideaway, Navalny, who even admitted in October that at times he feels like he’s the one living in a Bond film, may have somewhat stolen Putin’s thunder.

But Navalny is not just providing the Russian public with a better impersonation of a Hollywood action hero than Putin, he’s also offering them a different, more relatable, narrative. Yulia Navalnya’s words on the plane shortly before taking off from Berlin were a tribute to the final scene of the classic Russian nineties gangster film ‘Brat 2’ (Brother 2), and the video of her delivering the lines expertly to the camera has now amassed over eight million views on Instagram.

Depending on your viewpoint, ‘Brat 2’s’ hero Danila Bagrov is either a lawless underworld figure with a strong dislike of ethnic Ukrainians and Caucasians or a post-Soviet Robin Hood reimagined for the mayhem of the nineties. Either way, Bagrov’s brutal and contrary portrayal of a national identity in transition struck much more of a chord amongst Russian audiences than the stereotypes shown to Western audiences inGoldeneye’ or ‘A View to a Kill’.

Of course, Alexei Navalny is no gangster, though he has flirted with some of the more troubling elements of right-wing nationalism in the recent past. But what he does seem to have realised is that Russia is crying out for an update to its national hero franchise. Navalny’s young supporters didn’t grow up with the James Bond Cold War clichés that inspired Putin, and through which countless Western media outlets continue to frame events in today’s Russia. It’s high time for a hero, or even a villain, to emerge that a new generation can relate to—one who better understands that the complexities and contradictions of modern day Russian identity are much more effectively conveyed on Instagram and TikTok than as mind-numbing propaganda on state TV.

See also | January in Russia: masters of hybrid borefare

Yet while it’s hard to disagree with journalist Clara Ferreira Marques that Navalny is ‘fluent in the language of social media,’ there’s still a good chance he will not end up being the saviour young Russians are hoping for. But as thousands across the country rise up in protest against his arrest only to be met by predictably harsh government crackdowns, before ‘he-who-shall-not-be-named’ does finally get to go home, we could be in for a bumpy ride.

Featured image: We can be heroes / Gabriel Bassino
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