The Murder Of Alexei Navalny

Mar 23rd, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The Russian state blandly announced the death of Alexei Navalny.  Navalny was Russia’s foremost dissident and opposition leader. Despite being poisoned and repeatedly punished with long bouts of isolation in remote prisons, Navalny stood unbroken.  He continued to mock Putin and denounce the invasion of Ukraine.  As Nicholas Kristof argues, “His wit and refusal to bow to authority made him a Kremlin nightmare.”  Garry Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative, caustically reported:  “Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was murdered in a prison north of the Arctic Circle on [16 February 2024.]  There is no need for sematic blame games when a political prisoner dies.  There are no natural causes or accidents in the gulag.  Its murder by dictatorship, as damning as if Vladimir Putin pulled the trigger himself.  Mr. Putin tried and failed to kill Navalny quickly and secretly with poison in 2020, and now he has murdered him slowly and publically in prison.  Navalny’s only crime was to expose Mr. Putin and his mafia as the bandits they are, and to do it with charisma and humor.”  Finally, Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal observed correctly that “The only response of all decent people to the death of Alexei Navalny, the brave critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, in a Siberian prison camp is grief, disgust and unqualified condemnation.  It is the sort of event that defines the malevolent nature of Mr. Putin’s Russia.”

Russell Moore of Christianity Today sees Navalny as the epitome of moral courage:  “Russian president Vladimir Putin murdered another Christian this week. It was just another day in Putin’s supposed project of protecting ‘the Christian West’ from godlessness. After all, they tell me, one can’t create a Christian nationalist empire without killing some people.  Before the world forgets the corpse of Alexei Navalny in the subzero environs of an Arctic penal colony, we ought to look at him—especially those of us who follow Jesus Christ—to see what moral courage actually is.”

Moore argues that Navalny did not hide his Christian faith:  “Speaking of his dissent and his willingness to bear its consequences, Navalny repeatedly referenced his profession of Christian faith. My Christianity Today colleague Emily Belz discovered a 2021 trial transcript at Meduza, in which Navalny explains, in strikingly biblical terms, what it means to suffer for one’s beliefs.

  • “The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists, and I was once quite a militant atheist myself,” Navalny said.  “But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities because everything becomes much, much easier.”
  • “There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation,” he explained. “It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying.”
  • Specifically, Navalny said, he was motivated by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, NASB). “I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity,” Navalny said. “And so, while certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back or about what I’m doing. It’s fine, because I did the right thing.”  “On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction,” he said. “Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions and did not betray the commandment.”
  • “For a modern person this whole commandment—‘blessed,’ ‘thirsty,’ ‘hungry for righteousness,’ ‘for they shall be satisfied’—it sounds, of course, very pompous,” Navalny said. “Sounds a little strange, to be honest.”  “Well, people who say such things are supposed, frankly speaking, to look crazy,” he recognized. “Crazy, strange people, sitting there with disheveled hair in their cell and trying to cheer themselves up with something, although they are lonely, they are loners, because no one needs them.”  “And this is the most important thing that our government and the entire system are trying to tell such people: You are alone,” he continued. “You are a loner. First, it is important to intimidate, and then, prove that you are alone.”
  • After Navalny’s killing, The Free Press published letters between Navalny and the famed former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who served time in the same Artic penal colony during some of the most dangerous years of the Communist regime. Biblical passages are quoted throughout, including Navalny joking about “where else to spend Holy Week” than in the prison complex the older man called his “alma mater.”

In this, Navalny not only identified his own motives for “conscientious strangeness”—he also contradicted the very nature of the Putinist conception of Christianity. To be “Christian,” in such a regime, is to be a Russian (or whatever the local blood-and-soil equivalent is). To be “Christian” is to be a “regular” person—unwilling to step out of line, to expose one’s conscience to any thought that might bring hardship.  But, Moore argues, “This was the root, I believe, of Navalny’s moral courage, his willingness to stand alone, his willingness to die. It’s not just that he knew Bible verses; the pro-Putin patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church no doubt knows more. It’s the way he seemed to know Scripture. He seemed to recognize not just the bare ‘instructions’ from Jesus about hungering and thirsting for righteousness, about being blessed in persecution, but also the story behind and around them. He knew these words seem strange. He knew they sound crazy.  The cloud of witnesses includes Elijah and Jeremiah, Peter and Paul, Maximus and Bonhoeffer, and countless others who died seemingly abandoned, who seemed crazy in their day (Heb. 12:1). Its people like this—not from the ‘German Christian’ Reich bishops or the Putin-cheering Orthodox patriarchate—from whom the next generation of our faith is born.”

Finally, Navalny had the moral courage to show Russia and the world who Putin really is.  Serge Schmemann, former Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times, writes “What made Mr. Navalny dangerous was that he broke through the lies.  And that could make him an even more potent figure, a Martyr.  That is a risk to the Kremlin only a month before national elections, which Mr. Putin wants to portray as a ringing national endorsement of his rule and his war on Ukraine . . . He was a crusader –against corruption, against evil, against venality and always against those who used the victory over Communism to accumulate power and wealth.”

Those on the American right today who view Putin as a sort-of-redeemer of Western civilization should hang their heads in shame.  The disgusting, pandering interview of Putin by Tucker Carlson allowed Putin to tell his lies flagrantly!  Putin faced a hand-picked interviewer who lobbed softball questions.  Putin is not used to explaining himself  through persuasion.  Instead, he rules by violence and fear.  The murder of Alexei Navalny proves that proposition.  It is time for the MAGA right to admit that Putin is not a leader to be trusted, “much less emulate or admire.”

See Russell Moore at Moore to the Point (22 February 2024); Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times (18 February 2024); Gary Kasparov in the Wall Street Journal (20 February 2024); Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal (20 February 2024); The Economist (17 February 2024), p. 76; and Serge Schmemann in the New York Times (18 February 2024).

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