By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel*
(RFE/RL) — Among the reasons Aleksei Navalny has drawn a wide following across Russia is the acerbic wit he has employed in video blogs and lively reports documenting alleged corruption at the highest levels.
It was on full display during the February 2 proceedings that ended with a judge ordering him to serve 2 years and 8 months in prison — with prosecutors, prison officials, and President Vladimir Putin as the foils.
In a roughly 30-minute speech given from the courtroom’s glass-walled holding pen, Navalny cut into his main opponent, Putin, whom Navalny has repeatedly blamed for his near-fatal poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia last summer. The poison was allegedly administered via his underpants, by a secret team from the Federal Security Service — an accusation the Kremlin has dismissed despite evidence.
“Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner,” Navalny said, as he then cited some of Russia’s most famous rulers.
“We all remember Aleksandr the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” he said.
The quip was in keeping with the sometimes absurd atmosphere of the proceedings — and the outlandish air of the entire saga surrounding Navalny’s ordeals in confrontation with the Russian state.
Navalny has been convicted twice on what he calls fabricated fraud charges; he has run for public office; he has pioneered a system of alternative voting; he has tamped down his nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. Most of all, he has vexed the Kremlin with searing documentary investigations linking opulent homes, lavish lifestyles, and bling with some of Putin’s closest advisers and friends.
Putin has made his own contributions to the sense of absurdity, both by refusing to even utter Navalny’s name — referring to him as “the patient in Berlin” among other things, and dismissing him with wording like “Who needs him?” even as observers say the Kremlin clearly sees him as a threat.
And amid the gravity of the Moscow City Court hearing, the “underpants” jibe was in line with the strange narrative arc of Navalny’s case.
The hearing also seemed rooted in a history of Russian and Soviet court proceedings that have veered into the theater of the absurd — the most famous being the 1964 trial of poet Joseph Brodsky, where a Soviet judge asked him, “Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?” Brodsky retorted: “No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?”
Here are some notable moments from the proceedings on February 2, both inside the court and out:
‘How About I Was In A Coma?’
Midway through the morning session, Navalny was allowed to cross-examine the representative of Russia’s federal prison authority, which had asked the court to change Navalny’s suspended sentence from a controversial financial-crimes conviction into a 3 1/2 year prison sentence.
Among the arguments cited by the prison service and prosecutors for changing Navalny’s sentence was the claim that he failed to notify the prison’s probation office of his whereabouts when he was undergoing treatment in Germany after the August 20 poisoning with a Novichok-like substance.
“Can you explain to me what I was supposed to be doing better in terms of notifying you where I was?” Navalny asked the prison representative.
“You were obligated to provide documents and provide proper explanations for not attending” probation meetings, the official responded.
“How about I was in a coma?” Navalny said. “Then I was in intensive care. I provided medical documents. You had my place of residence and contact information.”
That drew a rapier-sharp tweet from Navalny’s top ally, Lyubov Sobol, invoking the 2010 science-fiction thriller Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man who steals information from people by entering their dreams.
“So you’re saying I need to go into Navalny’s coma and deliver a notice from him to the prison service?” the tweet shows DiCaprio’s character saying.
The saga surrounding Navalny — his corruption investigations, the court cases, his poisoning, his dramatic return to Russia and airport arrest, the bombshell documentary on “Putin’s Palace,” the protests, the crackdown — has resonated well beyond Russia’s borders.
In the eyes of a growing number of foreign governments, his case has also turned into a litmus test for the Putin government and how it deals with the growing political threat posed by Navalny.
Britain, the European Union, the United States, and others have criticized the heavy police crackdown on Russian protesters who have taken to the streets for two straight weekends at Navalny’s behest.
And diplomats from about 20 countries attended the hearing at Moscow City Court. International conventions typically allow foreign diplomats to attend another country’s court proceedings regardless of whether the defendant is a citizen of the diplomats’ country or not. It is also common practice for foreign diplomats to attend key hearings in high-profile trials that touch on issues such as human rights.
Still, the presence of so many Western diplomats apparently irked Russia’s Foreign Ministry, whose acerbic spokeswoman suggested without evidence that their presence was a plot to influence the Russian judge.
“This is no longer just interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is the self-exposure of the unsightly and illegal role of the collective West in its attempt to contain Russia,” she wrote in a post to Facebook. “Or is it an attempt to put psychological pressure on the judge?”
On January 31, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets for the second straight weekend to call for Navalny’s release from pretrial detention and voice their anger about the high-level corruption he has worked to expose. Police and security forces cracked down hard, wielding truncheons and electric shock batons and detaining some 5,700 people.
Two days later, the detentions continued outside the heavily guarded Moscow City Court courthouse, with more than 350 people hauled away, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info.
Reporters and those being detained noted that in addition to phalanxes of riot police from various Interior Ministry units, there were also police who sought to obscure their badges, or identifying insignias, using what appeared to be belts from their uniforms.
Journalists and activists also reported that police appeared to be detaining passersby without clear explanation: one person was shown being arrested entering a convenience store; social media showed at least two men walking along a snowy sidewalk, apparently near the courthouse, and being approached by helmeted riot police who grabbed them and forcibly marched them away.
Where Do You Live?
Prosecutors’ cross-examination of Navalny handed him several opportunities to brandish the wit that has helped make him Putin’s most prominent foe.
As officials sought to pin him down on his exact physical location, Navalny again expressed incredulity at the Federal Prison Service’s assertion that they could not locate him.
“You’re saying that you didn’t know where I was even though the president said, on live television, that I was getting treatment” in Germany, Navalny said.
“I fell into a coma, they sent you all the documents about my health and whereabouts. Then I got on a plane and flew out. What else could I do? You say that you came to my house, but I was not there. Of course, I was not there. What else could I do?” he said.
Putin did in fact take credit for allowing Navalny to be flown from Siberia to Germany after his poisoning — even as he belittled him in an annual press conference on December 17: “Regarding the patient in the Berlin clinic…this does not mean at all that he must have been poisoned,” Putin said. “Who cares about him anyway? His wife appealed to me, and I gave the green light to have him treated in Germany.”
And the judge presiding over the hearing, Natalya Repnikova, also prompted a wry retort when she asked, at the opening of the hearing, where he currently resided.
“Now? In Detention Center No. 1,” he said — a reference to the notorious Moscow jail known also as Matrosskaya Tishina.
Hold The Fries?
At the conclusion of the morning session, the judge called for a two-hour break, apparently for lunch. Navalny, who earlier said he had been at the court since 7 a.m., clearly was hungry.
“Is it possible to send someone out to McDonald’s?” he asked his lawyers.
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.