Alexei Navalny’s Legacy Rooted Firmly In Intelligentsia Traditions – OpEd


By Igor Torbakov 

(Eurasianet) — We marked this week the 40th day since Alexei Navalny collapsed and died in an Arctic Circle prison camp. Russian Orthodox belief holds that on this day the Lord determines where Navalny’s soul will dwell – in heaven or hell – until the Second Coming, the General Resurrection and the Last Judgment. 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, or bunker grandpa, as Navalny used to mockingly call him, likes to fashion himself as the country’s omnipotent temporal authority. But he has a much less firm grip on spiritual matters in the country. Putin clearly feared Navalny’s charisma in life. Now that Navalny’s soul has departed earth, Putin arguably finds himself in a worse situation. The master of the Kremlin should remember Søren Kierkegaard’s maxim: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.”  

The collective shock generated by the CrocusCity Hall terror attack in Moscow is, for now, eclipsing memories of Navalny. But, over time, the attack, which was carried out by ISIS-Khorasan militants, stands to undermine Putin’s image as Russia’s all-powerful protector. The Kremlin dictator’s shortcomings in securing citizens’ lives correspondingly throws Navalny’s humanist legacy into sharper relief. 

The trajectory of Navalny’s final years followed a path rooted in the traditions of the Tsarist-era Russian intelligentsia. In any democratic country, Navalny, given his magnetism, looks, sense of humor, and communication skills, would likely have found great success as a politician. But Putin’s Russia is not a democracy: over the past several years it has evolved from a corrupt authoritarian state into a thuggish dictatorship. The system as currently constructed cannot abide even the slightest hint of dissent. Any sign of disloyalty or opposition therefore must be ruthlessly suppressed. 

Navalny was aware of this better than anyone else: back in 2020, he was poisoned with a nerve agent by Putin’s secret police. Yet he returned to Moscow from Germany after life-saving treatment, knowing full well that he would be immediately arrested and thrown behind bars.  

How to explain this seemingly irrational move? His return – this fateful moment – is when Alexei Navalny’s Russian story truly began. The history of the Russian intelligentsia, Russian literature, the traditions of political dissent, of truth-telling and the quasi-religious quest for a virtuous life are all interwoven storylines of his tragic saga. 

Commenting on Navalny’s death, the Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky astutely noted that over the last several years, Navalny the man of flesh and blood, full of all sorts of contradictions – like his flirting with Russian ethnic nationalism – turned into an “irreproachable hero, part of a religious myth.” As he was demonstrating superhuman courage, moral integrity and heroism, Glukhovsky added, Navalny was living “the life of a saint; his death was the death of a martyr.” 

One of the key features of Russian intelligentsia – a specific social group that emerged in the 1830s-40s, seeking to reform Russia and “liberate the people” – was a constant quest for moral ideals. This moral perfectionism was born out of the confluence of the two intellectual traditions: one religious, stemming from Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity; the other secular – a legacy of the Enlightenment moralism. At the heart of Russian intelligentsia’s ethos was the notion of sovest’ (conscience). To have a “clear conscience,” to live unflinchingly according to the precepts of conscience and truth was one of intelligentsia’s deep-rooted social ideals. 

Historically, the Russian intelligentsia arose under conditions of confrontation with the Tsarist autocracy. One can say that opposition to Tsarism as a bureaucratic institution shaped the Russian intelligentsia’s code of conduct and beliefs about right and wrong. As the Russian cultural historian Boris Uspensky put it, “It is precisely the intelligentsia/Tsar dichotomy that lies at the origins of the Russian intelligentsia.” A Russian intelligent is always in opposition. He is the one who constantly contrasts his moral values with the bureaucratic ethos of the Russian repressive state system. 

As a specific social group, the intelligentsia left the historical stage upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, its moral principles did not disappear: they were internalized by a large number of Russians through the reading of classic works of Russian literature, much of it the byproduct of Russian intelligentsia’s creative energy. Not unlike medieval Russian literature, which was thoroughly religious, the greatest Russian 19th– and early 20th-century novels performed a didactic function: they sought to teach how to live a life of dignity, discussed the never-ending struggle between good and evil and warned about the constant need to make a choice between truth and falsehood. In many memoirs and interviews, the prominent members of Soviet dissident movement confirmed that their own moral principles, as well as their negative attitude towards the “immoral” Soviet system, had been shaped by the subversive “quasi-religious” essence of Russian literature. 

Alexei Navalny, born in 1976, belonged to a new Russian generation: he was a teenager when the communist system collapsed. Yet the factors that formed his moral outlook appear to be the same as those that were at work during the previous decades. Russian literature seemed to have played an important role. In a remarkable letter sent not long before his death to the prominent Russian opposition journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, Navalny discussed some Russian classics, in particular Chekhov’s stories, comparing the dark realism of some pieces with Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. The letter ended with a telling exhortation: “We should read [Russian] classics. We don’t know them [well enough].” 

It is also difficult not to see the direct parallel between Navalny’s passionate desire for truth and the Russian literary and dissident tradition of truth-telling, epitomized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay Live Not by Lies. Navalny’s live streams invariably ended with a phrase: “Subscribe to our channel: here we tell the truth.” 

Alexei Navalny’s moral rectitude, personal courage, and fearless determination to stand by his principles, no matter what, put him on par with a long line of Russian victims of political repression who defied the Russian Leviathan over the last two centuries. The fragmented Russian opposition of Putin’s Russia now has a powerful hero myth and symbol to potentially rally around. 

Putin, no doubt, hopes Russians will forget about Navalny. But the martyr’s spirit, in channeling the intelligentsia’s thinking and practices, could very well help render Putin’s remaining days hellish. 

Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.


Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at

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