By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics, and is author of the Irrussianality blog.
It’s been said that there are two very different Russias. The one 146 million live in and the version depicted by the anglophone media. Recent polling suggests that most Russians don’t share Western concerns about Alexey Navalny.
Imprisoned Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny has been making news again this week, claiming that he has been denied proper medical treatment. On Wednesday, Amnesty International said that the Russian authorities “may be placing him into a situation of a slow death and seeking to hide what is happening to him.” The authorities were “imposing prison conditions that amount to torture,” Amnesty added. The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service denies these charges, saying that Navalny’s health is “stable and satisfactory.”
“A society should be judged not by how it treats it outstanding citizens but how it treats its criminals,” said the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. “We ought to pity both the victim and the criminal,” argued Dostoyevsky’s contemporary, the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, “when society, which is incomparably stronger than the individual criminal, turns upon him its insatiable hostility after he had been disarmed, and makes him undergo prolonged suffering, it is he who becomes the injured party.”
Judging by a recent poll, it would seem that pity for the convicted criminal is in short supply in Navalny’s case. Of those surveyed by the independent polling organization Levada (registered as a foreign agent in Russia), 48 percent said that Navalny’s more than two and a half year prison sentence for fraud was fair. Only 29 percent said the opposite.
This followed a rather less scientific survey conducted by the Prague-based Current Time News (operated by the US government-run RFE/RL) which sent a journalist to the town of Pokrov, where Navalny is imprisoned, and asked locals what they thought of him. Answers included statements that “I hope he croaks” and “enemies of the people should be shot.”
In August last year, Navalny nearly died after falling ill while on a flight in Siberia. Subsequent analysis by German experts diagnosed alleged poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok. One might imagine that Russians would view Navalny as a victim, especially after he was imprisoned in January. But this does not appear to be the case.
Seeking to explain why, Levada’s director Lev Gudkov blamed the way that Navalny’s story has been treated by the Russian media. Since the start of this year, Russian TV has devoted a lot of attention to Navalny’s case. Talk shows, such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, have spent many hours discussing the person they call the “Berlin patient,” painting him mostly in an extremely negative light. Voices coming to Navalny’s defence have been rare. One must assume that the relentless negativity has had some effect on public opinion.
Gudkov’s comment is in line with a common complaint that the Russian population’s brains are addled by state “propaganda.” But even the best media manipulator can’t persuade people of absolutely anything. The audience needs to be receptive to the message. One must therefore ask why Russians consider the negative coverage of Navalny to be credible.
A popular answer among Russian liberals is that the Russian people are morally deficient. The problem is the “slave mentality” of the Russians, which leads them to accept even the cruelest authority and to dislike those who might rebel against it. Thus in his Pushkin-prize winning book The Return of the Russian Leviathan, academic Sergei Medvedev complains of “an undeveloped mass consciousness,” that takes the form of “resentment” or “the slave’s hatred for everything that looks to him like freedom.”
In this scheme, Alexey Navalny represents “freedom.” Consequently, the “slave soul of the Russians” resents him.
But one should be cautious when discussing a nation’s alleged psychological characteristics. If the slave mentality is one cliché about Russians, so too is the idea that they have an unusual sympathy for suffering, often said to be rooted in Orthodoxy. This should surely work in Navalny’s favour. The supposed peculiarities of the “Russian soul” have their limits as a tool for explaining Russians’ attitude towards him.
Perhaps, then, the answer to the riddle lies in Navalny himself. Even some Russian liberals view him with suspicion, fearing that he has authoritarian tendencies. Navalny’s behaviour during a recent defamation trial, in which he was convicted of having insulted a Second World War veteran, further added to his negative image. Veterans have a hallowed status in Russia – choosing to attack one was not a wise move.
Navalny also suffers from his association with Russia’s liberal opposition, a group that has a very poor reputation due to events in the early 1990s. The experience of that time convinced many Russians that liberals were corrupt to the core as well as being lackeys of the West. In that sense, the charges levied against Navalny – of fraud, and of taking money from the West – are quite well chosen, in the sense that they fit a widely accepted narrative and are therefore easily believed.
By contrast, the main accusation against the Russian state – that agents of the Russian Federal Security Service poisoned Navalny – is not widely accepted. Another Levada poll showed that only 15% of Russians believed that the Russian authorities were responsible for the poisoning: 30% thought that there had been no poisoning at all; and 19% said that it was a “provocation of Western secret services.”
This may be because the source of the accusation is foreign – the German government. Russians may be sceptical of what their own authorities and media say, but they appear to be even more sceptical about what comes from abroad. This is in part because foreign media and politicians have issued so many extreme and inaccurate statements about Russia that they have lost all credibility. Even the liberal Russian journalist Oleg Kashin – no fan of the Russian government – has felt forced to remark that the problem with critics of Russia is “that anything they publish about Russia is, as a general rule, total garbage.” The West has cried wolf once too often. Consequently, even when what it says is true, nobody any longer believes it.
The reasons why most Russians don’t consider Alexey Navalny to be unjustly imprisoned can’t be scientifically measured. Still, it is a fact that they don’t. This suggests that hopes that Navalny’s treatment will spur the Russian masses to rise up against their government are profoundly mistaken. For better or for worse, given a choice between the Russian state and its opponents, the Russian people for now seem to firmly favour option number one.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.