The Kremlin's strongmen usually don’t think twice before destroying opponents who get on their way, but the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is very different. With all the poisoning and imprisonment, even Western countries have been more outspoken on Navalny. For this changed attitude one must thank President Putin and Russia’s recent aggressiveness. Since it’s unlikely to change as long as Putin and his henchmen remain in power, the fate of Navalny is affecting us all.
The people attending the rallies to support Navalny represent a much broader cross-section of the Russian society than ever before. Regardless of whether the protesters support Navalny’s policies or not, they are protesting against Putin and his increasingly repressive regime. In Finland, a protester in front of the Russian Embassy said that he was protesting to stop Finlandization and hoped that Finnish companies will change their attitude towards Russia. Corruption in Russia is a problem for all of us.
Putin's entrenched power shows no signs of erosion and Navalny’s anti-corruption program is an ambitious project in a country where corruption is so widespread that it seems to underpin the whole state. Nevertheless, I would draw a parallel between Navalny’s revealing video about Putin’s palace and the words allegedly said by the Queen Marie Antoinette („Let them eat cake“). Putin’s palace is so detached from reality that it is the same wet rag thrown at the people’s face as the famous words of the queen who ended her life under the guillotine.
Myths and narratives
Putin is doing his best to amplify the myth of the Great Patriotic War - one of the few national myths that still unites different generations in today’s Russia. As for Navalny, one can easily hear the familiar roar of the revolution in the background. The date when the Tsar was de-throned has been celebrated in Russia for decades.
The success of a politicians depends on their ability to evoke strong emotions in people and in which existing narratives they fit. For Russians, the story of Navalny resonates with numerous other well known stories. Many of them have long been waiting for someone to step into the boots waiting for him, and Navalny fits the role of both a noble hero and a Messiah risen from the dead. However, my own personal favourite in the narrative of Navalny is his wife, Yulia Navalnaya.
While Putin has desperately tried to keep his private life out of public domain and has never shown himself next to a woman who could really claim the title of Russia’s first lady, Navalny has always Yulia Navalnaya, the mother of his children, by his side. Their happy family life is featured prominently not only in the social media accounts of both partners, but also in the way they express their mutual affection and appreciation in public. It’s a love story that deserves a happy ending, and a story that Putin has never known. This picture makes it easier to imagine a future where the whole of Russia is like this happy and loving family.
While Putin’s regime itself is using soft power to spread its message, Navalny is very skilled at using soft power of imagination for building his image without diminishing his family’s charm. I had never thought much about what the Russian first lady could look like before, but now thanks to Yulia Navalnaya I can already imagine her.
It is easy to see Navalnaya as a mother who shares the concern of all mothers for their children in a country where too many sons die in vain every year, and Navalnaya’s current role in Russia is only too familiar: how many women of different generations have waited for their husbands to return from war, army, prison or from the prison camp. This is destiny that is very familiar to older generations that is also the generation of Navalny’s parents. A few days before Navalny was sentenced into prison, Yulia posted on Instagram a family photo with her parents-in-law.
A system that cannot be accepted
From the viewpoint of gender equality, Navalnaya’s role is perhaps not very progressive, but a sceptic of traditional family values could not anyway unite as many different people in Russia as Navalny has. The public display of tenderness in a country where brutal leaders are praised is in stark contrast with the world of aged iron men embodied by Putin.
Even when it is impossible for Navalnaya to hold her husband’s hand, she is by his side; in the fake court case, Navalny drew a heart with his finger to the glass separating him from his wife. No wonder that superstar Alla Pugacheva stopped following on social media her ex-husband who criticized Navalny and became a follower of Navalny instead.
Family-centered social media can even work as life insurance for Navalny: imagine the public anger that would strike anyone who would make the mother of this happy loving family a widow and her children orphans.
Navalny considers Putin’s regime to be unethical and stresses that the system created by robbers and thieves must not be tolerated. In doing so, Navalny already affects the moral code, what is allowed and what is not. Often, silence is nothing more than passive acceptance. Corruption is always maintained by a spiral of silence that must be broken before you can even dream of change.
Until now the generations that grew up under Putin have been unable to imagine anyone replacing him, because there have been no alternatives. Now the situation has changed and the power of imagination is always the first step on the path to change.
Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish writer and publicist. She was born in Finland to a Finnish father and Estonian mother. In 2009 (in Estonian 2010), a collection of articles compiled by her and Imbi Paju named "Fear Behind Us All" was published.
Translated by Toomas Hõbemägi
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