by Gordon M. Hahn
The answer is not really, but kind of. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi has certain political-behavioral traits that remind one of Vladimir Lenin. Strategically, he seems to prefer a revolution, even a violent one, to peaceful transition. Temperamentally, he is extremely divisive even among those parties that should be his political allies. He seems focused like a laser on remaining the top opposition leader and someday coming to power in Russia.
Well-known and even better-documented is Lenin’s generous and cynical use of violence in seizing power in the October 1917 coup and in extending and consolidating Bolshevik power across Russia: the use of terrorism while publicly denying its deployment and claiming it is an ineffective tactic; ordering the hanging of a hundred peasants and blaming it on the White army, the 1918-1921 ‘Red Terror,’ the 1922 trial and execution of Socialist Revolutionaries for their opposition to his polices; and so on. Navalnyi certainly is no Lenin when it comes to supporting violence, but his approach to political strategy and tactics is similar in many ways.
Although on a far lesser scale, Navalnyi has shown no compunction against, and even a preference for deploying coercion in opposing Russian president Vladimir Putin and his system. Navalnyi is no Lenin, but neither is he a Tolstoy, Ghandi, or King. He repeatedly insists on convening unsanctioned demonstrations and protest marches (www.ng.ru/news/578190.html), which are far more likely to be coercively dispersed by police. Navalnyi has been willing to use the regime’s inclination towards police violence against demonstrators in an attempt to foment a backlash and revolutionary overthrow of the regime. He has tried to parlay sanctioned and unsanctioned demonstrations into Maidan style sit-ins that would likely end in violence between the regime’s police and society’s opposition elements. Navalnyi has also encouraged young people far below voting age to participate in demonstrations, including unsanctioned ones, which, again, are more likely to be coercively broken up by police. Navalnyi himself repeatedly asserts that the regime’s nature, its essence is to inflict violence and only communicate with the opposition and dissidents with the billy club and the courts. The specter of using children as sacrifices or shields to be subjected to violence in order to spark public anger and revolt has turned many away from Russia’s most popular opposition leader.
Navalnyi revealed his belief in the effectiveness of coercion in a Ekho Moskvy radio interview during a discussion of last May’s occasionally violent protests in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a church in a city central square. He energetically disagreed with his interviewer when the latter pointed to Putin’s proposal to conduct an opinion survey to resolve the dispute over whether or not to build the church as the “turning point” that led to a resolution of the confrontation. Navlanyi interrupted abruptly, exclaimed: “The turning point was the breaking of the fence”—the protesters’ storming of the church construction site and breaking of the fence surrounding it (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2429739-echo/). Thus, like Lenin, Navalnyi appears to prefer a revolutionary path to regime change and may view ‘the people’ as much as the means by which he can attain power rather than as a group of individuals with interests he must serve and ensure are well-represented in governing. Maxim Gorky noted of Lenin that he was a “thinking guillotine,” who idolized the Jacobins, showed “almost no interest” in individuals and “thought only of parties, masses, states,” and “loved the people: he loved the people with negation. His love looked far ahead, through the mists of hatred.” Russian Marxist-turned liberal Pyotr Struve was repulsed by Lenin’s “coldness, contempt and cruelty.” [Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1990), pp. 350-2] Like Lenin, it is difficult to imagine Navalnyi sitting at a roundtable with Putin or other regime representatives and other opposition leaders in order to negotiate the country’s extrication from a revolutionary situation — if one should develop — and fashion a ‘pact’ for a peaceful transition to democracy. Such an image could foil a peaceful transition and by default bring a revolution, even a violent one, with all the risk revolutions from below entail.
Lenin was an extremely divisive, combative, and often crude and cruel politician, who eschewed any meaningful, long-term alliances with other parties, including ideologically compatible ones. Before long he found himself alone with his Bolsheviks, who were but one faction in one of many socialist parties within the broader Russian opposition. He became as isolated from like-minded radical socialists, about whom he was condescending and demeaning, as he was from the broader Russian opposition as a whole. Yet, with his organizing skills, whirlwind energy, considerable luck and enormous German financial backing, he seized power. Although Lenin may not (or may) receive some Western financial support, it is unlikely to be substantial, given Russian security efforts. Navalnyi’s autocratic personality is the relevance to Lenin here. As Pipes notes, Lenin “dismissed differing opinions as twaddle and refused to consider them except as fodder for ridicule. … His manner of debating combative in the extreme.” Lenin sought, as he himself said, “not to correct the opponent’s error, but to destroy, to rub his organization off the face of the earth” (Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 353).
Though not as cruel as the Bolshevik leader, Navalnyi’s character and political behavior are likewise extremely dismissive and divisive even in relation to his supposedly natural allies within the opposition’s democratic camp (putting aside the debate as to whether Navalnyi is a real democrat or will hold to democratic principles should he acquire power, about which many democrats have expressed grave doubts). He has refused to partner with other opposition parties, including democratic ones, and has criticized and attacked just about every other Russian democratic leader. He was insultingly dismissive and disrespectful in an Internet debate with Kseniya Sobchak, who ran for president in the 2018 election (www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQeAy2ytMnU). He has done this sort of thing so incessantly and aggressively that leading opposition democrats have expressed deep reservations as to whether Navalnyi can be trusted to adhere to democratic principles should he ever gain power.
Recently, Navalnyi again proved himself to be a divisive figure within the pro-democracy camp in the Moscow City Duma (MosGorDuma) election even without him or his party running, having angered some with his ‘Smart’ Voting’ campaign in the regional gubernatorial and legislative assembly elections scheduled for Sunday. In a campaign called ‘smart voting’ for the Moscow City Duma election he proposed that opposition-minded voters should not stay away from the polls and instead vote for at least some opposition candidate, even if they are none they like. His people put up a website, recommending opposition candidates to voters, but 75 percent (33 of 45) of the candidates whom Navalnyi recommended for the MosGorDuma’s 45 seats were from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) (https://msk.vote/?fbclid=IwAR2s_AYzfAt5P1qSI7fOQjkqu1P3FvRoauY8wFhh4hiMxyAgxBPP921VrvI). In St. Petersburg, the Smart Voting list gave short shrift to the long-time pro-democracy party ‘Yabloko.’ All this understandably irked or at least worried democrats from parties, in particular, Yabloko. Its deputy chairman Nikolai Rybakov ridiculed Navalnyi’s support for communists, pegging him with responsibility if “Stalinists” gain a strong foothold in the MosGorDuma (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2495247-echo/). Navalni immediately took credit for the KPRF’s and opposition’s strong showing (preliminary counts show them winning 20 of 45 seats as opposed to 7 in the previous convocation, 14 going to KPRF candidates), but turnout was the same 20 percent as in the previous election. Since smart voting was most likely to influence those who would otherwise stay home and not vote – for example, a Yabloko party or candidate voter, whose candidate was not allowed to run – it is unlikely the proposal had much if any effect. Nevertheless, Navalnyi will now be ‘credited’ by with helping fill the Moscow City Duma with a large cohort of “Stalinists,” hardly an outcome that is likely to improve his standing among democrats. This development comes in the wake of talk over the past year or so of Navalnyi’s own leftward drift in policy positions and, to reiterate, his refusal to cooperate with other parties in the democratic camp while simultaneously relentless criticizing democrats. The more mistrustful of Navalnyi among democrats might conclude that he is deliberately undermining other democratic parties in the elections, because he was unable to register his own party. On the other hand, he and his supporters will claim credit for the opposition’s overall good showing, and the exposes of Navalnyi’s anti-corruption Foundation for the Struggle Against Corruption probably did play an important role, as even one defeated pro-Kremlin party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) candidate to the MosGorDuma admitted (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2497941-echo.html). But overall, it must be acknowledged that Navalnyi’s exclusionary and divisive approach has weakened opposition democrats and played into the hands of the ‘systemic’ oppositional KPRF.
Another recent event threw new light on Navalnyi’s conflictive manner. A week ago the chairwoman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Yelena Pamfilova, was attacked and brutally beaten in her apartment. Navalnyi immediately reacted, suggesting Pamfilova had fabricated the event to gain sympathy after coming under attack for the exclusion of various candidates in the September 8th elections, especially those to be held in Moscow and St. Petersburg (https://twitter.com/navalny/status/1169906424173875207). Most democrats, despite the very dirty work Pamfilova does for the regime, have been understanding of her for reasons that remain unclear beyond her previous pro-democracy articulations and reputation. It may be that Navalnyi is under the influence of the general ‘crudifying’ effect of the Internet age and the opportunity it affords for seemingly anonymous, long-distance sniping, name-calling, insulting and humiliating. It turned out that Pamfilova had been attacked by a criminal, seeking to rob her home.
This episode suggests that Navalnyi will reject any and all cooperation with regime defectors—should they emerge if and when the regime begins to split. Such defectors would be an important boon to the opposition, as it was during the perestroika era, when CPSU CC member and former Politburo member Boris Yeltsin defected to the opposition. Such defections can encourage further regime splitting and lend to the opposition additional resources (personal, financial, organizational, propaganda experience and know-how) beyond those they can muster from societal opposition-oriented elements. His place at the top of a more united opposition would likely turn away would-be regime defectors from making the leap to the opposition for fear they would be excluded and left unprotected from the retribution of the present Putin regime in the present and retribution for a new Navalnyi regime in future. The Pamfilova episode also suggests that if he comes to power, he will be inclined to exact retribution against many if not all who in any way cooperated with the regime. Such fears are likely to give Putin and others second thoughts about negotiating even if pushed into a corner and thus could nudge Putin to engage in a broad and aggressive crackdown once cornered or perceives he is about to be by a rising Navalnyi-led opposition.
Although Navalnyi’s crudities pale in significance with the present regime’s increasingly less soft authoritarianism and those that might occur should the political temperature reach revolutionary fever pitch, they make it unlikely that a majority of Russia’s democrats, no less a majority of Russians, will follow Navalnyi. However, Navalnyi is focused like a laser on coming to power, and stranger things have happened in Russia, Lenin being exhibit number one. Indeed, Navalnyi is an extremely talented politician. In many ways he is courageous politician, and sometimes he is charismatic. But he appears to want power too much and be too willing to use ethically and morally dubious tactics at times in order to attain it. This is never a characteristic that citizens should ignore in any politician. It is probably no accident that opposition émigré’ Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who supports a more transitional strategy and more accommodating tactics in pursuing the removal of Putin’s ‘sistema,’ countered Navalnyi’s ‘smart voting’ proposal with a strategy he titled, ‘moral voting,’ stipulating voting only for those who have publicly opposed regime repressions. Navalnyi allies, including Moscow municipal council deputy Ilya Yashin, are declaring the victory of Navalnyi’s strategy and praising him for “not listening to the ‘moralizers'” (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/yashin/2497963-echo/). But the democratic opposition’s continuing weakness, especially outside of Moscow and Petersburg, suggests Navalnyi would do well to follow at least Khodorkovskii’s strategy of supporting all the opposition democratic parties; his people were on both the presidential campaign staffs of Navalnyi and Sobchak at one point (www.ng.ru/politics/2017-11-28/1_7124_sobchak.html).
Conceding the enormous challenge Navalnyi faces in opposing Putin (he is banned from participating in elections, is routinely detained and otherwise harassed by the police and prosecutors, his brother has been imprisoned), it is worth noting that George Washington was also under extreme pressure during the American Revolutionary War, but he never castigated his American political opponents and sought to avoid public office in disregard of his enormous contribution to the achievement of American independence from British soft authoritarianism. Thus, it is valid to say that a kinder, gentler, more humorous ‘happy warrior’ Navalnyi would be far better for him struggle, the opposition, Russia, and the prospects for a peaceful regime transformation to democracy.
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn’s most recent book is Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. He has authored three previous, well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.