Analysis | The Killing of Navalny and Putin’s Theater of Terror

By | Feb 19, 2024
Highlights, International, Latest, Opinion
Alexei Navalny with a serious facial expression

Vladimir Putin frequently laments the dissolution of the Soviet Union, calling it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” His nostalgia for that failed regime seems to be focused on its most vicious and lawless periods. 

The killing of Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison camp last week recalls the darkest aspects of Communist rule in the Stalinist era. Joseph Stalin, a fan of killings of all genres, used political assassinations to signal big programmatic changes. The 1934 shooting of the Leningrad Communist Party boss and potential rival Sergei Kirov ushered in the period known as the Great Terror, characterized by the spectacles of show trials. The 1940 ax murder of Stalin’s exiled political rival Leon Trotsky settled a long list of scores. The 1948 killing of the actor and Jewish leader Solomon Mikhoels began an era of antisemitic paranoia. 

Mikhoels, whose banged-up body was found in the snow on a Minsk street, was killed in a “traffic accident,” the authorities said at the time. Likewise, we are presumably supposed to take it on faith that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the swaggering brigand who led a failed military mutiny against Putin last year, died in a bona fide plane crash soon afterward. And that Navalny, according to the prison camp authorities, died of “sudden death syndrome.”

An apparent graduate of the KGB School of Shakespearean Villainy—and in real life a fugitive with an outstanding arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court—Putin doesn’t give a rip about what the world thinks.

Putin’s readiness to order a political killing as one might order a pizza distinguishes him from some other leaders of the Soviet Union he ostensibly admires, such as Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over a period of détente and “normalization” in the 1970s. Even in the worst of crackdowns, the Brezhnev apparatus of oppression sought to enact an appearance of the rule of law and project a desire to secure a place for the USSR in the community of nations. 

Dissidents weren’t offed in the streets, at least not openly and demonstrably. The decorum of trials and convictions was established and mostly observed. That meant mind-numbing trials alleging infractions based on sundry articles of the Criminal Code. 

This was theater, yes, but performances had a structure and a modicum of plot. 

The killing of Navalny is the latest event in a string of political assassinations that are intended to be more plainly obvious. The playwright’s message is clear: If you don’t want to end up like Navalny, keep your trap shut.

Was there ever an iota of suspense in the 2015 shooting of the opposition politician and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov in the shadow of the Kremlin? Or the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in an elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006? Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, the man who murdered Politkovskaya in cold blood, was recently pardoned upon completing service in Ukraine.

An earlier effort to off Navalny, in August 2020, would have been at home in Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, a hilarious dark comedy. In a scene worthy of commedia dell’arte, in August 2020, a villain dispatched by the secret police sneaked into Navalny’s hotel room and daubed novichok, a nerve agent intended for chemical warfare and dark operations, on the opposition politician’s undershorts.

The poisoning nearly killed Navalny, who then proceeded to crack the case and name names, including Putin, the czar who gave the orders. Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei’s widow, said recently that she believes that novichok was deployed once again against Navalny, this time successfully. At this writing, the authorities are hiding his body from his family, presumably until all traces of the nerve agent are gone. In a message to Alexei’s supporters, Yulia pledged to reveal the names of those involved in the assassination—and to carry on her husband’s struggle.

Navalny at a 2013 rally with his wife, Yulia

Alexei Navalny (middle) and his wife Yulia Navalnaya (left) at a 2013 Moscow rally. (Photo credit: Bogomolov.PL)

It’s true that during the Brezhnev era the Soviet Union had no opposition politicians akin to Nemtsov or to Alexei Navalny and Yulia Navalnaya, and no domestic investigative journalists akin to Politkovskaya. Still, events in the USSR of the 1970s did capture the world’s attention, causing the same sort of waves of outrage that we now observe in the aftermath of Navalny’s murder. 

Consider the fates of a dozen people who in 1970 attempted to hijack a small airplane and escape from Leningrad. The attempt was thwarted by the KGB, which likely knew about the plan all along. The would-be hijackers were stopped on an airfield, trials were enacted, and the group’s two leaders were sentenced to die. 

However, the authorities quickly commuted the death sentences following worldwide protests spearheaded by Jewish groups. The Soviet Union thus demonstrated that it was sensitive to such protests.

The movement in support of the Soviet Jews was so effective precisely because Brezhnev’s USSR was pursuing a long-term strategy of coexistence with the West. It wanted to trade with the West, and that meant that the Soviet leaders couldn’t afford to be regarded as assassins lying in wait in dark forests. 

I am among those who benefited from Brezhnev’s willingness to negotiate. My parents and I left Moscow in 1973, at a time when the Soviets were eager to buy American wheat to stave off domestic food shortages, and the U.S. Congress, by means of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, was linking favorable trade policies to continued Jewish emigration from the USSR.

In the wake of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Soviets, wanting recognition of their post-World War II borders, made commitments to uphold human rights—basically as an afterthought. A group of dissidents in Moscow noticed the language, which was contained in something called “Basket Three” of the Helsinki accords, and founded what became a worldwide movement attempting to monitor that commitment. But when the KGB cracked down on the Moscow-based Helsinki monitors and other dissidents in 1977, the situation got ugly fast. 

There were arrests, Kafkaesque trials, convictions and several tragic and suspicious deaths in prisons and in auto accidents. 

When the Soviet leaders made the decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979, Andrei Sakharov—a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose wife, Yelena Bonner, was a member of the Helsinki monitoring group—arguably was a figure with the same international stature as Navalny. 

Presumably, many options for containing Sakharov were on the table. Everyone knew where he lived. The elevator he rode could be easily accessed, the walks he took in central Moscow were carefully charted, the car at his disposal was, of course, known to the authorities. 

I have no idea what the Kremlin discussions of the costs and benefits of potential accidents happening to dissidents might have looked like. All we know is that Brezhnev et al. didn’t resort to Shakespearean-level bloody deeds to finish off what remained of the dissident movement. Instead, they exiled Sakharov to the city of Gorky, 250 miles away from the Western press that was stationed in Moscow.

I shudder to think what could have happened to the Helsinki monitors, many of whom I met when I was writing histories of the Soviet human rights movement, had the geopolitical situation been different and had a tyrant of Putin’s ilk been in charge in 1977.

In today’s Moscow, all niceties are gone, all semblance of legal procedure is gone, the Western press is gone, the Helsinki format is gone, Navalny is gone—and theatrics of terror have become as direct as the falling dagger.  

Paul Goldberg is the author of, most recently, The Dissident, a novel set in Moscow during the Brezhnev era, and president of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union. He is working on a novel about Solomon Mikhoels, head of the State Jewish Theater and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who was assassinated in 1948.

Top image: Alexei Navalny. (Photo credit: Mitya Aleshkovskiy via Wikimedia Commons)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.