Opinion | What I Learned from Alexei Navalny

By | Feb 20, 2024
Featured, international, Latest, Opinion
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya Street in Moscow.

It is difficult to accept the news regarding the death of Russian leader Alexei Navalny. I’m devastated for his family and for all Russians who, whether quietly or visibly, struggle for a society where the principles of democracy are upheld and protected.

Without presuming to compare myself with this heroic figure—as Donald Trump loathsomely did Monday—I’m proud to say I shared one honor with Navalny: He and I were both recipients of the Civil Courage Prize, I in 2021, he in 2022. Bestowed by the New York-based Train Foundation and originally inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Civil Courage Prize recognizes those “who resolutely pursue freedom for many despite the consequences to themselves.”

The foundation honored Navalny for his commitment to a Russia free from the grip of its current authoritarian dictatorship. He voluntarily returned to Russia in 2021 after recovering from being poisoned. He wanted to keep the Russian people inspired, despite knowing that it would most certainly lead to his imprisonment and likely his death.

Alexei Navalny and I couldn’t have been from more different political backgrounds: Early in his political career, he was a Russian nationalist who expressed views on immigration and Russian foreign policy—including Crimea and Georgia—that alarmed those who later came to admire him most. I come from the left, and on many points, a decade ago, we would have strongly disagreed. From these very different backgrounds, though, we came to a similar sense of how to meet the current global challenges of authoritarianism in our respective countries. I find much to learn from his evolution under horrifying circumstances, and from its parallels to my own continuing evolution under circumstances that I pray will never, ever look anything like his.

From the start, both of us, the nationalist and the progressive, saw ourselves foremost as patriots. Why? We didn’t join the fight against oppression and authoritarianism out of hatred for the places we respectively call home. Rather, it was our deep love of those places that set us on our journeys—for him, especially, one fraught with danger and struggle. Often, we forget that these journeys can’t help but change us. As leaders, we are forced to realize that political answers aren’t simple. We must face the inherent and unavoidable contradictions that come with being human beings. Navalny was no exception: It deeply warmed my heart to see him evolve his positions on a number of important human rights issues, including the treatment of minorities, immigrants and refugees in Russia.

He was also right to reverse position on Russian adventurism by condemning the invasions of Crimea and then Ukraine. Make no mistake: In modern Russia, these were significant reversals of position, and it took real courage and political risk for Navalny to admit his mistakes publicly. According to a 2021 profile of him by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, he refused to remove his old statements and positions so that history would forever record his own growth and shift—upping the ante on what it means to be a leader. 

The deep repression of dissent by Putin’s authoritarian government means we will likely never know the full potential of Navalny’s political program, which, by 2020, had become a drive to unite nationalists and the left to push for a democracy free from corruption and repression. In September 2020, support for Navalny polled at 20 percent. And while his Russia of the Future party was blocked from legal registration, it was seen as a key force in opposition to Putin and one of the few political movements with a real base outside of Moscow (according to polling by the Levasa Center, an independent NGO). Whether because of his own past sympathy for nationalist policies or simply because he settled on the broadly attractive goal of fighting corruption and dishonesty, his party had something others did not—a combination of more progressive-oriented support in Moscow and a real base in rural areas that clearly were more oriented toward nationalism.

Either way, his courageous evolution has something to teach the rest of us. Navalny rejected his own xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants and refugees, becoming a more effective leader because of it. For me, the lesson of his example is to embrace the way my own positions as a leader have shifted over time. Specifically, I now wholeheartedly believe and advocate for something that makes my beloved colleagues on the left cringe and sometimes fume with exasperation: Echoing Navalny, I now believe we progressives must drop our demands that all our allies agree with us on every issue. We must make space for those seeking to defend democracy even if they also express views we consider outside our personal political comfort zone.

To be absolutely clear: I’m not talking here about MAGA believers or Trump supporters. But too many progressives also balk at working in coalition with Republican Never-Trumpers such as former Representative Liz Cheney or the writers and editors of center-right publications like The Bulwark. Then there are the people who make up the base on which Trumpism seeks to build, and many more who may be susceptible to some elements of its message: evangelicals; middle- and working-class white, Latino and Black folks; inner city and rural folks who feel adrift in a socially and economically changing America; Republicans, libertarians and even some liberals in forgotten corners of the nation. Like Navalny the human being, we must be willing to change our categorical judgments of others. It is our moment to understand and believe that many people liberal America arrogantly or fearfully sees as deplorable and disposable are worth competing for. That the most courageous thing we of differing political convictions can do is to not give up on one another.

Like Navalny the leader, I believe the fight for inclusive democracy calls for a broad-based coalition of nationalists, liberals and progressives who reject racism and embrace universal suffrage and fundamental Constitutional rights.

Like Navalny the Russian nationalist, we on the left must also commit to building a united front of popular resistance that can prioritize the work of defeating the ascendancy of authoritarianism, sectarian violence and Trumpism here at home.

There is nothing romantic or chivalrous about death. There is only more suffering, usually by those most vulnerable and those in dissent. Alexei Navalny’s death was not a martyrdom, nor was it a suicide. It was a political murder conducted via a campaign of malice, cruelty and intentional neglect.

Like his family and the people of Russia, Alexei Navalny deserved better. So do we all. We in the United States face a different kind of political murder—that of all the progress we have made toward justice.   

It’s time to save the soul of democracy by building a truly inclusive movement to defend it here and abroad. And as Alexei Navalny learned, that won’t happen within silos. It’s time for all of us to hold a little of his courage, including the courage to reach out to and hold onto one another.

Eric K. Ward is executive vice president of Race Forward and author of the seminal article “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” He was the 2023 inaugural honoree of the Moment Inspirational and Leadership Award

2 thoughts on “Opinion | What I Learned from Alexei Navalny

  1. Peter Teague says:

    This piece is absolutely brilliant. Thank you!

  2. Rachel P says:

    So important and well articulated. And I agree wholeheartedly that we need a coalition of all democratic forces both in the US and in the world.

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