It can be very difficult to get Americans to pay much attention to everything that is going on overseas, except the occasional when our military blows up something new for the first time in the great vagueness behind it. Still, that won’t stop me from trying. Like over and over again, even after I should have learned my lesson.
Anyway, as I write this, Russian lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny continues his fight against the authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin from within a Moscow prison cell. If you haven’t followed this up, last year Navalny was poisoned with novichok – a Soviet-era nerve agent that would be very difficult to acquire for anyone outside the highest levels of Russian government. Navalny almost died, but when he came to, he wasted no time during his five-month recovery in Germany. Instead, Navalny assumed a secret identity in a secret barbed operation to get one of the would-be assassins to admit his role. Instead of staying where he was, or hiding, or just getting out of the dangerous field of criticism of Putin, Navalny ignored the Kremlin’s threats that the moment his plane landed he would be arrested on false charges, and flew straight back to Russia, where he was arrested on false charges the moment his plane landed.
Boy, can’t wait for this to be a great, critically acclaimed movie that audiences will ignore in favor of Fast & Furriest 2029: There’s no rule that says Air Bud can’t drive. Seriously, Alexei Navalny is an incredible hero, and right now, thousands of Russians are risking their own liberty to make sure his story and Russia’s great story have a happy ending.
Last Saturday, thousands of Russians gathered in about 100 cities in nearly a dozen time zones in Russia to demand the release of Navalny and an end to kleptocratic rule in the country. According to Reuters estimates, at least 40,000 people attended the rally in Moscow alone. The Russian Interior Ministry responded with the Putin government’s signature tactic, lying, saying that the Moscow protesters were actually only 4,000 – which, if anything close, would have made the 1,360 people arrested by Moscow police quite impressive. Further protests are planned for next weekend.
The protests in Russia are in stark contrast to the situation with the pro-authoritarian mob that stormed the US Capitol three weeks ago. The US insurgents were the ones selling lies in this situation, not the government which, with the exception of the president, repeatedly told the truth that there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud. The Russian protesters are calling for real democracy, while the American rioters have called for real democracy to be overturned so that Donald Trump can stay in office. The crackdown on the Russian demonstrators was swift, violent and unjustified, while the response against the American domestic terrorists was not enthusiastic (weeks later, only 135 were charged with mostly minor crimes of storming the US Capitol).
In addition, Navalny, led by the avant-garde, was the first to suffer for his activism, and bravely looked death itself in the face as it sought to secure a fairer society for the Russians. Trump, on the other hand, after saying to his mob in the Capitol (behind a pane of bulletproof glass): “Then we’ll go down – and I’ll be with you.” hid in the White House before later relinquishing all responsibility, willing not to risk anything personally if he tried unsuccessfully to save his ego at the expense of American democracy.
Being American sometimes feels like the second season of Game of Thrones, when all the Qartheen babble about Qarth being “the greatest city that ever was or will be.” This is what we sound like when we always say America is the greatest country in the history of the world. Sometimes America isn’t that great at all. It is flawed. It’s always incomplete. The moment we succumb to the temptation to rashly wave little flags at the expense of the constant work to build a “more perfect union” is the moment when we lose everything that makes America special.
As an American, it is important to support not only Navalny, but also the thousands of ordinary Russians who are desperate and at great personal risk for freedom. But it is also advisable to use this as a moment for national reflection, to put recent events in context and to learn from them. For now, at least, a good number of Russians actually seem to have something profound to teach Americans about true patriotism.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigation attorney and author of Your Debt Free JD (Affiliate Link). He has taught legal writing, written for a variety of publications, and made it both his business and pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are likely pure gold, yet only his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the loan anyway. He can be reached at [email protected]