Who Is Navalny’s ‘Declaration Of Hate’ Addressed To?
August 22, 2023
  • Sergey Zenkin

Sergey Zenkin writes about Alexei Navalny’s angry appeal in which he condemns everyone, from leadership to media and business tycoons, who in the 1990s let slip the chance to implement democratic reforms in Russia. In particular, he explains why Navalny’s manifesto has been misunderstood by the Russian intelligentsia.
Alexei Navalny in court where he was given a 19-year sentence on August 4. "The number doesn't matter," he said. "I understand very well that, like many political prisoners, I am serving a life sentence. Where life is measured by my life or the life of this regime." Source: Youtube
Navalny is a democrat, not an intellectual.

High-profile intellectuals rarely succeed in democratic politics (Andrei Sakharov? Galina Starovoitova?), and generally it is psychologically difficult for an intellectual to be a democrat, even if he really wants to be. An educated Russian is extraterritorial, his fatherland is world culture, his kingdom is not of this world. On the contrary, a democrat, regardless of his erudition, must constantly turn to people of this world, to his people, as they are, and therefore, facing certain arrest, Navalny returned to Russia.

Intellectuals are people of tradition, and where there is tradition, there is elitism and dissociation from laymen. They can still observe “democratic norms” in their group of friends and acquaintances, but outside of it there remains the people, in relation to whom they define themselves. This attitude can be very different – from romantic idealization (according to Yevgeny Dobrenko) to bourgeois “demophobia” (according to Ekaterina Schulmann) – but in any case, they must step away from the people to make their judgement, positive or negative.
The democrat Navalny does not judge the people at all – for him they are not an object, he does not enlighten them, he does not take inspiration from them; he answers to them.
Alexei Navalny at an anti-corruption rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017. Anti-corruption demonstrations were staged in almost 100 cities that day. Over 1,000 people were detained in Moscow alone.
Source: Wiki Commons
At one point, when his enemies did not know what to accuse Navalny of, they called him a “populist,” meaning a politician who makes unrealistic promises and then evades responsibility. But Navalny does not promise anything special and is ready to “put his money where his mouth is” – and even die, which is a real possibility.

His language brings to mind the democratic bargaining discourse” about which the specialist in American literature Tatyana Venediktova once wrote: a way of talking when the interlocutors are trying to come to an agreement here and now, without an authoritative cultural tradition, in an impromptu common language made up of whatever they have.

Sometimes a piece of high culture can turn out to be “whatever they have”: for example, Navalny quoted a popular lecture of “Professor Lotman” at his last trial, while the name of the Soviet-era cult-status intellectual coming off his tongue sounds almost the same as the names of Star Wars characters or slang words like “that dude.”

His signature humor is designed not for the “educated class” and not for the mystical “deep nation,” but for real average people from offices and lecture halls, who grew up not on smart books or on folklore traditions, but on American cartoons and internet memes. (In fact, a political history of humor has yet to be written. For example, today a professional comedian is successfully running one post-Soviet country; on the other hand, has anyone noticed how the Kremlin autocrat’s barracks humor has faded lately? You imagine – I fantasize, of course –him grinding his teeth while reading Navalny’s prison humoresques: what a bastard, he speaks better than me...)

What does hate mean?

The long-time distrust that Navalny has caused among the intelligentsia is precisely because, even though he seems to be good, he is not one of them. His latest manifesto, “My Fear and Hatred,” was met with confusion, with some even openly doubting its authorship. But you just have to realize that this text was written for others – Navalny is looking for their support, for which he is willing to appeal not only to their common sense, but also to their unresolved complexes, like resentment over the 90s.

A professional politician, he might still blurt out something accidentally in speech, but in a written document he will always speak with a clearly thought-out goal. In his current declaration of hatred, openly declared as such, one should read not an expression of hurt feelings, but a statement about his new status.
The life term to which he has been sentenced has an unexpected consequence – it gives him unprecedented symbolic capital: now nobody can doubt that he is the personal enemy of the autocrat, a real political heavyweight!
Speaking from such a position, he can, on the one hand, seize on and exploit in his own way the myth of the “wild 90s,” where state propaganda operates, and on the other hand, without breaking his voice, he can master the new intonation of prophet-denunciator – castigating those whom the people has never trusted, even though some of them are accustomed to being respected by the “educated class;” he will also one day get to some members of the latter, Mikhail Berg predicts.

Is he always fair in this? Hardly, but it is just not the main thing for him; he is strong with “popular opinion” and is ready to even “to be wrong together with the people” in some things. He has no other people for us, and he does not see any other support for himself today either.

Navalny and the war

Navalny’s democraticness also determines his position on the war. He is against it, though he speaks about it with clear restraint, without sobs and curses, because he is addressing not only those who condemn it, but mainly those who are in it directly or (more often) indirectly, consciously or (more often) compelled to be involved. He does not take his lead from them but he does echo their experience and situation.

That is why his main epithet for the war is not “criminal” or “inhuman,” but “stupid:” the only reproach that can be addressed to the people involved in it without risking rejection from them, as telling a person that he is an immoral scoundrel is only insulting him in vain, while everyone rightly fears being fooled and tends to listen to those who warn them against it.

One of the critics of his manifesto (Gasan Guseinov) complained that Navalny did not mention his “main ally” in it. One can be surprised at this only “from the outside,” from the intelligentsia’s standpoint: Navalny will never express friendly feelings toward Ukraine. It seems he is still remembered in Ukraine for his infamous comparison of Crimea to a “sandwich,” and the Ukrainians are unlikely to hasten to accept his hand extended to him; but the main thing is that this unfortunate phrase itself did not arise by chance, but because of an unknown audience he was speaking to – Navalny knows how to speak to his voters, but Ukrainians are not his voters. He is a democratic Russian politician, and today he cannot be seen as a turncoat, even in this unfair conflict.

But this does not mean that he has nothing to say to Ukraine at all, and we should hope that one day he will be able to say it from a different, even stronger position; not as a political prisoner, but as a statesman. Most likely, it will be rather tough words: “I have the right to offer you only what my people are ready for today, and you may not like it very much, but I will be honest and respectful with you, you can trust me.”

This is usually what the first steps toward reconciliation look like.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy