Navalny and the Left


Yesterday, Jacobin published an article Ilya Budriatskis, Ilya Matveev, and I wrote on where the Russian left should stand in regard to Alexey Navalny. The Jacobin asked that I write it after reading my criticism of Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander’s article “Russia’s Trump.” I approached Budraitskis and Matveev if they wanted to collaborate since the “Navalny Question” is being much debated in Russian left circles, and because they, not me, are on the ground in Russia and have to deal with the political realities and challenges Navalny’s movement presents. Also, I thought that leftists, particularly American leftists, would profit from hearing voices from Russia given the current toxicity between our two countries.

Like I said, Russian leftists are thinking about where they stand on Navalny. They recognize his Russian ethno-nationalism and xenophobia. They are perfectly aware of his slurs against people from the Caucuses and Central Asia. They understand his program is a kind of neoliberalism. But despite all of this, the current political conjecture in Russia is such that Navalny’s anti-corruption message mobilizes thousands, particularly young people, to protest. He has politicized tens of thousands. And not just in Moscow, but also in the provinces. Many Russian leftists also recognize that those protesting often retune Navalny’s message to their own particular grievances.

So yes, Navalny is a nationalist, but should Russian leftists ignore the political space that he’s opened up? Should they just stand on the sidelines of this movement and hurl condemnations? And for the international left, and the American left in particular, should we remain ignorant of Russian realities, and instead of thinking about them as they concern the citizens of the Russian Federation impose our political frames and our anxieties, thus making Russia just another mirror for our narcissism?

Sakhnin and Per Leander’s Jacobin article is one response: Navalny is Russia’s Trump and should be condemned. The Russian left should wait for the “Russian equivalent to Bernie Sanders” to appear.

Another is to find a way to stand in critical solidarity with Navalny’s movement on the one hand and utilize its political space for the benefit of the Russian left on the other. The day we submitted our article, Oleg Zhuravlev and Kirill Medvedev, two activists from the Russian Socialist Movement, argued similarly.

The response to our article from mostly Anglophone leftists on Twitter has been a mixture of condemnation and disbelief. We are accused of whitewashing Navalny’s enthonationalism. We are subject to a lot of Nalvany-splaining—he’s a fascist, a racist, and an anti-Semite (which is a new one) as if we are ignorant of Russia. Even if we did emphatically denounce Navalny, I’m certain we would have still gotten the same epithets. Close reading is not a virtue for many. One critic even tweeted, “The thing is Putin is himself a staunch anti-communist. But it’s all about building “solidarity” against the targets of US imperialism.”

This tweet left me flabbergasted. Now, perhaps I’m missing some sarcasm in the scare quotes. But if this person thinks Putin represents some kind of bulwark against US imperialism, he either knows nothing about Russia, or worse, imagines Russia as a reflection of his own narcissistic desire. Putin is no anti-imperialist. He doesn’t want to see an end to American global dominance. He’s fine with American military rapacity as long as he’s consulted and his interests considered. He just wants a seat at the table and the imperial carving up of the world according rules agreed upon by the great powers. Those who see Putin and his foreign policy elite otherwise are merely exchanging one imperialism for another.*

Much of this flippancy is directed at Jacobin, which I suspect has to more to do with inner squabbles that have nothing to do with us, our position, or Russia. A good portion is just the typical sophomoric social media outrage that is so much easier to lob in tweets, satirical images, and gifs than critically engage. Little has been directed against me personally because I don’t inhabit the so-called “Left Twitter.” I regard the few that have as mostly unserious and not worthy of direct response.

Yet, I’ve found the response deeply disheartening. Not because there aren’t legitimate criticisms to be made of our article. There certainly are and we would like to hear them. Some readers have expressed some and that is very much appreciated. But the overall response is disappointing because it’s so knee-jerk and based in a willing ignorance of the complexities of Russian politics and society and the silencing of the people there who have to directly confront them.

This willing ignorance and silencing is what is worst of all. Western leftists are so eager to appropriate the memory of the Russian Revolution and the Russian revolutionary movement and find inspiration and lessons in its history. The actuality of the Revolution serves as a wellspring of a bygone revolutionary romanticism before its Stalinist retardation. Many continue to valorize Lenin and the Bolsheviks even despite their penchant for political opportunism, anti-democratic practices, and violence.

But when it comes to Russia today, many American leftists seem satisfied sitting in ignorance and hurl insults at what they don’t understand or know little about. They seem perfectly comfortable in viewing the world through a Manichean lens where what is good for the Right, the neoliberals, etc is bad, and what’s bad for that cabal is good regardless of context, culture, history, or the present conjecture of forces. Even if this myopia turns leftists into an inverted pantomime of their political opponents. And sadly, they also seem fine with their unconscious embrace of American exceptionalism where all conflicts and struggles are reflections of the American self to the detriment of the Other.

* Ben Norton has contacted me to say that I’m misrepresented his position. My sincerest apologies to him. I’ve decided to leave the original text because it speaks to a larger issue I’ve seen articulated in American left circles. Ben, however, is not one of them.