Russian Socialist Movement’s Kirill Medvedev on why Putin killed Alexei Navalny and jailed Boris Kagarlitsky

kagarlitsky navalny

Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist Kirill Medvedev, of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), talks to LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s Federico Fuentes about the significance of opposition leader Alexei Navalny death in prison, the recent jailing of high-profile anti-war socialist Boris Kagarlitsky and how the international left can campaign against President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime.

Following Navalny’s death, RSD put out a statement arguing he was “killed by Vladimir Putin”. Why do you think Putin’s regime killed him and why at this particular moment, in the run-up to the March presidential election?

Two issues came together: Putin’s fear of Navalny and his fear of the elections. Some analysts believe the decision to kill Navalny was probably made back in 2017, during that year’s presidential election campaign. At the time, Navalny’s stature was such that he was able to project himself as a genuinely serious political rival to Putin. FSB [Federal Security Service] officers later confessed to a botched poisoning attempt in 2020, during Navalny’s famous phone prank. Given this, to say Putin did not benefit from Navalny’s assassination is ridiculous.

The authorities have demonstrated that they see Navalny and his supporters as their main enemies — and seriously fear them. The constant jailings of Navalny and his associates, the smashing up of their headquarters, even the criminalisation of ordinary people for donating to the FBK [Anti-Corruption Foundation] are all evidence of this. Even now, law enforcers are destroying makeshift monuments erected in memory of Navalny. They have mistreated his mother for days, refusing to release her son’s body to her, and circulated fake offensive statements from Navalny’s mother towards his wife on social media. The authorities are extremely afraid his funeral could turn into a political demonstration.

Why was Navalny killed now? Because Putin is extremely nervous about the elections, which he associates with “colour revolutions” in post-Soviet countries and the Arab Spring uprisings. Elections are always a moment of mass interest in politics and therefore place huge stress on the existing system, which is based on mass depolitiсisation. That is why elections are always preceded by mop-ups of the opposition, especially today when more than half of the population opposes the war [in Ukraine].

Attempting to increase the legitimacy of these elections, authorities decided to allow Boris Nadezhdin to run. Nadezhdin is a liberal from the ’90s with an extremely low popularity rating, but who spoke out in favour of ending the “special military operation”. The result was that queues and queues of people formed all over the country as part of his campaign to collect the signatures required to be included on the ballot. People signed not because they support Nadezhdin himself, but rather the idea of peace and renewal. [Nadezhdin was subsequently banned from running.] There is no doubt that Navalny would have also accumulated huge levels of support.

It’s hard to imagine that Navalny could have overthrown Putin from within a penal colony in the Far North. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the degree of paranoia that exists within Putin’s circle reaches unimaginable levels.

Could you explain how the RSD viewed Navalny politically, especially given his past flirtations with Russian ultra-patriotism? 

The RSD treated Navalny as a tactical ally and ideological opponent. During the early stages of his career, Navalny held nationalist positions. This was his big mistake, which meant he permanently alienated a part of his potential audience, especially Muslims and other ethnic communities. But that period of nationalist politics ended in 2012. As leader of the large democratic protests that took place that year, he realised there was no point in relying on a nationalist audience. So, he started building a purely populist project that sought to include everyone dissatisfied with Putin. Through his anti-corruption investigations, he politicised a huge number of people, primarily youth, who ended up moving to the left. He demonstrated that politics was not a question of management and propaganda, as everyone was used to seeing it, but of interactions. By interacting with his audience via the internet he learned how to collect donations, which he used to open headquarters and build the opposition throughout the country.

A new generation of leftists learned much of their politics from him, and came to be able to compete with him and his associates. Our comrade and eco-activist Dmitry Morozov, who was a leader of the protest movement in Udmurtia in 2019-21, explained the relationship this way: “While Navalny held his rallies, we followed them, shouted about corruption, etc. But when his headquarters were closed and Navalny himself stopped calling rallies, we breathed life into the skeleton created by Navalny, though this time with our own ideology. We held the same large rallies, but with red and purple flags, sang leftist songs and raised slogans against the rich. Now the Navalnists have become our satellites, but we continued to respect each other, even though we were feuding and competing.”

For those who are really interested in knowing something about Russian nationalism, I can tell you this: Russian nationalism is untenable as an independent anti-government force; it has no agenda independent of the authorities. The entire history of Russian nationalism is one of endless pathetic complaints against Jews, Muslims, migrant workers, etc. Unlike in other post-Soviet countries, where nationalism is fuelled by anti-imperialist and anti-Soviet sentiments, in Russia it will never be a fully-fledged part of any broad democratic movement. As soon as there is any upsurge of big demonstrations, involving liberals and leftists talking about serious issues such as corruption, human rights, inequality and the disenfranchisement of the working class, nationalists and their xenophobia are quickly marginalised. The only winning strategy for them is to become part of, or act as proxies of, the repressive power and ideological structures. This has always been the case: from the Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire, which were carried out with the authorisation of the highest officials, to the murders of leftist lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova in 2009, which were carried out by a Nazi group linked to the security services.

Today, ultra-rightists are focused on a genocidal anti-Ukrainian agenda, which they promote through blogs and pro-government media outlets. They aid the security services, write denunciations, form their own military units to fight in Ukraine, participate in raids on gay clubs and youth parties, and harass feminists and transgender people. All of this is carried out in the name of Russkiy Mir (the “Russian World”) and so-called traditional Russian values. This is where the threat of fascisation lies today. Those who are really concerned about nationalism and Nazism in Russia should focus there, rather than on nationalist comments made by Navalny 15 years ago.

What has the public response been to Navalny’s death? What impact could his death have on the opposition? Might it lead to greater collaboration among the various trends in the democratic opposition?

Everyone is still in shock over his murder. But, of course, the debate over his legacy will soon heat up. Our position is that Navalny was obviously not a leftist, but he genuinely wanted to overthrow the ruling caste through involving the masses in politics. As a strong populist, he had an excellent sense of the direction those who really wanted change should take. That is why, in his own way, he aggressively targeted the rich, demanded higher wages, supported funds for education and health, and sought to create labour unions. A few months before his death, he drafted a program in which he outlined his hatred of the Yeltsin reformers of the ’90s that brought Putin to power. This not only represented a break with the old generation of liberals who still pine for the ’90s; he explicitly wrote about how any real alternative to Putin required a moral and institutional break with that period that produced him. This would necessitate rebuilding the state upon new foundations — which is what the left has been talking about for thirty years.

Navalny’s widow Yulia says she will continue Alexei’s cause. She is now in the same tragic position as a huge number of women who have lost their husbands or sons in the war, or fear losing them at any moment; of those who are demanding the return of the mobilised; of those who fear their husbands or sons will end up in prison for desertion.

There is a great deal of war fatigue in Russian society. Many sense this war was in part due to male-centred politics, with its cult of competition and domination. There is a demand for alternative ways of thinking about politics, centred on practices of peace and solidarity. Feminists and politically-active women have shown that they can be the core of such a new politics. Yulia could play a role in all this. Alternatively, she risks remaining in the emigrant ghetto, which in Russia is perceived as purely pro-Western and far removed from on-the-ground realities. Generally speaking, the Russian opposition only has a chance if it is able to propose a new agenda not just for Russia but for the world, one that breaks free of Cold War schemas of a confrontation between the free West and the totalitarian East.

There are complex processes occurring within the opposition, but there is also a clear desire for collaboration. For example, Nadezhdin spoke on Kagarlitsky’s channel more than once, where he agreed to answer unflattering questions about his program. Our comrades, along with other leftists and feminists, participated in writing the election program for Ekaterina Duntzova, a deputy from Tver region who at the end of last year declared her presidential ambitions and instantly became the democratic candidate of millions of people. Unlike Nadezhdin, she was not even allowed to register. Programmatic differences within the opposition are not going anywhere, but there is a search for common grounds, and a discussion about which version of democracy can best unify and inspire most people. This discussion provides the left with a huge opportunity.

Navalny's death came less than a week after Kagarlitsky was ordered to spend five years in jail. Why do you think Kagarlitsky has been jailed? In light of what has happened to Navalny, are you worried something similar could happen to Kagarlitsky? 

It is likely that, among those who advise Putin on such decisions, there are those who believed a harsh sentence for Kagarlitsky would cause misunderstanding among the global left. After all, there is still a perception that the anti-US left, which has influence within some governments in the “Global South”, are tactical allies of the Russian government. So, at first, the sentence was surprisingly lenient.

But as the elections approached, another line from within the siloviki [those who control political power] obviously prevailed — that of putting in jail basically any influential critic of the government and the war, regardless of their ideology.

Of course, we fear very much for Boris. His future is completely uncertain.

There has been a spate of other recent cases of repression and deaths in police custody involving left activists. Could you tell us about some of these cases? Do you view this as part of a broader targeted campaign against the left and anti-war opposition?

In general, as with other active groups in society, the left is being repressed.

In terms of specific cases, there is Azat Miftakhov, a mathematician and anarchist who served a four-and-a-half year prison term for “hooliganism” and was supposed to be released last year, only for a new case to be fabricated against him. The Free Azat committee recently conducted a “1001 letters” campaign in his support.

Trade union activist Anton Orlov and left-wing Ufa MP Dmitry Chuvilin have also been jailed over fabricated cases. We also have the cases of feminist activist Sasha Skochilenko, who received seven years’ jail for distributing anti-war leaflets, and Darya Poliudova, who is from a small group called Left Resistance and who received nine years’ jail for anti-Putin posts on social media. Anti-fascist activists have also been jailed in several regional cases.

How can solidarity activists outside Russia best help leftists in Russia in the face of this wave of repression?

One way is to participate in solidarity campaigns, in protests in front of Russian embassies, writing letters to prisoners, etc. But engaging in public discussion is equally crucial. It is important to criticise and marginalise — in every possible way — the campist views of some international leftists who are more sympathetic towards Putin and seek to portray him as more progressive than the leftists, trade unionists and feminists in his prisons.

Here, it is more than appropriate to quote Kagarlitsky: “Every conciliatory statement made by liberal intellectuals in America results in more arrests, fines, and searches of democratic activists and just plain people here in Russia. We do not need any favour but a very simple one: an understanding of the reality that has developed in Russia today. Stop identifying Putin and his gang with Russia. Realise at last: those who want the good of Russia and the Russians cannot but be irreconcilable enemies of this power.”

The left-wing movement in Russia has enormous potential. This is due to the existence of huge inequality, war fatigue and the mostly good memories many Russians hold of the USSR as a society of relative equality and internationalism. A strong left in Russia would greatly help the international left movement. But to increase the chances of success for the left in a post-Putin future, we need to demand Putin release all political prisoners today and realise that there is no future for Russia or Ukraine as long as his clique is in power.