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Who Is Alexei Navalny?

Behind the myth of the West’s favorite Russian opposition figure.

Despite facing repression, Alexei Navalny is no hero. Russian writer Katya Kazbek reveals the Western-backed opposition figure’s real history.

This interview was originally published at Royce Kurmelovs’ Raising Hell Substack newsletter.

Compressed into a two-minute soundbite, the story of Alexei Navalny and the recent protests that have erupted across Russia seems simple enough. The Russian opposition figure who recently survived an attempt on his life — an alleged poisoning delivered via Novichok-laced pants — was arrested and convicted of breaching his bail conditions in a process that can be fairly described as unjust. In response, his supporters took to the streets across the country in protest.

Ask a Russian, like Katya Kazbek, and they will tell you something different: things are way more complicated than they seem. Katya is a writer, translator and the editor-in-chief of arts and culture magazine who today lives in New York by way of Moscow and Krasnodar Krai in the North Caucuses. In an effort to give some nuance to Navalny and what has been happening overseas, they recently put together a widely shared Twitter thread that served as a highlight reel of Navalny’s political career — and the picture it painted was not pretty. Having read this, I contacted them to ask more about a man whose treatment has been unjust, but who — it turns out — is no hero.

This Q and A has been edited for length and style.

Royce Kurmelovs: What is happening in Russia right now?

Katya Kazbek: Nothing fundamentally new is happening right now. A part of Russian society is unhappy with Putin and his government, but that’s been a constant throughout his 20-plus year term and, previously, throughout his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s term. The grievances include corruption, low life quality, restricted freedoms and undemocratic elections. Additionally, in the last decade, since the previous wave of protests in the early 2010s, there had been some particular legislative measures, such as Putin amending the constitution to his advantage. There has been a tightening in the protest laws, which make protesting harder, even in single-person pickets, and the ramifications graver. But most importantly, 2019 was marked by the beginning of a sprawling pension reform project, which looks to raise the retirement age by five years and has caused a lot of outcry from the population.

In this light, a change in government seems an even more remote perspective for those Russians who do not support Putin and practicing dissent becomes an even more daunting task.

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