Speaking truth to power
Facing prison, an opposition politician challenges Russians to stop tolerating lies
Dec 23rd 2014
ON THE day in 1974 when Soviet secret police arrested him for treason, Alexander Solzhenitsyn published an essay (via the underground samizdat press) entitled “Live Not by Lies”. It ended with a commandment in capital letters: “DON’T LIE! DON’T PARTICIPATE IN LIES, DON’T SUPPORT A LIE!” The lie, wrote the author of “The Gulag Archipelago”, had become “a mode of existence” in the USSR, “incorporated into the state system as the vital link holding everything together.” On December 19th, Alexei Navalny (pictured), a Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition politician, recalled Mr Solzhenitsyn’s commandment in the “last word” he delivered at his Moscow trial. (The video can be viewed here.)
Mr Navalny has been under house arrest since February, and faces a possible 10-year prison term. The prosecutors allege that he and his brother Oleg defrauded the French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. (Even the company’s employees say no crime took place.) Mr Navalny’s real offence, it is widely understood, is to challenge the rule of Vladimir Putin and to have exposed the staggering corruption permeating the Russian state and state-owned companies.
The “last word” has become one of the most popular genres of political speech in Russia in recent years. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch, pioneered the genre at the end of his trial in 2010 with an eloquent dissection of Russia’s political predicament. Jailed in 2003, Mr Khodorkovsky had become Russia’s most famous political prisoner by the time he was finally released last year. Now the honour of addressing the country from the defendant’s box has passed to Mr Navalny. His short speech to the court was powerful, although, as he pointed out, it was hardly the first time he has had a chance to deliver one.
How many times in his life can a person who has not done anything illegal give his last speech? In the last 18 months, this is my sixth or seventh…All of you—judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs—look down at the table when talking to me. You all say, ‘But Alexey Anatolievich, but surely you understand everything.’ I understand everything, but I don’t understand one thing—why are you all looking at the table?
Mr Navalny’s speech was addressed not so much to his supporters as to those in the Russian public who participate in the system’s mendacity. In attacking citizens’ willingness to embrace lies of convenience, thus perpetuating systematic violence, the speech recalled (consciously or not) such classic anti-totalitarian texts as Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless”. “The more a person contributes to lying, the more lying he encounters,“ Mr Navalny said.
Lying has become the essence of the state…Why put up with this lying? Why look at the table? Life is too short to look at tables…We can only be proud of the moments when we can honestly look each other in the eyes, when we are doing something worthy…Life has no point if you put up with lying. We have allowed them to rob us and turn us into cattle. What have they paid us for this, what have they paid you, who are looking at the table, for this? Do you have schools? No. Do you have health care? No. Roads? No…You are being robbed every day. I can’t go on tolerating this. I will go on standing as long as is necessary, here, at the cage, or inside it.
Mr Navalny closed by simply citing Mr Solzhenitsyn’s title: "Even if it sounds naive and is often sneered at, 'Live not by the lie.’”
Judging by its over-reaction, the Kremlin appears to be just as worried about the impact of dissidents’ screeds as it was 40 years ago, when Solzhenitsyn published his essay. The function once served by samizdat is now played by social networks, in particular Facebook, which unlike its Russian imitators is not ultimately subject to the government. A Facebook page inviting citizens to join a pro-Navalny rally on January 15th, the day his verdict is scheduled to be issued, quickly gathered more than 12,000 acceptances. Russian prosecutors and the government internet watchdog demanded Facebook take the page down, and on December 20th it complied. “Facebook has no guts and no principles,” tweeted Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte, the Facebook imitator which is Russia’s largest social network. (Mr Durov himself was forced to sell his stake in Vkontakte in April, pushed out by figures closer to the Kremlin.) Michael McFaul, a former American ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that Facebook’s move was a “mistake” and a “horrible precedent”. Within hours, however, a new Facebook page advertising the rally had attracted almost double the number of acceptances.
It is easy to see why the government is worried. Mr Navalny was among the leaders of the mass demonstrations that rocked Moscow in December 2011. That wave of protest was placated by the patriotic fervour whipped up by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. But with the rouble losing almost half of its value over the past year, and the economy facing recession and inflation at the same time, that euphoria is quickly dissipating. The Kremlin will probably respond to economic problems with a renewed crackdown on the liberal intelligentsia; prosecutors have opened an investigation into the organisers of public readings in Moscow’s parks, accusing them of using the public money to sponsor Mr Navalny. Several well-known Russian poets, including Lev Rubinshtein and Dmitry Bykov, have been called as witnesses and refused to testify. As ever in Russia, words are deeds.