Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has announced that he will return to Russia on January 17, following months of recuperation after being poisoned by a Novichok-type nerve agent in August.
Compelling evidence indicates he was poisoned by Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives, and his supporters say he was targeted for his political activity in opposition to President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has said it was not involved in the incident, but has refused to cooperate with international investigators or to open a criminal probe in Russia.
The decision to return is fraught with risk for Navalny, who has long been the subject of harassment, physical attacks, and criminal charges that the European Court of Human Rights has found to be meritless. His return to Russia comes amid a broad crackdown on opposition activity by Putin’s government in the run-up to Russia’s elections this year to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. He could face arrest upon arrival.
‘A Hellish Choice’
The charismatic Navalny has made effective use of the Internet over the years and has a massive following online. Russians naturally took to social media to weigh in on Navalny’s momentous decision — one writer called it “a hellish choice” — and on what could come next.
Blogger Aleksandr Feldman, referring to the tumultuous events in Russia and around the globe so far in 2021, commented starkly: “January just keeps on burning!”
Similarly, opposition journalist Roman Popkov, referring to the contentious presidential transition in the United States and the recent violence in Washington, wrote: “At last! At least Navalny is making us all think about Russia instead of about the United States.”
An anonymous wag on Telegram commented that if Navalny does show up in Moscow on January 17, “it means, first of all, that he wasn’t invited to Joe Biden’s inauguration” as U.S president on January 20.
Entrepreneur and activist Kirill Lyats suggested it would be a watershed event, writing: “With Navalny’s arrival, the year 2021 finally begins and 2020 comes to an end.”
St. Petersburg academic and political analyst Ivan Kurilla argued that, at least since the poisoning and the revelations pointing to FSB involvement, “Aleksei Navalny has set the agenda. I wish him success.”
Journalist and activist Sergei Parkhomenko seemed to have trouble figuring out Navalny’s thinking. “Apparently a person who knows that there was an attempt to murder him and knows who did it and knows how it was done thinks differently from the way we think and sees the world around him differently,” he wrote.
Political commentator and Kremlin critic Aleksandr Podrabinek had a similar response, with what seemed like an added touch of admiration: “You have to acknowledge his courage as a politician…. He is returning at the very moment when all our smart, forward-looking, cautious people are running away from Russia. Not everything is in order in our home, but this is our country and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
One commentator noted below Podrabinek’s message that the late dissident and journalist Valeria Novodvorskaya used to say that “our place is here” in Russia. Another, however, cautioned, “He is a brave person, but courage isn’t enough here.”
Danger From All Sides
Journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, writing on Twitter, called Navalny’s decision “a strong move.”
“Now Putin will have to decide whether to leave him alone or put him in prison for real,” Dobrokhotov wrote, referring to the fact that Navalny, who has frequently been jailed for short periods of time, has never been sent to prison for a lengthy term. “And he will make that decision based on the public’s reaction. Including on how Navalny is greeted.”
Another commentator on Twitter who bills himself as “an electrician with antibodies” recalled that Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev had for the last several months been trying to make his way to Moscow, on foot or on horseback, in a quixotic bid to drive Putin from the Kremlin. “I don’t envy Putin now, of course,” he wrote. “The shaman is approaching from the east and, from the west, Navalny.”
Pro-Kremlin commentator Sergei Markov conceded that Navalny could be in mortal danger, but looked away from the Kremlin for possible suspects. “After all, he really could be physically destroyed by the oligarchs that suffered or are suffering from his investigations,” he wrote, referring to reports by Navalny and his allies exposing alleged corruption and lavish lifestyles among Putin’s associates.
“He could be killed also by radical patriots who are convinced that by doing so they are saving Russia. He could be killed also as a sacrificial lamb in the framework of the tactics of color revolution by his own allies,” Markov wrote. “Navalny’s personal courage undoubtedly deserves respect.”
One commentator posted below Markov’s analysis the quip that “how are they going to kill him if even Novichok doesn’t work?”
Journalist Maria Phillimore-Slonim compared Navalny’s saga to a traditional Russian folk tale, in which the hero goes away “a simple opposition figure” and returns “a world-renowned hero who has drunk from the water of life in a Berlin clinic to defeat the poison of the Kremlin Koshchei the Immortal.”
“He returns to Moscow not simply a modest hero, but Ivan-Tsarevich on a steel horse named Victory,” she added, referring to the fact that Navalny is expected to fly from Germany on a flight with the Russian airline Pobeda, or “Victory.”
“Russian fairy tales always have a happy ending,” she concluded. “The hero is victorious, and the enemy is defeated. Isn’t that right?”