The Dissident: Alexey Navalny: Portrait of a Political Prisoner
By David M. Herszenhorn
Twelve; hardcover, 320 pages; $30.00
David M. Herszenhorn is chief Brussels correspondent of Politico, and prior to that, he worked for over 20 years at the New York Times as a reporter, Washington correspondent, and foreign correspondent based in Moscow.
Alexey Navalny can be described many ways, as he's a lawyer, blogger, anti-corruption crusader, protest organizer, political opposition leader, mayoral and presidential candidate, campaign strategist, provocateur, poisoning victim, and dissident, but the one that got him sent into jail is that he is Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest political rival.
The Dissident is one of the most deeply-researched books on this compelling figure in the crosshairs of Putin, who despises Navalny so much he never utters his name.
Navalny's story is modern Russia's story, in a sense because his generation straddled the end of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Russian Federation. He spent his childhood summers with his Ukrainian grandparents near Chernobyl, and he had a fellowship at Yale University, which spurred conspiracy theories about his ties to the United States.
Offended by the dishonesty and criminality of the Russian political system, Navalny became an anti-corruption crusader and mounted a relentless opposition movement. He felt that an entirely different country can be created, one that defies the old saying that Russia without corruption isn't Russia.
The anti-corruption investigations Navalny led revealed billions in graft at Russia's biggest state-owned companies and vast bribe-taking by top Russian officials, including his blockbuster revelations about Putin's Black Sea Palace. He also held huge street protests, and he became known for controversial views on nationalism, gun rights, and Crimea, and is now a prisoner of conscience bravely opposing Putin's war in Ukraine, which began in February of 2022.
This is what made him such a threat to Putin that the Kremlin wanted him exiled or dead, which led to an assassination attempt in August 2020 with a military-grade nerve agent by an FSB hit squad in Siberia. After he recovered, he did a vigilante-style investigation with news outlet Bellingcat to identify and confront his own would-be killers. The Kremlin is intent on leaving him in a prison colony for decades.
In this excerpt, Herszenhorn writes of the trial that gave Navalny's crusade a worldwide audience: "Navalny just won't stop. So, it was no surprise that upon returning to Russia in January 2021, his plane was diverted to a different airport - thwarting throngs of supporters who came out to greet him - and he was arrested before he could cross passport control.
There are many ways to take a life. Poison had failed. Prison was now the fallback.
Two weeks after his arrest, Navalny stood in a packed courtroom in Moscow, defiant as ever, to address the Russian government's latest absurd accusation against him: he failed to check in with parole officers while in a coma.
Navalny wore a dark black hoodie and khaki green pants. His light brown hair was combed perfectly in place, his angular jaw and dimpled chin uncovered while nearly everyone else in court wore masks as protection against coronavirus.
Watching him, jaunty and flashing iconic smiles from inside the locked glass-enclosed dock that Russians call 'the Aquarium,' it was hard to believe that just five months earlier, he was nearly killed with an internationally banned chemical weapon. The tricked FSB officer was right. Navalny's life was saved thanks to a combination of stupidly lucky events: the bumbling of the security agents who tried to kill him; the quick emergency landing by the pilots of the plane he was on; and the professionalism of an ambulance crew and doctors in the Siberian city of Omsk, who were never told that they were supposed to let him die.
As he spoke, Navalny's voice was firm, edged with his trademark tone - a mix of supreme confidence and abject disbelief - that has come from years of tangling with the inane illogic of the Russian judicial system. It is a system that makes sense only when recognized as beholden to political masters, delivering preordained outcomes disconnected from laws and facts.
Navalny perfected that tone of voice and his bemused, friendly, storytelling style, by narrating YouTube videos, viewed millions of times, in which he revealed spectacular corruption by Russian government officials. In one such video, he exposed his own would-be assassins - providing a surreal dispassionate account of how they plotted his death.
In court, as was made obvious by his captivity in a glass box, Navalny was the defendant, charged with parole violations that could - and would - lead to a sentence of nearly three years in a notorious Russian penal colony.
But as he delivered his statement that subfreezing February afternoon, Navalny turned the absurdity of the Russian court system to his advantage. He transformed himself from accused into accuser, and his defendant's statement into a prosecutor's closing argument, in which he leveled charges against the one man he held responsible for his poisoning and imprisonment: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Russia's modern-day czar."