The Unsurprising, Unjust Conviction of Russia's Opposition Leader

Aleksei Navalny and the echoes of 1936 in modern Russia.
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Aleksei Navalny (Wikimedia Commons)

Aleksei Navalny woke up this morning knowing that he'd be found guilty of the crime of embezzlement. What he wasn't absolutely sure of, though probably heavily suspected, was that he'd be given a lengthy jail sentence -- five years, as it turns out, which is just one fewer than the prosecutor had asked for, along with a $15,400 fine. In one of the last email exchanges I had with him, a little over a week ago, he'd written back: "Will it happen before the 18th?" in response to a note alerting him to something forthcoming that I knew would be of interest to him. He was under no illusions as to how little time he had left.There are four other "charges" pending against the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner, and possibly more to come. Navalny had said recently that he'd lost count of the number of indictments being handed down by Vladimir Putin's legal Thermidor, which is overseen by the Investigative Committee's Alexander Bastrykin. Bastrykin is man who once threatened to to behead a journalist in a forest; he ordered his investigators, who initially turned up nothing, to turn up something implicating Navalny's theft.

It was a dull and lazy farce, right up until the dull and lazy end.

As for the defendants in the "Kirovles case," Navalny and his one-time partner Petr Ofitzerov (who got four years and the same fine) are two of modern history's convicted thieves who plainly did not steal anything. Their "trial," presided over by a judge who has never acquitted a defendant, in a country with a higher conviction rate than the Soviet Union during the Great Terror, wasn't just a farce, it was a dull and lazy farce, right up until the dull and lazy end. The entire verdict was 100 pages long and took three hours for Judge Blinov (Blinov means "pancake") to read. "Guilty" came quickly and was anticlimactic for all. But then, perhaps fearing that a population already treated with contempt by its courts, its television channels and most of its newspapers had not been sufficiently stultified into submission, Blinov carried on and on, boring even Navalny, who cheerfully, mockingly live-tweeted his own sentencing. The entire courtroom seemed focused on social media; at one point, the mass distraction prompted Blinov to instruct everyone to please switch off their smart phones. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted at Navalny, "Hi, I'm watching." George Kennan should have been so hip.

The Democracy Report Here's what Blinov did not say in those three hours. Thirty-three of the 35 prosecutorial witnesses actually briefed on Navalny's behalf. The defense was not allowed to call any witnesses of its own. V.N. Opalev, the one man upon whose testimony Blinov claims to have hung his prefabricated judgment, often forgot his lines and contradicted himself. At one point, as the BuzzFeed's Max Seddon reminds us, Opalev offered the "wrong" evidence and so the "right" kind was simply read aloud for him, to which he replied that, yes, "it was like that."

Historical comparisons ought not be stretched too far, but observers aren't wrong to detect a whiff of the 1930s creeping into 2010s. In 1936, as Stalin began liquidating the Bolshevik opposition blocs to his dictatorship, a low-ranking Trotskyist called Holtzman was put on trial, accused of "terrorism" and attempted assassinations of the Soviet leadership. Among the invented targets was Stalin himself, who then helped invent Holtzman's verdict. The state claimed that the defendant had met up with Trotsky's son Sedov in Copenhagen's Hotel Bristol. There was one minor error, however. The Hotel Bristol had burned down in 1917. So Soviet propagandists had to come up with a new location without overtaxing their imaginations; thus the Café Bristol became the furtive rendezvous spot for plotting to dismantle the people's first socialist democracy.

No one ever accused Navalny of being furtive; up until today, he was running a long-shot campaign to get elected mayor of Moscow and he's openly stated his intention of one day running for president, two contingencies now foreclosed by a criminal conviction. (There is still some wriggle room for the mayoral race, apparently, related to the timing of an appeal, but Navalny withdrew his candidacy a few hours ago, promising only to continue if he's released from jail.) His activity has been out in the open, published on LiveJournal and on Twitter. That was the point, after all, to awaken everybody to what's been happening around them for over a decade. He wants to dismantle Putin's "managed democracy," which he has cleverly and charismatically exposed as a racket of gargantuan proportion, where oligarchs have been given government titles and KGB agents from "St. Pete" have been given chairmanships on the boards of oil and gas giants -- what Navalny called a "repulsive feudal order that sits like a spider in that Kremlin." Anyone standing in the way of this order, or telling the truth about the criminality that sustains it, is hereby deemed dispensable either through murder, public vilification in the state-controlled organs, or imprisonment. A martyr can do only so much from a labor camp. Ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch sentenced for fraud, or Pussy Riot's Mary Alekhine, who was beaten in prison today.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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