Alexey Navalny and the moral pillars of democracy

Will the restoration of democratic institutions in Russia usher in a liberal paradise? The answer could very well be “no”.

William Echols
11 August 2017


“For Navalny! Let’s change Russia, starting with Moscow!” reads this sticker. Pro-Navalny rally in Moscow, during the opposition leader’s campaign for Moscow Mayor in 2013. Photo CC BY-NC 2.0: Vladmir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Liberal eschatologists have long been convinced the end times belong to them. It’s hard to romanticise those who fight for the status quo — after all, history is moving forward. What could possibly be positive about putting the brakes on progress? 

Whatever their politics, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and anyone else worth a Hollywood biopic have been firmly ensconced in an idealised discourse. When figures rise up to reinforce the messianic narrative of hope and transformation, a certain class is primed to raise that stranger’s banner, however distant the land (or cause) is from their own. Cue Alexey Navalny, the Russian anti-corruption campaigner and presidential hopeful hoping to take on Vladimir Putin for the throne. Just mentioning Navalny’s name sets off accusations and recriminations. Woe to the naive westerner looking to pour their own ideas into Navalny’s distinctively conservative casting, the critics say.

The critics may have a point. For the screenwriter already writing the first draft of Navalny’s triumph over tyranny, one key point is in order: a democratically restored Russia without Vladimir Putin (or Navalny, for that matter) will likely remain a conservative country. Take the work of Jonathan Haidt, who outlined the social-psychological roots of man’s moral intuitions in “The Righteous Mind”.

Maybe, in the “post-truth” era, the progressive’s enemy is not on the other side of the political divide, but the institutional oneWhile not a complete determinist, Haidt argues that our political leanings stem from our genetics, shaped in a millennia-long waltz with group adaptation. He believes that human beings are equipped to exist in dominance hierarchies, though not in the alpha male “might makes right” model. We are social creatures who cooperate to survive. Rights forgone for the sake of the hierarchy also imply responsibilities for those who rise to the top, lest they be overthrown from within, or are crushed by more cohesive groups from without.

According to Haidt, human civilization is based on six moral foundations: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Sanctity and Authority. Adherence to this moral matrix can explain our “spectacular rise to planetary dominance”. It might also illuminate the creeping shadow of revanchist conservatism worldwide.

Why? Because it appears that liberals, especially those in the west, have forsaken loyalty, sanctity and authority in their political messaging. For those with high levels of threat sensitivity but little predisposition to novelty, diversity and variety, progressives appear to be razing the very foundations that make broad social cohesion possible.

Russia as testing ground for Haidt’s ideas

Haidt’s theories, of course, aren’t some perfect perfect tool for decrypting human cognition, but a mélange of social scientific theory, western philosophy and evolutionary psychology. Critics call him a conservative masquerading as a liberal, cagily trying to turn social norms into empirical truth.

With those caveats in mind, Russia might prove the perfect place to put Haidt’s theories to the test. A power-obsessed nation where the state narrative sacralises the military fetes of its forefathers, idolises the iron fist and mythologises itself as the “Third Rome” certainly demonstrates the role of loyalty, authority and sanctity in politics.

Any new leader will have to reclaim the Great Patriotic War and the arch of Russian history, girded by the Orthodox Church, “conceived” on the Crimean peninsula, as their ownPerhaps one need look no further than the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who called themselves “the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority,” to bring that point home. Pussy Riot’s punk rock prayer, staged in Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral in 2012, gambled on stomping on sanctity, loyalty and authority for the sake of care, liberty and fairness. According to the Levada Center, It managed to attract the sympathy of six percent of Russians one year after the women were locked up in a quasi-ecclesiastical show trial. The Russian authorities, for all of their love of graft and general incompetence, cannot be accused of not knowing their own people.

That isn’t to say that Russian citizens are mere supplicants at the altar of power. Appeals to care and fairness also have weight, as seen through the underreported truckers’ protests in Russia or growing unrest over the enormous demolition and resettlement scheme slated for Moscow. But for anyone seeking democratic reform, whereby care, liberty and fairness are respected (if not through equal rights for minorities, then at least through less corruption and the rule of law), one thing is abundantly clear: other moral foundations will have to play a critical role in propping up one’s political platform.

Any new leader will have to reclaim the Great Patriotic War and the arch of Russian history, girded by the Orthodox Church, “conceived” on the Crimean peninsula, as their own. They cannot merely seek to turn Russia into another European-style democracy. Rather, they will have to “make Russia great again,” projecting authority, engendering loyalty and safeguarding the sacred.


Teachers at a May Day demonstration in St Petersburg. Photo (c) “Teacher” Inter-regional trade union of education workers. All rights reserved.Only then can the authorities properly be targeted for neglecting fairness through the systematic elimination of democratic institutions and civil society; for letting the country’s healthcare, social services and infrastructure be degraded for the sake of their laundered money and European villas.

Who is Navalny, really?

This brings us back to Alexey Navalny, who, it seems, has his finger on the pulse of the nation, setting off alarms among his peers along the way.

Prominent journalist Oleg Kashin has warned on the pages of the New York Times that Navalny, with an authoritarian leadership style and past participation in nationalist causes, may actually be another iteration of Putin rather than his foil. Leftist Ilya Budraitskis has argued that Navalny’s “vertically organised” protest movement is like a “political machine” coldly indifferent to input from the little guy. Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander went as far as to brand Navalny “the Russian version of Donald Trump”. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky has likewise referred to his political platform as “Trump-like”.

So what does Navalny actually believe? A bizarre recent debate with Igor Girkin — a key figure in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and a dyed in the wool monarchist — left that question mostly unanswered. Navalny skirted the hard questions during the debate, all the while attempting to recast Russian nationalism as less of a 19th century imperial redux syndrome and more of a “corruption is undermining our ability to be great” crusade. Who cares if we have Donetsk if hospitals are crumbling in Saratov, Navalny asks. This, however, does little to clarify whether Navany believes Donetsk should remain under Russian-backed rule if the price is right.

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Alexey Navalny and Igor Girkin hold a debate online. Source: Youtube. Navalny seems content to leave the big questions within the purview of European technocrats and not moral necessity, hoping, vaguely, that the Minsk Agreement will sort the Ukraine situation out. He is equally vague on Crimea. The Syrian intervention is portrayed by Navalny as a waste of financial, and not moral capital. Navalny, in short, takes a utilitarian approach that is right in Haidt’s wheelhouse.To be fair, Navalny is clearly stuck between scylla and charybdis. What is demanded of Navalny from his nebulous western supporters is likely antithetical to what would put him in power back home, if he is actually allowed to run.

Good people are divided by politics, not institutions

Maybe the true slant of Navalny’s political leanings are not the most important matter at hand anyways. Maybe, in the “post-truth” era, the progressive’s enemy is not on the other side of the political divide, but the institutional one. It may be less important if Navalny believes in gay adoption and more important if he’d respect a court’s ruling to that effect; whether such a court would be allowed to exist in the first place under his government.

Haidt, after all, argues that good people are divided by politics, not their belief in institutions. And it appears that robust institutions, in Russia and elsewhere, are the key to a brighter future. A successful Navalny presidency would reassert the independence of the judicial and legislative branches, reduce wealth inequality, fix crumbling infrastructure in the regions, invest in education and pensions, significantly reduce graft, relinquish state control of the fourth estate, respect Russia’s neighbors within a 21st (rather than 19th) century framework, significantly develop the role of civil society, focus on leading through soft power and seek to bolster the sclerotic post-war global order rather than disrupt it.

Political voices relegated to the wilderness would be allowed back in from the cold, onto the airwaves, and relatively free from state-sponsored harassment. More importantly, the exact date on which he would step down would be known and constitutionally determined.

But Navalny’s rule could also result in the type of curb on immigration that Trump could only dream of, with issues related to LBGTQ rights being left to die on a regional level. The gay propaganda law might go, but will there be gay marriage? Don’t count on it yet. A secular state will be enshrined, but the Orthodox Church, cleaved from the state’s grip but cosseted by officials all the same, might end up taking a larger role in society than ever before, granted people actually start believing in society again.

In reality, however, Putin is likely primed to lay the foundations for his third decade in power next year. Navalny will likely become a footnote in history — a Decembrist rather than a Bolshevik to inform the next generation of rebels to come.

But the issue of Russia’s future, political and otherwise, goes far beyond Navalny. Activists looking to prioritise gender equality, minority rights and protection of the most vulnerable members of society in Russia today will probably not succeed tomorrow. For those issues to have their day in court, an institutionally sound Russia will first have to be built on foundations not reflecting what Russia “should” be, but rather, what it is.

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