Alexei Navalny appears on a screen (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Amnesty International is wrong to brand Alexei Navalny an anti-hero

The response to the political plight of Navalny has demonstrated that many civil rights organisations are neither principled nor brave

Artillery Row

Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned at the infamous IK-2 penal colony in Pokrov outside of Moscow, has announced that he will be going on hunger strike. Last week, Navalny’s colleagues had announced that his health was “deteriorating”. Ibuprofen was the only medicine he was offered by camp officials after he had complained about severe pain in his back and a numb leg.

Navalny had known that throughout history exiled Russian opposition leaders eventually become irrelevant. The Russian anti-corruption crusader had been airlifted to Germany in a comatose state after suffering a medical emergency on an airplane. The world soon learned that he had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent — a potent and horrific weapon of war — applied to his underwear by FSB operatives who had spent several years trailing him.

We are living through a phase of purity politics which demands an unforgiving standard of moral virtue

Navalny’s subsequent recovery, under the care of the best German doctors, was as improbable as it was swift. Yet even more shocking was his indomitable decision to return to Russia. This constituted an unbelievable act of physical and moral courage and a direct challenge to the government. As Navalny himself doubtless knew would happen, he was immediately arrested at the passport control desk upon disembarking from his plane in Moscow. After a pair of absurd show trials, he was promptly sent to the penal colony. It was an act of political prosecution that garnered him near universal recognition as the most renowned prisoner of conscience in the world. Yet for bizarrely solipsistic reasons, that judgment was not to be shared by the men and women who run Amnesty International. The hunger strike and the escalation of his suffering now offer a belated opportunity for those Western intellectuals who made an incorrect judgement to ameliorate a colossal mistake.

At the end of February, Amnesty International publicly announced its decision to strip Navalny of his recognised status as a “prisoner of conscience”. He would still be recognised as a political prisoner, but this was unambiguously a very serious rebuke. The internal process to reconsider Navalny’s designation was instigated by concerted pressure levelled through a social media mob that claimed that Navalny was racist. These claims were based on certain hard-edged and xenophobic comments that he had made 15 years ago.

The question was now not just whether Navalny was imprisoned for his political advocacy, but also whether he was guilty of hate speech. Many years ago, before he was a household name, Navalny had referred to Chechen Islamist terrorist leader Shamil Basayev and other members of his movement as “cockroaches” in a video which his movement had produced. He had also advocated against labour migration from Central Asia and the Caucasus, something that has long been a source of tension in Russian society.

As a result, Navalny was no longer considered to be a decent enough figure to deserve the support of the free world — or so the logic seemed to intimate.

The traditional designation that a “prisoner of conscience” — someone imprisoned for their political beliefs — must never have advocated or condoned personal violence was now no longer seen as enough. We are living through a moment of purity politics that expects and demands an unforgiving standard of exalted moral virtue, even from its martyrs and saints.

I do not wish to dwell upon the cackling fashion in which Russian state-run television played up the whole rancid affair. It was certainly a propaganda victory which the Kremlin was all too happy to exploit. That reaction was not particularly interesting. Similarly, I have no wish to discuss the tiresome details of the pivotal role that a certain Russian American heiress turned social media Stalinist played in mobilising the pressure campaign against Amnesty. Although these external actors pushed Amnesty to rescind the “prisoner of conscience” designation, the organisation itself came out of the incident looking like it was staffed by naive fools.

It takes a certain kind of man to place his fate at the mercy of the government which had just attempted to poison him

Some of Navalny’s comments from the 2000s were indeed fairly nasty. Those remarks, his defenders typically point out, were delivered a very long time ago in the atmosphere of a brief (and failed) attempt to assemble a liberal-nationalist opposition coalition. Navalny has since modulated away from those views without ever quite repudiating them. This should not be surprising. Navalny is a Russian man firmly embedded in his country’s political culture, which differs from contemporary Western politics through its lack of focus on social justice issues. His impudent manner is that of the son of a Russian army officer. The lack of desire to modulate it while speaking to Western media was imprudent — and entirely in character. He is the sort of Russian man whose barracks talk is anathema to our contemporary therapeutic culture.

It was exactly that sort of bravado that Navalny deployed recently during an interview with the Financial Times when he cavalierly deployed the Russian slur for a gay man to characterise the Russian security officers who would likely be stalking his daughter if he had not sent her to study in America. Clearly as much as a personal insult, this was meant as an assault on what he viewed as a lack of masculine virtue endemic to the security agency. At the risk of incurring the wrath of certain puritanical types myself, I would personally be much more outraged if Navalny had used such language to describe actual gay individuals, rather than members of the security services who had placed the nerve agent into his underwear.

There is a kind of unbending and wilful personality type that one needs to possess in order to stand up against a dehumanising system such as the Soviet Gulag or the contemporary Russian political regime, however one wants to categorise it. It takes a certain kind of man to place his fate at the mercy of the government which had just attempted to poison him in order to prove his point. The sort of man who is willing to proceed directly from rehabilitation to a guaranteed stint in a hellish Russian penal colony is not likely to be adored by Western social media activists.

Nor is this situation particularly new. Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — whose world view, spiritual qualities and political stance bore many similarities to Navalny’s — was also not beloved by liberals. He held myriad old-fashioned and obtuse opinions, and he was certainly an anti-Semite. After the Amnesty scandal, various Russian journalists have speculated about the proportion of legendary Soviet dissidents who would have been cancelled under the organisation’s new criteria. I personally suspect it’s at least half of them.

Amnesty’s mission has drifted away from the ideals that it was founded to defend

Amnesty International bowed to internet-borne social pressure. It did so, in part, because its mission has drifted away from the ideals that it and other legacy rights organisations were founded to defend. They had become partisan. There was no clear set of standards for dealing with this new class of politicised demands, and the executives were forced to double down on decisions made at lower levels of the organisation. It faced a sort of “mission creep” set in the midst of attempts by a new generation of activists to vanquish the sins of our fallen world.

The ACLU has similarly found itself torn between an older generation, which is committed to defending an exacting standard of civil liberties, and a younger cohort which is far more interested in enacting broad-scale social change. This is not to wholly impugn a priori the changes sought by the younger activists; some are no doubt well intentioned and focused on bringing about more social comity. Still, others represent malign utopian impulses that have historically led to destructive and even totalitarian outcomes when they were transformed into state policy.

An entire genre of twentieth-century dystopian literature was written to teach us the difference. Yet the social media cascades that now shape decision-making processes are uniquely bad at making those distinctions. In any case, the noble and legalistic civil rights organisations of old will always get themselves into trouble when declaring war on evil instead of sticking to their core mission of defending the rights of prisoners or the freedom of speech.

The worldview increasingly prevalent among Western elites seems to favour deeply illiberal outcomes

Understanding the deeper origins of this incident is of existential importance. The worldview increasingly prevalent among Western elites, who consider themselves to be defenders of progressive values, seems to favour deeply illiberal outcomes. The response to the political plight of Navalny has demonstrated — sadly not for the first time in history — that many intellectuals are neither principled nor brave.

This situation was borne of a parochial need by Western activists to project their purist concerns onto a political conflict that they did not understand. A group of pro-Kremlin activists was thus able to easily exploit an environment in which Western rights organisations lived in fear of activist criticism under a frothing system of ever shifting standards. The individuals who campaigned to have Amnesty strip Navalny of his status as a prisoner of conscience, even as he was being sent to a brutal Russian penal colony where his health is now being destroyed by a government that would love to be rid of him, would do well to reread The Gulag Archipelago.

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