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Navalny’s Value
By Winslow Myers
February 19, 2024

winslow myers
Winslow Myers

What is the exact length of an inch, or the weight of an ounce? In this world of relativity, how do we gauge absolute standards? Nations employ whole bureaus with sophisticated methods of calibrating the measurement of a meter, or the weight of some discrete quantity of atomic particles, as we raid the relative in our attempts to define and quantify the absolute.

In the realm of the moral, we continue to toss on a sea of relativity. We cringe at Hamas’s violence of October 7, at what the Israeli government has done to Gazan civilians in reaction, and at the reality that some fraction of the taxes we pay supports Netanyahu’s unhinged campaign of vengeance.

Aleksei Navalny, to all effects murdered by Putin, represented by contrast about as absolute a standard of what might constitute a morally honest life as humanly possible. He was not perfect; nobody is. In his early political life he dallied with racist forms of nationalism, which he outgrew.

Navalny didn’t have to make the final trip back to Russia in 2021 that led three years later to his death in an Arctic prison, but any other course seemed to him like ducking the issue. His laughter, right up to the end, in the face of grossly unjust treatment gives an intimation of what the immense charisma of someone like Jesus must have been like.

Evil may or may not be banal, but Navalny took the measure of the petty, mean-spirited banality of Putin, and decided he didn’t need to let it loom over the narrowed scope of his possibilities. He not only stood up to a murderous autocrat but reveled in his own wit and strength while doing it. How many can say they were still smiling and still in good spirits at the very hour of their death? Such an example cannot be so easily dissolved out of history. Navalny will haunt the hapless Putin to his own grave.

The critic R.P. Blackmur said that great poetry “adds to the stock of available reality.” Likewise, the arc of Navalny’s life and death adds to the stock of moral reality. It leaks the air out of Putin’s callous hubris—and Trump’s for that matter. Our own moral courage is put in the dock, and almost all of us, by the Navalny standard, are whited sepulchers, including so many spineless officials in Russia and the U.S. and elsewhere who demonstrate what passes for service and justice in today’s transactional political culture.

Different contexts bring forth different varieties of moral courage. For John Kennedy it was relying on diplomacy and resisting the warmongers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Martin Luther King Jr. called out American materialism, militarism, and racism. Daniel Ellsberg exposed intolerable government lies about the Vietnam war and the terrifying immorality of nuclear weapons. Mandela magnanimously forgave his captors for the sake of building a new country. Navalny tirelessly critiqued corruption in high places in the Russian government.

Navalny never had the opportunity to become immersed in the inevitable compromises of actual governing, and so his life may more easily lend itself to facile myth-making. But his courage and wit are clearly recorded, including in the documentary about him, which no one should miss.

If there is helplessness, demoralization, and despair in the Russian opposition at the moment, they can take heart from the words of historian Howard Zinn:

“ . . . the most striking fact about these superpowers [the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.] was that, despite their size, their wealth, their overwhelming accumulation of nuclear weapons, they were unable to control events, even in those parts of the world considered to be their respective spheres of influence . . . Apparent power has again and again proved vulnerable to those human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience . . . Political power, however formidable, is more fragile than we think (Note how nervous are those who hold it.)”

We are herding animals, so outliers like Navalny will always remain rare. But we all have that awareness of a gold standard in us, often deeply buried but still there, something that tells us where we may be falling short.

Even should Putin “win” the war with Ukraine, day by day his emasculation of his people has taken them ever further from Navalny’s expansive vision of a democratic Russia. But his martyrdom has already planted the seeds of the inevitable counter-revolution. His example will energize that creative response in followers old and new.

As Secretary of War Stanton said right after Abraham Lincoln succumbed to an assassin’s bullet, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Previous Articles:
Old and New Thinking
Oppenheimer's War
Beyond the mulish, look to the stars

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.


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