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Exclusive: Alexei Navalny Urges Biden to Stand Up to Putin

18 minute read

A year has passed since Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition movement, returned to Moscow, having recovered from a nearly fatal attempt to poison him. He was arrested upon his return and sent to prison.

In an exchange of letters with TIME over the last few months from Russia’s Penal Colony No. 2, he shared his thoughts about prison life, the future of the opposition movement, and the recent diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Russia. Below are portions of his letters, responding to questions from a TIME journalist. They have been edited for clarity.

TIME: How are you? What are the conditions like for you in prison?

A prison inside a prison. I think that’s the most precise description of my reality. In my unit there are 13 men. Only one out of all of them is allowed to speak with me. The rest can only communicate in single words. Yes, no. Mostly they all stay silent, not wanting to let the wrong word slip. Video cameras are everywhere, plus the guards never under any circumstances talk to me unless it is video recorded.

The windows in my barracks are covered over. Literally. With white paper. It lets the light through, but nothing at all is visible through it. It’s the only barrack with covered windows, and everyone understands that it’s to stop me from seeing what happens outside. Sometimes I get the sense I’m living inside a shoebox.

During my hunger strike and right after, a pretty curious method of psychological pressure was used on me. Two convicts follow you all the time at a distance of about five feet. All day. From lights on to lights out. In the barracks, outside, in common room, the bathroom, the toilet. They don’t say anything, don’t even look at you. They don’t answer if you scream or try to shoo them away. But they don’t leave.

You are physically stronger, and after a couple days it takes all your moral power not to hit one of them to make them go away. On the video they would get exactly what the administration wants: you throw yourself at someone who is just standing nearby. At the same time I know, that they follow me not because they want to. They have been forced to. It makes for good endurance training.

Without a doubt, even the simplest decisions about my life here get made in the Kremlin, and the important ones—like whether to allow the doctors in—by Putin himself.

Photo Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME

In recent months Russia has prepared for a military invasion of Ukraine. What do you make of the ongoing negotiations around this conflict, and the broader standoff between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine, NATO and the future of European security?

Time and again the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps. He issues some insane, laughable demands, like these latest ones, about how he and Biden need to sit down in a smoke-filled room and decide the fate of Europe like we’re back in 1944. And if the U.S. doesn’t agree, he’ll ‘pull something.’

Instead of ignoring this nonsense, the U.S. accepts Putin’s agenda and runs to organize some kind of meetings. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upperclassman. Then they declare: “If you pull something, then we’ll impose harsh sanctions.” That’s exactly what Putin needs, because it follows that, if he does not attack Ukraine, then there won’t be any sanctions. There’ll just be the carrot, and no stick.

With that, the combination is complete: Putin doesn’t need to worry about the sanctions that were nearly imposed on his cronies. The Biden Administration first convinced Congress to shelve them, and now cancels them entirely. Since they promised Putin a carrot, it’s not the time for sanctions.

These two-move combinations are elementary and obvious. But it just takes my breath away to watch how Putin pulls this on the American establishment again and again: threaten to escalate—negotiate—pull back; threaten to escalate—negotiate—pull back. Watching this, I get the sense that it’s not U.S. foreign policy, but that short story by O. Henry, about the sneaky crook (Putin) tricking the village simpleton who thinks he’s so smart (the U.S. State Department).

While you were recovering in Berlin from the poisoning, some very senior officials came to visit you, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. What did you take away from those conversations?

Angela Merkel astounded me with her knowledge of the tiniest details both about my case and about Russia as a whole. You’d expect that level of understanding of the situation from someone who does not just take an interest in Russia but lives there.

It so happened that, while I was in Berlin, apart from Merkel, I got to meet the people who went on to form the [governing] coalition. With Olaf Scholz, who is now the Chancellor of Germany and was then the Minister of Finance. With Annalena Baerbock and her colleagues from the Green Party; she became the Minister of Foreign Affairs. With the head of the [Free Democratic Party], Christian Lindner, who joined the governing coalition with the title of Finance Minister.

I wouldn’t overstate the significance of these meetings. These were all primarily gestures of hospitality toward a politician from another country who got hurt and, as fate had it, wound up in Germany. But the meetings were interesting. At each one I thought about how good it is to have a system where people conduct politics professionally.

I was happy to become convinced that the common myth about the hyper-pragmatism of German politicians coming at the cost of their values is just that—a myth. All of the people I met had different views, but they all had values. I saw that they came to a fellow politician in order to represent their views and those of their voters.

One of the most memorable meetings was with the chief of police in Freiberg, near to where I lived. On a huge interactive map the policemen showed me how my security detail was organized. It was impressive. I even felt a bit uncomfortable in front of German taxpayers. But Germans are Germans. They do things as instructed. And if somebody needs protecting, they do it well.

Have you been disappointed by the West’s response to your imprisonment, and to your movement being banned in Russia as extremist?

I have a sober outlook on the potential of international pressure on the Kremlin. That’s partly from my memory of the story of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who died in prison despite significant efforts from the international community to free him and even a Nobel Peace Prize.

I would prefer that, in my case and the case of our organization, the West does not protect us but itself: first of all, enforcing the decisions of the [European Court of Human Rights], and second, resisting the export of corruption, the way Putin buys up foreign leaders (by giving them seats on corporate boards), the hybrid warfare that is waged by spreading chaos and pushing on the pressure points of Western society, whether its migrants in Europe or divisions in U.S. society.

What more do you want to see from the Biden Administration?

Biden is the President of the U.S. and not Russia. I had no naïve thoughts that he would deal with the international agenda, or with my poisoning/imprisonment, to the detriment of domestic issues. And I understand on the whole how politics works in the U.S. The President (and this is a good thing, not a bad one) cannot in an instant decide and get everything he wants.

What I see now would more likely give me hope. On the question of fighting corruption, the leadership in Congress could not be stronger. They formed a special bipartisan caucus, while inside the Biden Administration everyone is no less determined, having understood the most important thing: corruption is the source of most international problems (from Afghanistan and Iraq to Ukraine and Putin) that take up 60% of American Presidents’ time and trillions of dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers. Most of all I hope that the simple and easy means of pressure will finally be applied with some sense.

In Russia we’re all tired of rolling our eyes, watching the U.S. impose sanctions on some colonels and generals, who don’t even have money abroad. These are just the agents of Putin’s will.

The sanctions imposed against Russia since 2014 have not done much to change the Kremlin’s behavior. Why would the sanctions you propose be any different? How are they supposed to work?

It’s really simple. Putin is without a doubt the wealthiest person in the world. The source of his wealth is power and corruption. And the basis of his power is lies, propaganda and falsified election results. You want to influence Putin, then influence his personal wealth. It’s right under your backside. Everybody knows the names of the oligarchs and friends of Putin who hold his money. We know those who finance his yachts and palaces. Those who support his second and third families. It takes a majority of these oligarchs to split Putin’s elites. Give them a signal that the regime in Russia today will not be an eternal paradise where they can rob the people inside Russia while easily and freely spending their earnings in Europe and the U.S.

The consensus that Putin sells to the economic elites is just that: ‘Support me always and in everything, and I will secure your money and your ability to spend it in Aspen. No matter what any American President might say, they will never risk imposing sanctions on the ruling class in Russia. And if they start talking about that, we will instantly shift attention onto questions of security, like election interference or threats of an invasion in Ukraine, as is happening now.’

So it’s important to force part of the elite to realize at last that Putin’s regime is a problem for their emotional wellbeing more than it is an advantage. And that their open participation in corrupt deals will neither go unnoticed nor unpunished.

As you prepared to return to Russia in Jan. 2021, the authorities made clear that you would be arrested. But you still decided to return. Please describe how you explained the choice to your colleagues and fellow activists. What did you tell them? How did you explain the choice to your family? What did you tell your wife?

There were no discussions with my friends, no emotional talks with my wife, like you see in the movies. The question wasn’t even on the agenda. From the moment I opened my eyes, I knew I had to return. I was in a coma, and Yulia knew that if I survive, we will return. There was a painful question that we did indeed discuss. If Putin nearly killed Yulia with a chemical weapon, whether on purpose or by accident, that means these people are insane enough to smear some poison on a doorknob tomorrow. And what it’s not be who touches it but Dasha or Zakhar when they come home from school?

It’s one thing to take risks yourself, and another to take such decisions for someone else, even if they are your child. Forcing them to share with us these risks, which are no longer ephemeral, would be unfair to them. That is why we decided that it’s better for them to spend some time in places where it’s harder to smear chemical weapons on the doorknobs. With Dasha it was simpler—she had already been accepted at Stanford and was studying in the U.S. But Zakhar stayed at a school in Germany, even though he initially went there only because that’s where we ended up.

Now, with almost a year of hindsight, what do you understand about the Putin regime, and about your opposition to it, that you did not understand when making the decision to return?

Putin surprised me with the amount of damage he is willing to do to his country, to its future, just to solve one political problem, even an important one. Russia in the fall of 2020 was a different country than it is now, with a very different political regime. Even then it was a fully fledged authoritarian state, but few could have imagined such massive and total barring of candidates from elections, declaring all independent journalists ‘foreign agents’ and thousands of people extremists. Russia took months to travel the path that Belarus has been on for years.

And everyone, including Putin, understands that the collateral damage is enormous, obviously greater than the advantage Putin got. It’s an end to foreign investment, an end to the prospects of economic growth, a new wave of emigration. Just now I read that 50% of computer programmers want to emigrate even while they are still in school.

It even hit Putin’s own ratings. People are frightened, but they are growing politicized beneath the surface. That is why during the parliamentary elections we won seats in all major cities thanks to the ‘smart voting’ strategy. In Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg we got 7 out of 8 districts. Yes, they stole the results through falsifications. But the fact remains: for the first time in Putin’s 20 years, people voted against him and his party in such numbers.

How do you envision the future of your movement, and its activists, now that it has been banned as extremist?

We formed as an organization to be in opposition and to seek power, and now we find ourselves in the only position that is possible for honest and popular politicians in an authoritarian country: we have been banned.

Some are in exile, others under arrest. But our path was never strewn with roses. On the whole we were ready for this, which is why we morphed and evolved into an organization of a different type. The main thing we have is support, and it isn’t small, judging by the ‘smart voting’ results. I have no doubt that we will continue to be the main opposition force and to define the political agenda more effectively than all the others.

How do you envision your path to leadership in Russia? What are the two or three most likely scenarios?

Anything can happen in Russia, from mass unrest caused by a fall in the living standard (incomes are falling for the 8th year running) to a palace coup. My main goal is to have fair national elections, and then I will take whatever place the voters determine.

That’s important to me. No path to power other than through fair elections would be right or appropriate to me. Yes, there are likely to be some protests and events in the streets, but after that—only fair elections. Systematic and permanent ones. Not like [President Boris] Yeltsin did it—one time fairly, and then with censorship and falsifications. Russia badly needs at least 4-5 cycles of fair elections overseen by independent courts in order to finally break the vicious cycle of authoritarian rebirth, and to permanently affirm that power at every level is only won that way.

How do you think about the risk of violence in such scenarios? Would political change in Russia be worth the kind of violence we have seen in Ukraine, or even in Libya and Syria?

When talking about the risk of violence we have to look first of all to statistics and political science. Putin has inscribed the slogan of ‘stability’ upon his rule, and he uses it to justify everything: from censorship and crackdowns on demonstrations to the rigging of elections.

But in reality his rule only raises the risks of unexpected events, shocks, including those involving violence. Already several of the groups around him have become irreconcilable enemies. The creeping work of seizing power ‘after Putin’ has begun. Almost everyone in Putin’s closest circle believes that all the rest are idiots incapable of even stealing properly. And they are waiting for their moment to grab the fattest piece of the pie.

The worst thing is that, through his actions, Putin raises the likelihood of the country falling apart. His efforts to centralize power, money and authority in Moscow can only lead to greater centrifugal tendencies when the pendulum swings in the other direction.

What lessons did Putin learn from the conflicts and revolutions in those countries? How do you see him applying those lessons against you and your supporters?

He takes a view that is really primitive and popular among dictators: never show weakness. Show weakness, and you’ll get overthrown. Weakness to him means any concessions to the opposition or to public opinion. As an example he always holds up [Czar] Nicholas II and the collapse of the Russian Empire, or [Mikhail] Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR.

But that is a total misunderstanding of the lessons of history. The Russian Empire did not collapse due to the weakness of the Romanovs, but rather their maniacal desire to maintain an absolutist monarchy in the 20th century. And it wasn’t Gorbachev who tore down the USSR with his weakness, but rather the cruelty, stubbornness and stupidity of those senile despots, with their centrally planned economy and their war in Afghanistan.

Your past statements against illegal immigrants, especially in the video from 2007, where you seem to compare them to cockroaches, have continued to shape your public image. How do you think about those statements and the message of that clip? Is that still a part of you?

I regret shooting the clip with that script back then. But on the other hand, I’m a politician of the Internet, my every word over these last 15 years has been recorded and discussed. Since we are still discussing that clip from 2007, then it seems I haven’t done or said all that much stupid stuff. Still, I did do some things, and said things, for which I have apologized. I’m not the type of person who finds it hard to admit mistakes and say sorry.

Has the decision to imprison you made things better or worse for Putin?

Looking at the bigger picture, I would still have to answer that he made things worse for himself. It’s clear that this was a personal, emotional decision on Putin’s part. First I didn’t die from the poison. Then I didn’t turn into a vegetable as the doctors had feared. Then I had the gall not only to return but, once in Russia, to release an investigation about Putin’s own corruption.

It’s exactly through that logic of ‘never showing weakness’ that he set rational calculation aside and took this step. So, what did he achieve? So I live in a box with the windows glued shut and walk around in galoshes and prison clothes. So what? Sitting in my galoshes, I’m giving an interview to TIME Magazine, and our ‘smart voting’ drowned out his candidates in all the big cities. Plus there’s a wave of emigration. Plus an angry electorate. Plus his only friend now is [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko. That kind of country won’t get investments. That means there won’t be economic growth. And inflation is already at 10% in the official data. In reality, it’s 15.

I’m not saying that my arrest was the cause of all this, but it was definitely an important trigger for this chain of events. The ideal for Putin is Singapore or China: no freedom, but economic growth, technology and a line of foreigners waiting to invest. And instead of a nuclear-armed Singapore or even a USSR 2.0 with yachts and Mercedes, you’re standing on the stage at a parade and your only foreign guest is the President of Tajikistan. And instead of technology and growth you have a computer animation of a mythical new weapons

Maybe that’s why we don’t know a single politician in history who looked good after ten years of solitary power. They just stop seeing the big picture and become capricious, acting emotionally. Still, to be honest, even if a sober analysis were to show that all of this has made things worse for me, and not for the Putin regime, I would still have returned. I just knew that’s what I had to do.

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