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“Alexei Navalny Taught Russia’s Opposition How to Mobilize”: Historian on Putin’s “Dictatorship”

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Thousands gathered Friday in Moscow for the funeral of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic penal colony on February 16. The funeral was live-streamed on Navalny’s YouTube channel to millions of his supporters, who suspect President Vladimir Putin is behind the dissident’s death. “We live in an open dictatorship where any forms of public disobedience are forbidden,” says Russian historian and political theorist Ilya Budraitskis, who says Navalny’s death has galvanized public opposition for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine. With the war enabling the Kremlin to suppress political freedom, Budraitskis says Russian leaders are “ready to continue” their invasion and are openly advocating for the dismantling of Ukraine. “If Ukraine will be not supported from the West, Russia will continue its offensive and realize its final goal: the elimination of Ukraine as a state.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to Russia, where thousands gathered Friday in Moscow for the funeral of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, weeks after he died, February 16th, in an Arctic prison at the age of 47. The funeral was live-streamed on Navalny’s YouTube channel. This is a mourner outside the funeral.

MOURNER: [translated] I came to remember a good man who was deprived of his life. His family was deprived of love, of everything. We had hopes for him. It’s very unfortunate. We are always visiting Nemtsov, and now we have one more place to visit. God forbid, more places like these occur. We are very worried.

AMY GOODMAN: Navalny’s family held a funeral service at a Moscow church with his body displayed in an open casket. His mother and father were at the ceremony. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, is outside of Russia and could not attend. Neither could his children. Navalnaya has accused Putin of murdering her husband and delaying the release of his body to cover it up. The family reportedly wanted to bury Navalny Thursday, the same day as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual State of Nation address. Several foreign diplomats attended the funeral, including the U.S., German and French ambassadors to Russia.

The Kremlin has warned against unauthorized gatherings, and the Russian rights group OVD-Info reported, quote, “at least 67 arrests in 16 towns” Friday, including six arrests in Moscow. Overall, the organization reports about 400 people have been detained at memorials and rallies across Russia since Navalny’s death.

Earlier today in Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief, Volker Türk, addressed the situation in Russia while giving his global update to the U.N. Human Rights Council. He expressed concerns about the persecution of Navalny and others in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections that start March 15th.

VOLKER TÜRK: In the Russian Federation, the authorities have further intensified their repression of dissenting voices prior to this month’s presidential election. Several candidates have been prevented from running due to alleged administrative irregularities. The death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny adds to my serious concerns about his persecution.

Since the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine, thousands of politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and people who have simply spoken their minds on social media have faced administrative and criminal charges. And this trend appears to have worsened in recent months, with many cultural figures being targeted. Last month, a new bill passed into law that further punishes people convicted of distributing information deemed to be false about Russia’s Armed Forces, as well as people who seek to implement decisions by international organizations that the Russian Federation does not take part in.

I urge a swift and comprehensive review of all cases of deprivation of liberty that result from the exercise of fundamental freedoms, as well as an immediate end to the repression of independent voices and the legal professionals who represent them. The future of the country depends on an open space.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Berkeley, California, by Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian historian and political theorist who was previously based in Moscow and recently joined the University of California, Berkeley as a visiting scholar. He’s a member of the Russian antiwar Posle.Media, a leftist online platform founded after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. He’s the author of the award-winning book Dissidents Among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia. His new piece for Jacobin is titled “Alexei Navalny Taught Russia’s Opposition How to Mobilize.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ilya. Can you talk about what you understand took place on Friday and the lead-up to the funeral, the funeral itself, if people felt threatened, and the message that you think this funeral was to the world?

ILYA BUDRAITSKIS: So, thank you so much.

So, the first thing to say, that the Russian authorities did a lot to prevent this funeral to happen, because they hided the body, they tried to prevent any public funerals in Moscow. So, all this story happened during the week, and finally they decided that it will be easier to make this funeral happen in the very suburb of Moscow. So, it’s important to know that the suburb, it’s a long way to come there from, let’s say, the center of the city. And, of course, it happened just a day after the address of Putin, which was his main pre-election address to the nation. So, that’s why the authorities were not interested to attract too much attention to the funeral.

And the fact that more than 20,000 people came to this funeral in the suburbs, in the situation of fear, in the situation where every one of these people could be arrested, prosecuted and so on, so it’s really amazing, because it’s the first time during this, let’s say, two years, after the start of the war, when we saw such a big opposition rally in the city and in Russia, in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Was the family able to get an independent autopsy? The Kremlin said that he died of natural causes. Navalny, of course, was 47 years old.

ILYA BUDRAITSKIS: So, the first thing to say, that Navalny was tortured in prison. So, he spent more than 200 days in so-called prison cell, so it’s a prison inside the prison, with extremely hard conditions. And we still don’t know for sure the reasons of his death, if it was the result of torture or it was the outcome of the poisoning. But for me, it’s quite clear that, any way, he was killed, because what we saw, it was a murder in, let’s say — which happen consistently during his prison term.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your Jacobin piece, “And now, after the murder of Navalny, and faced with the rise of authoritarian forms of capitalism around the world, we must remember that without basic freedom of speech and assembly, the Left and the oppressed have very little chance of winning anything.” Do you hold out hope in Russia? I mean, you have Navalny’s wife Yulia saying she’s going to take on the mantle. What about forms of leadership within Russia that are dissenting, the other forms of opposition?

ILYA BUDRAITSKIS: The success of Navalny as the leader that unified opposition, that was able to start mobilizations, mass mobilizations, in Russia, it all happened before the war. And when he was poisoned in 2020 and after it, he understood that the only way to continue his activity as a public leader is to come back to the country.

So, for now, we have the situation in Russia which is totally different with what was before the war. So, for now, we live in the open, let’s say, dictatorship, where any forms of public disobedience are forbidden. And, of course, for Yulia Navalnaya, it will be very hard to present yourself as the alternative leader, being outside of the country. But on the other side, that’s the only opportunity for the moment to speak publicly, to address a Russian audience with open antiwar, anti-Putin slogans, is to being abroad. So, I think her position is very controversial, in this sense. It’s very challenging.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ilya, your thoughts on this second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? The Russian army sustained nearly 30,000 casualties in February alone, making it the bloodiest month for Russia since the war began. And you have the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, hinting at a potential focus on occupied Crimea this year. Put those together.

ILYA BUDRAITSKIS: So, for now, we have the situation where the Russian army is taking initiative, because Russia definitely has much more arms. It has much more people to mobilize, to turn into soldiers. And the situation for Ukraine is not very promising for the moment.

For Russia, the goals of this war is very — is still very unclear, because if you follow Russian propaganda, if you follow statements of some people around Putin, you can see that they are openly talking about how to occupy Kyiv, how to occupy Odesa. Today, there was a lecture, public lecture, of the former President Dmitry Medvedev, how to divide Ukraine into parts. So, some part will go to Poland, and other parts will go to Romania, and the main part of Ukraine, together with Odesa and Kharkiv, will go to Russia. So you see clearly that Russia is ready to continue this war. It was very clear from Putin’s address a week ago.

So, I think that the situation is very clear: If Ukraine will be not supported from the West, Russia will continue its offensive and realize its final goal: the elimination of Ukraine as a state.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilya Budraitskis, I want to thank you for being with us, Russian historian and political theorist, previously based in Moscow, has just joined University California, Berkeley as a visiting scholar. We’ll link to your piece in Jacobin, “Alexei Navalny Taught Russia’s Opposition How to Mobilize.”

When we come back, we go to Alabama to speak with a journalist and artist who had been undergoing IVF treatments and was preparing to transfer her frozen embryos when the Alabama state Supreme Court ruled frozen embryos should be considered children. She just met with Vice President Kamala Harris. Stay with us.

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