Alexei Navalny — A Hero of Our Times

Navalny’s preeminent virtue and uniqueness as a politician lay in the courage of his convictions, tenacity, and belief in people power.

4 mins read
Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Alexei Navalny

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. – Christopher Reeve

Yes indeed.  Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary.  I am writing this just after watching a retrospective run of BBC’s Hard Talk recorded in 2017  when Navalny was interviewed.  In the interview, Navalny’s famous quote “ real politics begins when you stop just making political commentary and start actually influencing the situation” was embodied in the responses he gave to questions asked.

There have been many Russian heroes in the annals of that great country, but to my mind, none so similar and dissimilar to Navalny than Pechorin in the greatest traditions of Russian literature. The novel titled ‘A Hero of Our Time’ was penned by the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov whose writing is celebrated for its profound psychological insights, intricate character portrayals, and incisive societal commentary. Released in 1840, this literary masterpiece is widely regarded as one of Russia’s finest contributions to literature. Comprising five interconnected tales, it revolves around the enigmatic character of Pechorin, a figure embodying the traits of a Byronic hero – marked by cynicism, disillusionment, and moral ambiguity, the last of which cannot be attributed to Navalny whose moral compass on politics was both steadfast and clear.

Some areas of resemblance between the fictional Pechorin and Navalny come to mind: firstly, their charismatic leadership – both Pechorin and Navalny possessed the magnetism and leadership acumen that draw followers and evoke admiration from specific societal groups; secondly, their opposition to the status quo – Pechorin challenges prevailing social norms and traditions, often expressing disdain for authority figures and established values. Similarly, Navalny, a prominent political activist and opposition figure in Russia, confronted the existing power structures, advocating for political reform and transparency; thirdly, their societal critique – Pechorin’ s skepticism and disillusionment with society mirror Navalny’s condemnation of corruption, injustice, and the dearth of political liberties in modern-day Russia.

Some areas of dissimilarity are  fiction vs. reality – Pechorin exists as a fictional creation by Lermontov, while Navalny was  a living political figure in Russia, actively engaged in oppositional politics. Navalny’s influence extended beyond the realms of literature into tangible political realms. Their strategies and objectives were different too. Although both challenged the established order, Pechorin’ s rebellion often manifests through personal exploits and a nihilistic outlook, in contrast to Navalny’s utilization of legal and political channels to advocate for democratic reforms and combat corruption.

Another difference lies in the temporal context where  Pechorin’ s narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the early 19th century, reflecting the social and political milieu of that era. Conversely, Navalny operated within contemporary Russia, confronting the unique challenges and constraints of the 21st-century political landscape.

In summary, while Pechorin and Navalny exhibit some shared traits such as charisma, opposition to established norms, and societal criticism, their disparities in fictional versus real existence, approaches, objectives, and historical contexts underscore their fundamental differences.

My Take

Navalny’s preeminent virtue and uniqueness as a politician lay in the courage of his convictions, tenacity, and belief in people power. He did not pontificate from exile but chose to come back to his country after he had recovered in Germany from being poisoned, knowing full well that he opened himself to danger and grave risk. He was open in declaring – in any forum – that, come what may, he will continue to pursue his political work. He stood up for what he believed. In a sense, he showed qualities of a true soldier in the classical sense.

Throughout the annals of history, diverse societies and philosophical schools have deliberated on the characteristics that distinguish an exemplary soldier. Particularly, Roman, and Greek philosophical traditions underscored specific virtues and traits believed to epitomize a noble warrior. Bravery and courage emerged as a cornerstone virtue among soldiers. Esteemed by both Roman and Greek thinkers, bravery in confronting peril and adversity stood paramount. Aristotle, for instance, elevated courage as one of the cardinal virtues within his ethical framework.

Another quality that was considered to be the hallmark of a good soldier was self-discipline.  The ethos of discipline and self-mastery were deemed indispensable for warriors. The capacity to obey commands, maintain composure amidst turmoil, and adhere rigorously to a moral code found favor among philosophers like Plato and Seneca. Fidelity was another quality. Devotion to comrades, leaders, and the collective good of the state or community was esteemed. Roman philosophers such as Cicero extolled the virtue of allegiance to the Republic, while Greek intellectuals like Xenophon lauded soldiers’ loyalty to their brethren in arms.

Equity was essential to moral rectitude of the soldier. Just conduct on the battlefield and adherence to ethical precepts were emphasized. Plato, for instance, expounded upon the significance of justice in warfare, including the fair treatment of adversaries. In addition to valor, sagacity and strategic acumen were esteemed qualities. Though not of Roman or Greek origin, Sun Tzu accentuated the value of intelligence and tactical proficiency in his seminal work, “The Art of War.”

Both Roman and Greek civilizations emphasized physical robustness and prowess in combat. Philosophers such as Aristotle recognized the importance of rigorous physical training and conditioning for soldiers. The fact that Navalny survived the vicious onslaught of a deadly poison reflects his fitness and good health.

In summation, Roman and Greek philosophical thought perceived true soldiers as embodying a fusion of courage, discipline, loyalty, justice, wisdom, and physical fitness. These attributes were not only pivotal for triumph on the battlefield but also for upholding the moral fabric and ethical standards of society.

There are a few of us who would sacrifice personal safety to uphold our convictions and values. Alexei Navalny was one, but alas he is no more.  None of us knows what happens to us when we die or where we go (if we go somewhere at all).  But we can take solace from poetic wisdom: Man’s ingress into this world: naked and bare

Man’s progress in this world, trouble and care 

Mans egress from this world, nobody knows where

But if you do well here, you do well there.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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