Meet the Author | Jan Matti Dollbaum

“Navalny is clearly taken very seriously in the Kremlin”

Video screen grab/Moscow City Court Press Office/TASS A still image taken from video provided by a third party.

Jan Matti Dollbaum, Ben Noble and Morvan Lallouet have authored a book about the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. They draw mainly on extensive news coverage, interviews with activists from Navalny’s movement and a survey of subscribers to his social media groups. In this Meet the Author interview, we spoke with Jan Matti Dollbaum about why this is the right moment for the book, the international community’s greatest misconception, and Navalny’s future in Russia.

privat Foto: Aleksandra Kaurin

Navalny has been a prominent figure in the Russian opposition for some time. Why is now the right moment for the book?

The idea to write the book came to us quite spontaneously at the end of January this year. After Navalny’s return to Russia, the large-scale protests and the release of the film about Putin, we were contacted by students and colleagues asking us whether there were any good books about Navalny in English. And we had to tell them, no, there weren’t. That’s when the idea came to us: since there were no books available yet, why not try and write one ourselves? And that’s how the team of authors was formed: Ben Noble had the idea and then he invited Morvan Lallouet and me to get involved because we were able to provide different perspectives. I have focused mainly on Navalny’s movements, while Morvan Lallouet looks at Navalny’s ideological development and his career in the Russian opposition. So that’s how the team came together. We pitched the project to a publisher fairly quickly.

In your view, what is the international community’s greatest misconception of Navalny as a figurehead?

That’s a good question. I think there are two misconceptions, which exist in parallel: firstly, that Navalny is a democratic hero of the type we ourselves would wish for, one who stands up for everything that resonates, perhaps, with our own aspirations as people who have been socialised in a Western, liberal context: human rights, fair treatment for all, liberal democracy. He is of course one of the strongest, if not the strongest, opponent of the Russian authoritarian regime.

And there is the other misconception, which comes from the other side, namely that Navalny is a xenophobic nationalist with whom we should not only not cooperate but to whom we should also not provide any moral support.

Among Western observers, these two positions collide. In many instances, neither position is backed up by any genuine background knowledge or awareness of the context in which Navalny operates. Of course, in a sense, he is a democratic hero, because he takes a courageous and fearless stance against the regime, without regard for what he stands to lose. And of course, he has also said some things that are nationalist and racist. The two positions go together. However, neither can be understood unless one is familiar with the context: his personal journey, on the one hand, and the Russian political system in which he operates, on the other. In the book, we try to avoid judgement; instead, we attempt to convey the context and fill in some of the shades of grey so that the reader can draw their own conclusions rather than having to rely on the scant reporting by journalists.

What surprising information came to light while you were working on the book?

Instead of applying a chronological approach, we trace Navalny’s political engagement by looking at the three roles that he has adopted repeatedly over the years: anti-corruption activist, opposition politician and protest leader. What surprised us during the writing process was the persistence, but also the adaptability, with which Navalny switches between these roles and links them together. If he can’t make headway in the political arena because the authorities find some pretext or other to refuse to register his party, he switches to street protest – and then uses this protest strategically to build an effective political organisation, with his research on corruption, in turn, then being central to mobilisation.

What was surprising, in our review of the past 10 years, was seeing just how much the Kremlin has adapted to the challenges posed by Navalny – and of course by other opposition forces as well. As one example, with the annexation of Crimea, Putin drove a deep wedge into the nationalist opposition; as another, there is the increasingly extensive concealment of information about the incomes and assets of top civil servants, clearly a reaction to Navalny’s ever more skilled investigations. Not to mention the increasingly harsh repression. So the Kremlin has quite obviously adapted and is learning as well, and we see that contrary to the official statements, Navalny is clearly taken very seriously.

Your book concludes with a chapter about Navalny and the future of Russia. What future does Navalny himself have in Russia?

In my view, the immediate prospects for Navalny himself are not particularly good. I can well imagine that he will remain in prison for longer than the two and a half years handed down as his official sentence. New proceedings against him are pending and in my opinion, as long as Putin is in power, Navalny is unlikely to be released. And how long will Putin remain in power? We don’t know. As for Navalny’s movement – and this is the more immediate and perhaps the more significant question overall – the situation looks bleak at the moment as well. The authorities are taking extremely robust action against the movement – perhaps more robust than Navalny’s people expected. At the moment, anyone who is officially associated with Navalny really no longer has any chance of participating in the public political process. So the question is: how will the movement manage to free itself from Navalny? Because that’s what it has to do, and perhaps this is where it has a chance, albeit a small one, if all these regional offices across the country now attempt to utilise their accumulated resources and networks in order to progress their own projects and ideas – without associating themselves with the Navalny brand. This is already taking shape in some cases, although others have gone into exile or vanished underground. The movement’s only chance is to break with Navalny as a figurehead and perhaps improve its local standing that way. And compared with last year, the situation has changed radically; it has become much more repressive again. In this kind of atmosphere, it is hard to imagine much more than that right now.

Navalny’s return to Russia after being poisoned aroused controversy and, in part, admiration as well. The regime has stepped up its repression against his movement: did Navalny miscalculate here, or would this have happened anyway?

Of course, that’s a difficult question to answer. I believe that Navalny and his strategists did calculate on his being imprisoned. It is part of the larger strategy that he has been following for some time, namely that he attempts, through his actions, to generate information about the Russian regime. He acts like a normal politician, as he has always called himself, and experiences repression. His party is not allowed to register, he is banned from making public appearances, he is not shown on television, and ultimately, his name does not appear on the ballot paper. All this conveys information about how Russian political reality works. I think that was always part of his strategy – to show performatively, as it were, just what an authoritarian regime this is. And of course, this fits in with the strategy very well: he was poisoned, he recovered abroad, he returned to Russia and was promptly arrested. He wasn’t in exile, he left the country involuntarily. And that sends a powerful message: that someone like Navalny is such a roadblock to the system that he has to be poisoned and when that doesn’t work, he’s sent to prison. So he is likely to have factored that in. However, I imagine that the harsh measures against the movement itself were not part of the plan; the Kremlin appears to have taken pre-emptive action here, because it recognised that this particular movement could become a threat in the future. Navalny’s movement has invested heavily in the smart voting strategy and supported candidates that stood against United Russia. In reality, this requires organisational support from Navalny’s structures. The new curbs on the movement were probably not planned for, and without this support, smart voting has now become much more difficult to implement.

The interview was conducted by Stephanie Alberding, communications coordinator at ZOiS.

Jan Matti Dollbaum is a postdoctoral researcher at Bremen University, specialising in protest and political opposition in Russia.

Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, Ben Noble: Navalny. Putin's Nemesis, Russia's Future? (2021), Hurst.