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Masha Gessen: Putin’s Unchanging, Unthinking Response to Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny’s latest video report has been viewed more than eighty-eight million times in the seven days since it was posted. Navalny, who has been in jail for the past week, bills the film as his anti-corruption organization’s biggest investigation to date. In the course of nearly two hours, the activist narrates the story of a giant palace that Vladimir Putin has built on the Black Sea; the convoluted system of kickbacks and involuntary contributions that financed it; the even more convoluted system created to conceal who owns it; and, most impressively, the tasteless, overpriced, over-the-top lacquer-and-plush interiors of the in-palace theatre, the hookah room, the domestic casino, the miniature race-car room, the twenty-seven-hundred-square-foot master-bedroom suite, and the expansive empire of adjacent vineyards and colonized vistas. Drone footage, archival photos, and 3-D reconstructions of the palace from floor plans are interspersed with Navalny speaking, wearing a blazer and a shirt with its collar unbuttoned; at times, the viewer can see the scar from the tracheal tube through which he breathed during the weeks he spent in a coma after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok last August.

Navalny’s investigation is by far the most detailed study of a palace that Russians first heard about almost a dozen years ago, when one of its original financiers became a whistle-blower. (Sergei Kolesnikov has been living in exile since.) The project is nearly as old as Putin’s Presidency. In fact, as Navalny’s study reveals, the palace was completed years ago but fell into disrepair; pipes burst, mold grew, and the palace had to be reconstructed before it was ever inhabited.

What was Putin thinking? Why has he poured unimaginable resources into a palace that he will never use—more than a billion dollars, spent in extreme and resource-intensive secrecy, and, apparently, many hours of discussing, drawing up, imagining a regal monstrosity with two helipads and an underground hockey rink? He cannot use it while he is President, because that would expose him as the owner. Perhaps he dreams of retiring there after his Presidency ends. But, if Putin doesn’t die in office, he will be unable to stay in Russia without facing prosecution for extensive abuses of power. The desperate determination with which he holds on to power indicates that he understands this. On some level, not too far below the surface, he must know that he will never be able to use his palace.

Putin’s palace is a toy—a gigantic Lego project of a deranged, obsessive mind. In his film, Navalny stresses that some of the most absurd elements of the project—such as a seven-hundred-euro toilet brush for a bathroom in one of the vineyard houses on the outskirts of the palace complex—serve no practical function; they were placed there in case Putin ever has the occasion to acquaint himself with that implement in that particular room in that particular corner of an estate the size of a small European country. In fact, the whole project was built not for pleasure, and certainly not for show, but to satisfy some insatiable fantasy of wealth. Putin will never sit on the twenty-six-thousand-dollar leather couch or dine at the fifty-thousand-dollar table.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters in more than a hundred and ten cities around Russia took to the streets—some in extremely cold weather (in Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia, temperatures of minus fifty-eight degrees Farenheit were reported), all in extremely risky conditions—to protest Navalny’s arrest a week ago. On January 17th, the activist returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from the effects of the poisoning. More than thirty-seven hundred people were arrested during the protests or in connection with them, a record number for a single weekend in Russian protest history, according to OVDInfo, an organization that tracks arrests and political prosecutions. Yulia Navalnaya, Alexey’s wife, was briefly detained in Moscow. The majority of those who were detained either have been released without charge or will face an administrative fine, but a handful of criminal prosecutions have been launched in cities from Vladivostok in the east to St. Petersburg in the west, certain to add to the list of dozens of Russian political prisoners, which includes Navalny himself.

Protests used to scare Putin. In his lone official biography, a slim book published when he emerged as Russia’s anointed leader two decades ago, Putin recalled being terrified of the crowds when East Germany erupted in protests in 1989, when Putin was working for the K.G.B. there. When protesters came to the building where he worked and the Soviet troops stationed in East Germany weren’t mobilized to protect the K.G.B., Putin said, he “got the sense that the country doesn’t exist anymore. I realized that the Soviet Union is ill. It was a terminal, incurable illness called paralysis—the paralysis of authority.” Soon after, Putin returned to the Soviet Union, where protest had just become possible. Hundreds of thousands of people would gather in Moscow, tens of thousands in Leningrad. Soon, the Soviet Union collapsed, apparently cementing Putin’s view that a large number of people in the streets signals the end of a regime.

Since Putin became President, several post-Soviet states have seen so-called color revolutions, mass protests that brought about the change of regime: the Rose Revolution in Georgia, in 2003; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in 2004; the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, in 2005; the Lilac Revolution in Moldova, in 2009; and more, including more revolutions in the same countries. (In Russian, the words “color” and “flower” have the same root, making it easier to combine all of these revolutions in one category.) Each of these revolutions clearly frightened Putin, but the Orange Revolution and the next Ukrainian revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014, became obsessions. In their terror, Putin and his supporters and advisers seemed oblivious to the differences between the two countries. Unlike Russia, Ukraine never restored autocratic rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union but has remained in a state of prolonged transition. Unlike Russia, it created and kept a judiciary and a parliament that enjoy a measure of independence from the executive branch. These institutions, albeit weak, provided the levers through which mass protest created political change: in 2004, the high court ordered a revote when the people were protesting a rigged election; in 2014, the opposition in parliament exerted pressure on the President.

In Russia, by contrast, democratic institutions were dismantled during Putin’s first term as President. Russia has long been impervious to protest because nothing connects the streets to the government. But Putin seemed not to realize this. Faced with mass protests from 2011 to 2012, the Kremlin cracked down, passed punitive legislation, staged a show trial of two dozen randomly selected protesters, forced most protest leaders into exile, and imprisoned one. In 2015, another protest leader, Boris Nemtsov, was killed. That left Navalny, who single-handedly inspired mass protests in 2013, between 2017 and 2018, and in 2019.

As my colleague Joshua Yaffa wrote following Saturday’s protests, Putin and Navalny are locked in battle. Navalny’s approach is wide-ranging, creative, and strategic. He is not only spectacularly brave but also fantastically inventive. He has built an investigative-journalism organization, an electoral organization that challenges Putin’s monopoly on power, and a system for organizing protests. He thinks several steps ahead, as he showed when he released his film about Putin’s palace after he was arrested. “We came up with this investigation while I was in intensive care,” Navalny says in the video, “but we immediately agreed that we would release it when I returned home, to Russia, to Moscow, because we do not want the main character of this film to think that we are afraid of him and that I will tell about his worst secret while I am abroad.”

Putin responds with blunt force: arrests, trials on trumped-up charges, assassination attempts, more arrests, more trumped-up charges. In this, he is like Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarusian dictator who has responded to months of mass protests by marching around carrying a machine gun and overseeing arrests and torture, followed by more arrests and more torture. An autocrat has the option of responding to mass unrest by trampling on and ignoring it. Watching Belarus, while Navalny was recuperating from the assassination attempt, may have made Putin less afraid of protests.

Still, one might wonder, what is Putin’s ultimate plan? If he has Navalny put away for many years, as he apparently intends to do—even if he finally has Navalny killed—what does he think is going to happen with the tens of thousands of Russians who are willing to risk their safety, indeed their lives, to protest? What about the structures that Navalny has built? What about Yulia Navalnaya, who has emerged as a popular symbol of wisdom, patience, and love? What about international pressure and likely stepped-up sanctions? What is Putin thinking? He is not.

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