Dissident Wisdom From Alexei Navalny and Natan Sharansky

A person holds a candle and a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, as people gather at a makeshift memorial in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (Photo by DAMIR SENCAR / AFP) (AFP)
A person holds a candle and a portrait of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic prison, as people gather at a makeshift memorial in downtown Zagreb on February 23, 2024. (Photo by DAMIR SENCAR / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

The correspondence of the Gulag alumni shows the best of Russia’s tradition and the worst of ours.

Russia never changes, as Alexei Navalny and Natan Sharansky agree in just-released correspondence from March and April 2023. Not even the prisons or punishments have been updated since Soviet times. Navalny writes from SHIZO—the punishment cell—while reading Mr. Sharansky’s description of the same experience: “I was amused by the fact that neither the essence of the system nor the pattern of its acts has changed."

Amused? One would think outrage would be more appropriate. But outrage, which we Americans exhibit so readily, is the reaction of comfortable people who can vent their anger and may even be rewarded for doing so. When repression is the norm—and when one senses one’s imprisonment as part of a long chain extending to Ivan the Terrible—amusement, even laughter, expresses the ability to rise above one’s individual fate. In laughter, as Russian thinkers have observed, a man stands outside both himself and arbitrary authority, and looks down with a smile at ever-repeating human folly.

“I understand that I am not the first, but I really want to become the last, or at least one of the last, who are forced to endure this," Navalny writes. Both men knew how unlikely that was. Even if this regime, like its predecessor, collapses, another can rise. And while Russia is especially prone to such catastrophes, no people, including us, is exempt from them.

Russians, as these two men demonstrated, have developed internal freedom in the absence of external freedom. Dissidence isn’t new. Sufferers draw strength from the writings of previous sufferers. That is why Mr. Sharansky envisaged his book “Fear No Evil" (1988) not only as a memoir but also as “a sort of textbook or manual for how to behave in a confrontation with authorities." Accounts of political imprisonment constitute an important genre of Russian literature. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago" (1973) will be remembered long after many celebrated 20th-century works are forgotten. That’s appropriate, for the book is all about remembering.

Mr. Sharansky quotes the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, himself the author of a brilliant prison memoir, demanding that communism be put on trial à la Nuremberg. Solzhenitsyn recalls being told it’s healthier to forget: “ ‘Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.’ But the proverb goes on to say: ‘Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.’ "

Prison literature, including novels and memoirs, is so important in Russia because the tradition of heroic dissidence is essential to Russian experience. It represents the best of Russia—and because of it, as Navalny writes, thousands “are not scared to speak out for freedom and against the war, despite the threats. Hundreds of them are in prison, but I am confident they will not be broken and they will not give up."

Where does the strength to endure such punishment come from? In part from the certainty that one isn’t alone and that what one is doing has historical significance.

It is hard to imagine Americans enduring even a fragment of such punishment without breaking, much less doing so “with style," as Mr. Sharansky says of Navalny. For Western readers, the key moment of this exchange occurs when Mr. Sharansky quotes a European journalist who couldn’t understand why, after he had already been poisoned, Navalny returned to Russia. “We all knew that he would be arrested at the airport," the journalist said. “Does he not understand such simple things?" The question angered Mr. Sharansky because it betrayed a belief many in the West evidently took for granted: that life is about oneself. If dissidence represents the best of the Russian tradition, such shallow individualism constitutes the worst of ours.

Russians know that one’s life can matter only when it isn’t merely about oneself. Mr. Sharansky described his retort as “pretty rude": “You’re the one who does not understand something. If you think the goal is survival—then you are right. But his true concern is the fate of his people—and he is telling them: ‘I am not afraid, and you should not be either.’ " Mr. Sharansky knew this of Navalny, even though they never met, because everything he did belonged to the tradition of courageous Russian dissidence.

Both men compare their plight to that of the Jews. (Mr. Sharansky is Jewish; Navalny wasn’t.) On Passover Jews are bidden to treat the Exodus as a historical and present event and to regard themselves as liberated from Egypt. Russian dissidents today, these correspondents understand, are slaves to Vladimir Putin in a new land of slavery. Biblical Egypt never disappears.

For two millennia diaspora Jews longed to return to Jerusalem. Mr. Sharansky and Navalny compare that longing, which was realized when the state of Israel was created, to the Russian longing for freedom. “Today we are slaves—tomorrow, free people. Today we are here—next year in Jerusalem," Mr. Sharansky quotes the Passover Haggadah, and then wishes Navalny, “and all of Russia, an Exodus as soon as possible."

If we could acquire even a bit of dissident wisdom in America, our freedom would be much more secure. And if we lose that freedom, as seems increasingly likely, may we too develop the courage to fight for it.

Mr. Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University.

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