July 20, 2024

Fear Is Part of Life in Russia. But Navalny Said We Mustn’t Be Afraid

The first emotion I felt when I found out that Navalny was killed was fear. That fear was also palpable among many activists I know, causing people to break down in tears — a chilling effect that reached all the way from the icy town of Kharp where Navalny died into the warm cafes of Tbilisi. But fear does not have to be paralyzing. Instead, it should push all of us into action.

The writer Viktor Pelevin once said that every Russian is subconsciously preparing for life in prison. This is especially true for Russian activists. We are afraid of police and phone calls from unknown numbers. We are afraid of late-night visits by masked agents. We are afraid of men in nondescript clothes passing us on a morning run. Ultimately, we are afraid of prison and death or injury at the hands of Putin’s state.

There is much to be afraid of. There are over 1,000 political prisoners in Russia, and the country’s prisons are in themselves instruments of torture, a system inherited from Stalinist gulags. The treatment that befell Navalny is not unusual. Prisoners serve their terms in unbearable heat or cold, are thrown into punishment cells, isolated, starved, beaten and raped.

Everyone who opposes the Kremlin risks ending up in this inhumane system. Even those outside of Russia aren’t safe now that the Kremlin is ramping up transnational repression — just ask activist Lev Skoryakin, kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan, or Russian military defector Maxim Kuzminov, who was reportedly shot in Spain. Within Russia, even an American passport does not offer protection, as seen with the recent arrest of U.S.-Russian dual national Ksenia Karelina, who faces up to 20 years in jail for a $50 donation to a Ukrainian charity. So the fear is well-founded.

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