Alexei Navalny and Mulberry Street

3 March 2021

By now Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will have reached Correctional Facility No. 2 (IK-2), where he will be spending the next two-and-a-half years in one of the harshest penal colonies in the Russian prison system.

At least it’s in Pokrov in the Vladimir district, 100 km east of Moscow, and not somewhere in the wilds of Siberia. But there was some unpleasant news waiting for him: Amnesty International has unfriended him.

His status as an Amnesty-designated ‘prisoner of conscience’ has been revoked “given that Navalny had, in the past, made comments which may have amounted to advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility.” Cancel culture has a very long reach these days.

The right-thinking people at Amnesty were at pains to emphasise that their actions had nothing to do with the campaign by the Putin regime’s propagandists to portray Russia’s leading democrat as a racist, neo-fascist brute. True, Russia Today’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan did a little victory dance when Amnesty cancelled Navalny, but that was sheer coincidence.

Except it wasn’t. Amnesty only declared Navalny a ‘prisoner of conscience’ when he was arrested at Moscow airport on 17 January, having been treated in Berlin for the Putin regime’s attempt to poison him with the novichok nerve agent. At the time Amnesty explicitly said that it knew about his past statements but considered them “not relevant” because of his political plight.

Then they were ‘bombarded’ by complaints (I think I can guess where most of them really came from), and decided they had to change their minds. And you know what? Their ignorance of Russia and its ways is so profound that I believe them.

First of all, they seem unaware that practically everybody in Russia – indeed, almost everybody who grew up in what used to be the Soviet empire – is a nationalist and, by enlightened Western standards, a racist. The younger generation is a bit better, but everybody else spent their formative years in an exclusively white society, and their language betrays it.

They don’t wage pogroms, but they will mention that their friend is Jewish as though it was necessary information. They don’t lynch black people, but they do think they are exotic. And some of them really are racist and ultra-nationalist, just like lots of Americans and lots of Chinese are. But Alexei Navalny is not one of them.

Navalny does not come from the old Soviet elite (which is largely still the Russian elite). He comes from the wrong side of the tracks, he went to a second-rate university, he is not well-travelled– and as a democrat, he is mostly self-taught. When he was younger, he sometimes got things wrong.

He first became active politically in the centre-right Yabloko Party in 2001, when he was 25 years old. (Anything to left of that at the time was seen as tainted by Communism or ‘anarchism’.) The discourse on the Russian centre-right at the time was nationalist, and he said a few stupid things.

He doesn’t say those things any more, but he’s a proud man and so he hasn’t publicly grovelled about them. That’s an American ritual, not a Russian one. And his American critics are often stunningly ignorant about Russia. Consider, for example, an opinion piece in Monday’s ‘Washington Post’ by Terrell Jermaine Starr, entitled “We need to have a talk about Alexei Navalny.”

Starr writes about Navalny wanting to deport “non-White immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus,” which contains a smidgen of truth in the sense that he made illegal immigrants an issue in his campaign for mayor of Moscow in 2013. But ‘non-White immigrants from… the Caucasus’? There are no non-White Caucasians. (There’s a clue in the name.)

If you want a well-informed, sensible examination of Navalny’s ideas, have a look at Masha Gessen’s piece, ‘The Evolution of Alexey Navalny’s Nationalism’, in the mid-February issue of The New Yorker. It’s available online for free.

But all this tripe I’m writing, defending ‘racists’ and all, may just be due to my upbringing. I read Dr Seuss’s racist tract “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” when I was seven or eight years old, and a few decades later I read it to my kids.

I suspect we’ve all been tainted by the racist images in that book from 1937. I’m glad that the current generation of Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to stop selling it outright, rather than some cowardly half-measure like just changing the image of “an Asian person…wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl”.

Just as glad as I am to see Amnesty International cancel Alexei Navalny.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“He first…things”)