Why I Work with the Man Vladimir Putin Fears Most
When you work for the man that Vladimir Putin fears most, nothing is certain. In the next few weeks, my boss Alexei Navalny may become the next mayor of Moscow, he may go to jail for revealing the Putin administration’s corruption, or he very well may do both.
To Putin’s chagrin, nothing is knowable in advance in Russia today. When he resumed office at the end of 2011, he did not anticipate that people would use their mobile phones to document the profound electoral abuse that occurred. Neither did he anticipate that thousands of Russians would take to the streets in the wake of his victory to protest the outcome. He resorted to old patterns of intimidation and oppression, but the resilience of his critics caught him off guard once again.
Technology has changed the rules. The freedom of the internet has allowed bloggers to speak freely. Some people can organize information and others can interpret it, opening the way for micro-journalists to band together to provide piercing investigative journalism. This is in contrast to our other media, which long ago fell under the toxic sway of government control. It offers limited opinions, few which adequately probe our government, and rarely anything to suggest that a better Russia can exist. Because the internet news comes so much from bloggers and other micro-journalists, it captures a realistic portrait of our nation’s affairs.
I could not have known where my journey would lead me when I first joined Alexei’s team. I had recently graduated from university and was intrigued by Alexei’s work in revealing government corruption. He was not a household name in Russia by any means, but he was in good standing with people who followed the internet news closely. Alexei epitomized investigative journalism, making his reputation launching systematic investigations into government corruption. It was an ideal place for any young Russian who wanted to help her nation move in the right direction.
I joined just weeks before Alexei’s work took off. He received several international honors, including Time magazine's 100 Most Influential; the television news had to address him, and Putin could no longer ignore him. The latter aspect of his fame, however, quickly became a daily challenge for us. We received intimidation as we went about our business. Sometimes the custodial staff in our building would have many new men in the morning; invariably, items around our office would seem somewhat displaced from the day before. Such is not unusual for anyone who criticizes the regime, so we considered it a cost of doing business and proceeded with our affairs.
Alexei dedicated his professional career to publicizing corruption. Along that journey, we had seen it all. Yet even we had to take a step back to believe it when, in summer 2012, the government charged Alexei with embezzlement (intent to steal timber, to be precise) when he advised a governor in 2009. The charges were universally panned as false and politically motivated. They occurred in the context of other unusual judicial happenings in the nation. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in Russian custody after he discovered systematic tax embezzlement by government and military officials, was also to be tried posthumously during this time. The trial was the first posthumous trial in our nation’s history.
Vladimir Putin was learning the new rules. He predicted that these moves would intimidate, and they did. The dean of Russia’s premier business school, and former presidential economic advisor, Sergei Guriev, was one of the many Russians who fled the nation discreetly to avoid persecution. The eyes of our large nation are always on Moscow; by having Alexei’s trial in Kierov, a town 800 kilometers from Moscow, Putin ensured that no one would have a flash point for rallying where Russian and foreign reporters would see them easily.
Unlike Putin, who never left the KGB mindset, I was born after the Cold War and reject the notion that corruption and oppression are necessities for our government. Alexei has become an icon for accountable governance; if he goes to jail, we know that hundreds of thousands of young people throughout Russia will speak out about where Putin is driving our nation. My generation demands better governance, and Alexei has taught us not to be scared that our biggest barrier is the government itself.
Creative Commons photo of protest in Red Square in support of Alexei Navalny via Evgeniy Isaev.