Moscow Duel

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 16

Lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny was promptly arrested after returning to Russia early this year — setting off mass demonstrations across the country. Pictured here, on Jan. 23, one protestor in the city of Barnaul kneels in front of a line of police in riot gear. Our guest on this episode highlights the contrast between the autocratic state, which is terrified of losing its grip, and an opposition movement that is creative, fearless and future-looking. The stakes are high for proponents of democracy in this behemoth of the former Soviet Union, and the consequences dire. Not just for Russians but for the world.

Photograph by Jonas Petrovas via

Three pillars hold up autocracy in Russia, journalist Masha Gessen says: media control, sham elections and downright terror. But the opposition movement spearheaded by imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny has struck at the heart of all three. This time on the show, Gessen explains how — and measures the power of democratic aspirations in a country struggling against corruption with hope, against the past with visions of a happier future.

Navalny, a lawyer who has become President Vladimir Putin’s chief political rival, leads the Russia of the Future party, whose motto is “Russia will be happy.” In prison, his health failing, and recently off a 24-day hunger strike, Navalny continues to command respect — and a vast YouTube following — in part because he is brave enough to fight the system, even if it costs him his life, Gessen says. It’s a powerful message for a generation from whom many of the tools of critical social analysis have been withheld. Against the odds, Navalny’s resistance is inspiring young people who have grown up with no ruler other than Putin, a former KGB officer who views the totalitarian past with nostalgia.

About our guest

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for the New Yorker and currently a distinguished writer in residence at Bard College. Gessen grew up in Russia and the United States, and was previously editor of the venerable Russian-language geographic magazine Vokrug Sveta, until losing that job for refusing to run a puff piece about Putin hang-gliding in Siberia. Gessen has written a dozen books, including Surviving Autocracy (Penguin, 2020) and The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Penguin, 2017), winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow Gessen on Twitter @mashagessen.

This interview was recorded in May and released on June 1, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In response to the surge in neo-fascist rhetoric in America during the Trump era, Gessen decided to recount the experience of growing up in Soviet Russia and then of covering the rebirth of tyranny under Putin — in Surviving Autocracy.

Earlier, in The Future is History, Gessen explored how Russia’s 20th-century police state morphed into a 21st-century mafia state. The book follows four people born at the start of the post-Soviet era whose aspirations would be devastated by the new regime.

Although there are skeptics of Navalny’s politics and his intentions, Gessen writes, the development of his movement and his views over time, plus his current predicament, have tempered the conflicted feelings among many pro-democracy advocates.

Read more of Gessen’s recent work on Navalny, including pieces on Navalny’s treatment in detention and his decision to return to Russia.

From around the web

Just before this episode posted, Navalny appeared in court over video link from a penal colony and objected to the nighttime checks he goes through every hour. The practice, he told a Russian judge, amounted to torture: “You would go mad in a week,” he said.

The crackdown on the opposition, meanwhile, continues. On the same day, another pro-democracy leader was detained, after being removed from an airplane in St. Petersburg. The reason? The authorities told Open Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky he was under investigation for cooperating with “an undesirable organization.”

But frigid temperatures and police wielding batons did not stop Russians from taking to the streets in mass protests following Navalny’s arrest, in what the New York Times calls the country’s most significant spate of dissent in years.

There is a risk in staking so much of the opposition movement on the fate of one man, of course. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal notes that if Navalny’s star power burns out, it isn’t clear who or what will follow in its wake.

Navalny addresses supporters at a rally in Omsk, in 2018. Photograph by Jonas Petrovas.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.