Accusations of Colonialist Thinking Ukrainians Angered By Messages from Russian Opposition Leader Navalny
The video that some people found offensive shows a young woman in pink. "Hi, my name is Dasha Navalnya," she says, before going on to talk about her father, Alexei Navalny, Russia's most famous opposition leader. The 21-year-old student created the clip, which is currently making its way around social media, to campaign for her father's release. Politician Navalny made a name for himself around the world as an anti-corruption campaigner and the leader of peaceful protests against Vladimir Putin. He has spent the last two years in a prison camp. Navalnya, his daughter, very much resembles her father as she confidently and telegenically describes how he returned to his homeland even though Russian agents had tried to kill him there with a nerve agent.
Ever since Russia began waging a full-scale war against Ukraine, the regime has ratcheted up the pressure on its most dangerous political prisoner. His daughter says that Navalny is now constantly punished with solitary confinement for alleged violations of the rules, that he's in pain but is denied the treatment he needs. Navalnya stresses that her father is being punished for protesting the war from prison – in court appearances or in letters, for example. "Join us," the student says at the end of the video, "be against the war, free Alexei Navalny!"
The new campaign in support of the opposition figure has been greeted with positive resonance in the West. It even flickered across a giant screen on New York's Times Square. In Ukraine, however, the video has provoked bitter and indignant comments.
The main problem is that Navalny's team is using an "anti-war narrative for their benefit to free him," Maria Buchelnikova, a Ukrainian journalist and activist wrote via Twitter when DER SPIEGEL requested comment. "They use this narrative because it's convenient to get more Western support, but they keep the distance from Ukraine suitable for Russians who don't care or are not sure about the war."
No Mention of Ukraine
It's hard to deny that Ukraine is eerily absent in the five-minute video. The country isn't even mentioned once. Buchelnikova points to a part of the
clip that shows Navalny in prisoner's clothing, apparently during the trial. "Hundreds of thousands of our people are sent to kill God knows who, equally innocent people," the politician says in a great fury.
But that, argues Buchelnikova, "is an example of imperialistic discourse." She notes that the Ukrainians aren't named, and the attackers are depicted as being as innocent as the victims. "You may say that it's not that essential," she says. "But that's the main problem with Russia and Russians: They can't admit and face their imperialistic ambitions."
A destroyed home after a Russian missile attack in Hlevakha in the Kyiv regionFoto: Roman Hrytsyna / AP
In truth, the fate of the Ukrainians and the responsibility of Russian society for their suffering is only a minor issue for Navalny and other Russian opponents of the war. The politician and his team have condemned the war from the very beginning, but for them it is Putin's war. The consequences for Putin's own country as a result – the deaths of soldiers, Russia's international isolation and a shrinking economy – are at the fore of Navalny's anti-war rhetoric. And although it may seem pragmatic and logical for a Russian politician to look inward, it does nothing to advance the still-distant reconciliation with Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government under Volodymyr Zelenskyy had always treated Navalny with a skeptical friendliness. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said pragmatically on the occasion of Navalny's arrest two years ago. He also recalled highly controversial comments made by the Russian opposition politician about Crimea in the fall of 2014, after the peninsula had already been annexed by Moscow.
"What, is Crimea a ham sandwich or something that you can take and give it back?" Navalny had asked rhetorically at the time, irritating Ukrainians. "I am sure that he would have to give back the sandwich," Kuleba said in 2021. "Not bitten but fresh and in good condition." Kuleba added that Navalny would probably need to apologize to Ukraine if he ever got elected to power in democratic elections.
Russian soldiers on the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014Foto: Shamil Zhumatov / REUTERS
Anger not Limited to Crimea
Leonid Volkov, Navalny's closest associate, told DER SPIEGEL that the famous phrase about Crimea not being a sandwich has been misunderstood in Ukraine. Volkov emphasizes that Navalny strongly condemned the annexation in March 2014 as a violation of international law and a crime against the interests of the Russian people. By using the sandwich metaphor in the fall of that year, he argues, Navalny had merely acknowledged the political reality of 2014 and correctly predicted that returning the peninsula would be difficult for decades. The new phase of the war has now changed the political reality, says Volkov. "If this war ends with a defeat of Putin's forces, all territorial issues will be resolved together," he says. "There is no doubt that all illegally occupied territories must be returned to Ukraine."
But many Ukrainians aren't just angry with Navalny over Crimea. Many dismiss the opposition politician as a nationalist, an ethnocentrist and even a fascist. At the beginning of his political career in the late 2000s, Navalny indeed flirted with Russian nationalist sentiment and sought to attract supporters by using racial epithets against immigrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Still, Jens Siegert, the former head of the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank affiliated with Germany's Green Party, attributes this to Navalny's political opportunism rather than any deep core conviction. After Navalny found his central issue, the fight against corruption, he stopped flirting with the nationalists, says Siegert. Yet Navalny has never apologized or distanced himself from his earlier moves.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a court hearing in 2021Foto: HANDOUT / AFP
Perhaps the most serious charge that some Ukrainian Twitter users lodge against Navalny these days is that he and other Russian liberals haven't fought Putin's imperialist greed decisively enough. "Navalny hasn't done or said anything meaningful to prevent the full-scale invasion of Ukraine since 2014," Buchelnikova wrote. Buchelnikova used to work as a journalist and cultural manager, but today, she uses her blog posts and Twitter threads to explain her home country.
Volkov, who serves as Navalny's chief of staff, reacts indignantly to these accusations. He argues that the opposition politician's release from prison and the ending of the war are undoubtedly closely linked. Navalny, he says, is the undisputed leader of the Russian anti-war movement. "This is obvious to anyone who knows even a little bit about Russian politics," Volkov says.
His team, he adds, has been working 24-7 to counter the war since February 24. He says they are carrying out what amounts to the most important anti-war effort in Russia right now. By reporting on the war on YouTube, Volkov says, they have broken through the Kremlin's information blockade and reached millions of viewers in Russia each month.
A protest against the Kremlin's Ukraine policies in Moscow in September 2014Foto: Vasily Maximov / AFP
Volkov notes that the Russian opposition has campaigned against the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in eastern Ukraine from the very beginning. He recalls how the largest protest in Moscow was the March of Peace in March 2014, attended by tens of thousands of people. And how Boris Nemtsov, the liberal opposition politician, was murdered in February 2015 because he and Navalny had planned another large protest against the war, which had been scheduled to take place three days after the day he was killed. "Instead of fighting Navalny, these people should be fighting Putin," Volkov argues.
Is the West Too Positive about the Russian Opposition?
One of the more reflective voices in the Ukrainian Twitter sphere is cultural studies scholar Mariam Naiem. Her brother Mustafa was one of the first to call for democratic protests on the Maidan in Kyiv to topple pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and bring about change in the country. Naiem's other brother Masi, a lawyer, was seriously wounded and lost an eye while fighting Russia's forces last year.
Mariam, a 30-year-old Ukrainian with Afghan roots, finds it problematic that the West is so positive about the Russian opposition. "Putin is just a metastasis," Naiem says, "but no one wants to look for the cancer." For many in the West, she says, Navalny is a very simple solution, because they like to believe that there is an easy way out of this mess. "No one wants to acknowledge that the long and difficult work with Russia and its imperialist legacy will only begin after the war," Naiem says.
Russia expert Jens Siegert
Siegert, the German expert on Russia in Moscow, argues that most people in Russia see the world through a colonialist lens. "There is a certain imperial arrogance toward all others who were once part of the Russian or Soviet empires" he says. He argues that this attitude is present under the surface and people usually aren't even conscious of it. But Siegert also believes that this nationalist or imperialist thinking is no more pronounced in Navalny than it is among most Russians, including those in the opposition. He claims that, like Russian society overall, they are often self-centered and self-pitying.
For her part, Naiem remembers an encounter with a young Russian woman abroad after the war began. The woman suggested that she organize a joint discussion group. "I refused and said to her: There's no room for discussion at the moment," she recalls, explaining that the young Russian woman started crying and replied: "I think we are suffering as much as you are." Naiem then took out her mobile phone and showed the woman the little green dot in the chat window, which meant that her brother, the soldier, was online. "That's the only way I know that he's still alive," she told her. The Russian woman then apologized.
People in Kyiv take shelter in a Kyiv metro station during massive Russian missile attacks in January 2023.Foto: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / REUTERS
For centuries, the voices of Russians, the colonial masters, were louder than those of the people they subjugated, argues Naiem. "Now, the time has come for them to listen to us." For the time being, Naiem can't imagine having a dialogue at eye level with Russians. But she is happy to explain her feelings and perspective if people from Russia want to listen to her. Naiem says members of the liberal opposition have shown little interest so far. "That's why we're so angry. There is no movement in our direction."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who only a few years ago was still a comedian who enjoyed some popularity in Russia, has tried several times to address his neighbors. In speeches given in Russian, he appealed to the people of Russia. And a month after the war began, he gave an interview to four Russian journalists. "It was a very nice gesture from Zelenskyy," Naiem says. But she recounts how the journalists, liberal Russians, didn't even offer an apology. Not a single one of them apparently thought of expressing regret that Russia had plunged Ukraine into a bloody war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking during an interview with Russian journalists one month after the war broke outFoto: Ukrainian Presidency / AP
"I Have To Admit that I Did Not Think of Apologizing"
Mikhail Zygar was one of the four Russian journalists present in that Zoom interview with Zelenskyy. The journalist and former editor in chief of the opposition TV channel Dozhd had organized the interview. "I have to admit that I did not think of apologizing," says Zygar. At the time, he says, they wanted to reach as many Russian viewers as possible. For that, an apology might have been counterproductive, Zygar says. It's a logic that Navalny's team also seems to share. "That does not mean that we are not ready to apologize," the journalist stresses.
Zygar, who has written a column for DER SPIEGEL since the beginning of the war, has begun taking a critical look at his country's history. He recently wrote a book about Russian imperialism that is due to be published this summer. Zygar says he wants to use it to reveal uncomfortable truths to his compatriots. "Russia was a murderous empire that oppressed its neighbors, and Ukraine in particular, for the past 300 years," says Zygar. The traditional Russian historiography, he says, has glorified this violence. "The heroes of Russian history are villains and warriors."
Ukrainian flags are placed on the graves of soldiers at a Kharkiv cemetery.Foto: Spencer Platt / Getty Images
He argues that it it will be hard for many Russians to understand that the story they were told in school and at college was biased and distorted. "We are all victims of this narrative," the journalist says. "It will take a long time for us to understand this, but we have to understand it." Zygar says he doesn't want to comment on the Ukrainian accusations against Navalny, whom he describes as someone he knows well.
"We don't have the moral right to argue with Ukrainians as long as this war is still going on," he says. "Regardless whether we think their accusations are fair or not, we just have to accept them. We have to listen to them and understand their pain."