Alexei Navalny is the leader of Russia’s opposition movement. He has now returned home to Moscow after recovering from an almost fatal poisoning attempt. He was taken into custody upon his return to Moscow and sentenced.
In an exchange of letters with TIME over the last few months from Russia’s Penal Colony No. 2 he discussed his thoughts on prison life and future plans for the opposition movements, as well as the diplomatic impasse between Russia and the U.S. These are extracts from his letters that he responded to TIME journalist’s questions. These letters have been edited to improve clarity.
TIME: Where are you at the moment? How are prison conditions for you?
Inside a prison. I think that’s the most precise description of my reality. My unit has 13 men. Only one of these men is allowed to talk with me. All others can only speak in single words. Yes, no. Most of them remain silent because they don’t want the wrong word to slip. There are video cameras all around, and the guards rarely talk to me unless I am recording it.
All windows of my barracks have been covered. Literally. It is made of white paper. With white paper. It’s the only barrack with covered windows, and everyone understands that it’s to stop me from seeing what happens outside. Sometimes I get the sense I’m living inside a shoebox.
I was subject to a strange psychological method. At a distance approximately five feet, two convicts followed you around. All day. From lights on through lights out. From the barracks to the outside. In the common room, the bathroom, and the toilet. They don’t say anything, don’t even look at you. They don’t answer if you scream or try to shoo them away. But they don’t leave.
Physically, you are stronger and it only takes a few days for one to stop hitting the other to make them leave. They would see exactly what they want: You throw yourself at anyone who’s just passing by. However, I am aware that they do not follow me out of a desire to. They are forced to. This makes it a good training ground for endurance.
Without a doubt, even the simplest decisions about my life here get made in the Kremlin, and the important ones—like whether to allow the doctors in—by Putin himself.
Russia is preparing for a military attack on Ukraine over the past months. You are going to be evaluating the current negotiations and the wider conflict between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine, NATO and European security in the future.
Time and again the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps. He issues some insane, laughable demands, like these latest ones, about how he and Biden need to sit down in a smoke-filled room and decide the fate of Europe like we’re back in 1944. And if the U.S. doesn’t agree, he’ll ‘pull something.’
Instead of ignoring this nonsense, the U.S. accepts Putin’s agenda and runs to organize some kind of meetings. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upperclassman. Then they declare: “If you pull something, then we’ll impose harsh sanctions.” That’s exactly what Putin needs, because it follows that, if he does not attack Ukraine, then there won’t be any sanctions. There’ll just be the carrot, and no stick.
With that, the combination is complete: Putin doesn’t need to worry about the sanctions that were nearly imposed on his cronies. They were first canceled by the Biden Administration, who convinced Congress to abandon them. Since they promised Putin a carrot, it’s not the time for sanctions.
This two-move combination is simple and intuitive. But it just takes my breath away to watch how Putin pulls this on the American establishment again and again: threaten to escalate—negotiate—pull back; threaten to escalate—negotiate—pull back. Watching this, I get the sense that it’s not U.S. foreign policy, but that short story by O. Henry, about the sneaky crook (Putin) tricking the village simpleton who thinks he’s so smart (the U.S. State Department).
Some very powerful officials, including Angela Merkel, visited you in Berlin while you were still recovering from the poisoning. Was there anything you took away from these conversations?
Angela Merkel’s knowledge about Russia in general was astonishing to me. You’d expect that level of understanding of the situation from someone who does not just take an interest in Russia but lives there.
It just so happened, that I met Merkel while in Berlin and also the people who helped to create the [governing] coalition. Olaf Scholz was the former Minister of Finance and is currently the Chancellor. Annalena Bock, her Green Party colleagues; she was elected Minister for Foreign Affairs. The head of the [Free Democratic Party]Christian Lindner was the Finance Minister when he joined the coalition.
I wouldn’t overstate the significance of these meetings. They were gestures of hospitality to a foreign politician, who was hurt, and wound up in Germany. These meetings were nevertheless interesting. Each one made me think about the benefits of a professional system for conducting politics.
I was happy to become convinced that the common myth about the hyper-pragmatism of German politicians coming at the cost of their values is just that—a myth. While everyone had their own views, they shared common values. It was clear that politicians come to fellow politicians to share their opinions and the views of their voters.
The chief of police of Freiberg was near my home, and it was one of the best meetings I have ever had. The policemen demonstrated how my security team was organised on a large interactive map. This was quite impressive. It was even a little uncomfortable to be in the presence of German taxpayers. However, Germans are Germans. They will do what is asked. If someone needs to be protected, they will do so well.
Have you been disappointed by the West’s response to your imprisonment, and to your movement being banned in Russia as extremist?
My outlook is sober about the possibility of international pressure being applied to the Kremlin. That’s partly from my memory of the story of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who died in prison despite significant efforts from the international community to free him and even a Nobel Peace Prize.
For me and our organisation, it would be preferable that the West doesn’t protect us except itself. This includes, first, enforcement of decisions by the [European Court of Human Rights]And secondly, to resist the exportation of corruption. This is the method Putin uses to buy up foreign leaders (by giving these people seats on corporate boards). The hybrid warfare waged by pushing chaos on Western society’s pressure points, including its migrants in Europe and divisions within U.S. society.
You want more from the Biden Administration.
Biden is not the Russian President. I had no naïve thoughts that he would deal with the international agenda, or with my poisoning/imprisonment, to the detriment of domestic issues. It is all very clear to me how American politics work. It is impossible for the president (which I think is a positive thing and not a negative one) to instantly decide what he would like.
The things I can see right now are more likely to give me hope. Congress’ leadership is strong on the issue of combating corruption. They formed a special bipartisan caucus, while inside the Biden Administration everyone is no less determined, having understood the most important thing: corruption is the source of most international problems (from Afghanistan and Iraq to Ukraine and Putin) that take up 60% of American Presidents’ time and trillions of dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers. I hope that simple, easy pressure methods will eventually be implemented with some common sense.
In Russia we’re all tired of rolling our eyes, watching the U.S. impose sanctions on some colonels and generals, who don’t even have money abroad. These are just the agents of Putin’s will.
The sanctions imposed against Russia since 2014 have not done much to change the Kremlin’s behavior. What makes your proposal different from the others? What is the purpose of these sanctions?
It’s really simple. Putin is undoubtedly the richest person on the planet. His wealth comes from power and corruption. He is a man of lies, deceit and propaganda. The best way to influence Putin is to also influence his wealth. It’s right under your backside. We all know the names and addresses of Putin’s friends and oligarchs. We all know the people who fund his palaces and yachts. They are those who help his third and fourth families. It takes a majority of these oligarchs to split Putin’s elites. They must signal to the world that Russia’s current regime will not allow them to rob people in Russia and then spend their income in Europe or the U.S.
The consensus that Putin sells to the economic elites is just that: ‘Support me always and in everything, and I will secure your money and your ability to spend it in Aspen. No matter how much any American President may say, they will not risk imposing sanctions upon the ruling class of Russia. And if they start talking about that, we will instantly shift attention onto questions of security, like election interference or threats of an invasion in Ukraine, as is happening now.’
So it’s important to force part of the elite to realize at last that Putin’s regime is a problem for their emotional wellbeing more than it is an advantage. They will be punished for their participation in corrupt deals.
You were about to leave Russia for Russia in January 2021 when the authorities informed you you would be taken into custody. However, you decided to continue your journey. Please share your explanations with colleagues and other activists. Tell them what you said. Which way did you explain your decision to the family? How did your family explain the decision to you?
My friends and I had no conversations, nor did we have any emotional discussions, as you’d see on the screen. The question wasn’t even on the agenda. The moment my eyes opened, I knew that I needed to go home. Yulia understood that I would survive if I survived, so I was now in a coma. We did discuss a very difficult issue. Putin almost killed Yulia by using a chemical weapon. And what it’s not be who touches it but Dasha or Zakhar when they come home from school?
It’s one thing to take risks yourself, and another to take such decisions for someone else, even if they are your child. To force them to accept these risks that aren’t permanent would be cruel. That is why we decided that it’s better for them to spend some time in places where it’s harder to smear chemical weapons on the doorknobs. With Dasha it was simpler—she had already been accepted at Stanford and was studying in the U.S. But Zakhar stayed at a school in Germany, even though he initially went there only because that’s where we ended up.
With almost one year’s experience, how do you now understand the Putin regime and your opposition? What was the most important thing you didn’t know when you made the decision to go back to Russia?
I was surprised by the extent of Putin’s willingness to cause damage to Russia, its future and to resolve one important political issue. Russia, in fall 2020 was quite different from the country it is today. It had an entirely different political system. Even then it was a fully fledged authoritarian state, but few could have imagined such massive and total barring of candidates from elections, declaring all independent journalists ‘foreign agents’ and thousands of people extremists. Russia was unable to follow the same path as Belarus for many years, and it took them months.
Everyone, even Putin, knows that there is a lot more to the downside than what Putin gained. It’s an end to foreign investment, an end to the prospects of economic growth, a new wave of emigration. It was just reported that half the computer programmers wish to migrate even though they are in school.
It even hit Putin’s own ratings. Although people are scared, they become more politicized below the surface. That is why during the parliamentary elections we won seats in all major cities thanks to the ‘smart voting’ strategy. In Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg we got 7 out of 8 districts. Falsifications were used to steal the results. But the fact remains: for the first time in Putin’s 20 years, people voted against him and his party in such numbers.
What do you see for the future of your group and its members now that they have been declared extremists?
As an opposition organization, we formed and are now seeking power. We find ourselves in the most favorable position for popular and honest politicians in an authoritarian nation: being banned.
Others are under arrest, while others live in exile. Our path wasn’t all roses. Overall, we were willing to do this. This is how we evolved and became an organisation of another type. The main thing we have is support, and it isn’t small, judging by the ‘smart voting’ results. It is certain that we will remain the principal opposition force. We can also set the political agenda much more efficiently than the other parties.
Which scenario do you see for your journey to Russia leadership? Are there any two- or three scenarios that are most likely?
Russia is open to any kind of unrest, including mass unrest due to falling living standards (incomes have been declining for 8 years running), or a coup d’état. My primary goal is fair national elections. After that, I will accept whatever position the voters choose.
That’s important to me. Fair elections are the only way to get power. That would not be fair or right. Yes, there are likely to be some protests and events in the streets, but after that—only fair elections. They can be both permanent and systemic. It’s not like [President Boris] Yeltsin did it—one time fairly, and then with censorship and falsifications. Russia needs to hold at least 5-6 cycles of free elections, overseen by independent judges to end the cycle of authoritarian birth and ensure that Russia is able to claim its power.
What do you think of the possibility for violence in these situations? Is it worth the violence in Ukraine and Libya, as well as in Syria, to see political change in Russia?
The first thing to consider when discussing the danger of violence is statistics and political science. Putin has inscribed the slogan of ‘stability’ upon his rule, and he uses it to justify everything: from censorship and crackdowns on demonstrations to the rigging of elections.
In reality, his rule raises the risk of unanticipated events and shocks including violence. Many of his supporters have already become enemies irreconcilable. The creeping work of seizing power ‘after Putin’ has begun. Almost everyone in Putin’s closest circle believes that all the rest are idiots incapable of even stealing properly. The rest are waiting patiently for the chance to grab the largest slice.
It is worse that Putin increases the chances of the country collapsing by his actions. When the pendulum swings back the other way, Putin’s attempts to centralize money, power and authority in Moscow only leads to more centrifugal tendencies.
Which lessons has Putin learned from those revolutions and conflicts? What do you think Putin is doing with these lessons?
This view, which is popular among dictators and primitive in general, is his: Never show weakness. Show weakness, and you’ll get overthrown. To him, weakness means making concessions to opposition and public opinion. He is a good example. [Czar]Nicholas II, the Russian Empire’s fall [Mikhail]Gorbachev, the fall of the USSR.
However, this is a complete misinterpretation about the history lessons. It was not the Romanovs’ weakness that caused the collapse of Russia’s Empire, but their mad desire to keep an absoluteist monarchy throughout the 20th century. And it wasn’t Gorbachev who tore down the USSR with his weakness, but rather the cruelty, stubbornness and stupidity of those senile despots, with their centrally planned economy and their war in Afghanistan.
In 2007, the clip in which you compare illegal immigrants to cockroaches shows how your past statements have shaped your public image. What do you think of those comments and that message? Do you still have that part?
That script was terrible. But on the other hand, I’m a politician of the Internet, my every word over these last 15 years has been recorded and discussed. Since we are still discussing that clip from 2007, then it seems I haven’t done or said all that much stupid stuff. However, there were some mistakes I made and things I regret. I’m not the type of person who finds it hard to admit mistakes and say sorry.
Is Putin happier with the imprisoning of you or is it worse?
If you take a look at the larger picture, however, I’d still say that he caused more problems for himself. It’s clear that this was a personal, emotional decision on Putin’s part. First I didn’t die from the poison. Then I didn’t turn into a vegetable as the doctors had feared. Then I had the gall not only to return but, once in Russia, to release an investigation about Putin’s own corruption.
It’s exactly through that logic of ‘never showing weakness’ that he set rational calculation aside and took this step. He achieved what? The windows are glued closed and I walk in prison clothes and galoshes. But what’s the problem? Sitting in my galoshes, I’m giving an interview to TIME Magazine, and our ‘smart voting’ drowned out his candidates in all the big cities. Plus there’s a wave of emigration. A rage electorate. His only friend is now [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko. That kind of country won’t get investments. That means there won’t be economic growth. Official data already shows that inflation has reached 10%. In reality, it’s 15.
I’m not saying that my arrest was the cause of all this, but it was definitely an important trigger for this chain of events. Putin’s ideal is Singapore and China. There are no borders, only economic growth, technology, and foreigners eager to invest. And instead of a nuclear-armed Singapore or even a USSR 2.0 with yachts and Mercedes, you’re standing on the stage at a parade and your only foreign guest is the President of Tajikistan. You have technology, growth and a computer animation for a new weapon.
Maybe that’s why we don’t know a single politician in history who looked good after ten years of solitary power. These people lose sight of the bigger picture, become impulsive and act emotionally. To be honest, even if all this made it worse, not because of the Putin regime but for me personally, I’d still like to have gone back. I just knew that’s what I had to do.