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Elena and Sasha Prokhorov reflect on the death of Alexei Navalny

  • outside-navalny-exhibit.jpg
     When the Prokhorovs were in Vilnius, Lithuania last summer 2022 with a W&M Study Abroad Program and Project GO, they visited a public display of a mock prison cell similar to the one in which Alexei Navalny had been imprisoned in solitary confinement. The display was created by #FreeNavalny, led by Oleg Navalny's brother.   View larger version of images  Photo: Nick Vasquez
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    Put yourself in Navalny's shoes  Exhibit display.   See larger versions of the images  Photo: Nick Vasquez
  • interior.jpg
     The interior of the cell.   View larger versions of the images  Photo: Nick Vasquez
  • sink.jpg
     Another interior view of the cell.   View larger versions of images  Nick Vasquez
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We reached out to Professor of Russian and Film Studies Alexander Prokhorov  and Elena Prokhorova, Professor of Russian Studies and Director of Russian & Post-Soviet Studies, to help us understand some historical and cultural context for the life and death of Alexei Navalny. They co-authored Film and Television Genres of the Late Soviet Era (2017); and co-edited (with Nancy Condee) Cinemasaurus: Russian Film in Contemporary Context (2020); and (with Rimgaila Salys) Russian TV Series in the Era of Transition (2022). 

Q: What do you think about Navalny so captured the world’s affection – in addition to his bravery, was it in part also his youthfulness? His energy? He seemed to understand the appeal he had but not exploit it.

Navalny is a Russian-style hero: he challenged the autocracy and became a martyr.  The first Russian autobiography “Life of Archpriest Avvakum Written by Himself” tells a story of such a dissident who opposed the tsar’s autocracy.  It happened in the 17th century and unfortunately, nothing has changed since.  People like Navalny do not benefit at all from their endeavours.  Instead, they and their families endure huge sacrifices.  And yes, Navalny was young, good looking and had a wonderful family.  All these things made him extremely appealing as an alternative to the secretive dictator.   What also captured the world’s affection is his daring and efficiency in opposing Putin’s regime under impossible circumstances.  While the regime destroyed Navalny to intimidate opposition, the regime itself has been quite intimidated by Navalny and his team. 

Q: Did you remember the first time you heard of or saw Navalny? Do you remember your impressions?

We first heard Navalny at the protest rally in Moscow at the Sakharov Square [in 2011] when he led protests against falsified elections in the State Duma and upcoming re-election of Putin, which was against the constitution.  We actually took our daughter to see the event.  He was charismatic and obviously a danger to the regime.  After these events, he was soon arrested.  One of his many detentions.

Q: He used the media so well to communicate. As a scholar of Soviet and Russian media, did you see that as something new? It was compelling in the U.S. and outside Russia. Do you have any sense of how it was received in Russia?  

Navalny used social media very efficiently and soon became a magnet for various groups of protesters, especially younger people who saw in him a leader they never had.  The problem for Russian society has always been apathy and cynicism, and Navalny was the figure to give hope to people.  He gave them a voice and formulated a call for democratic change.  He was a key figure for keeping Russian civil society afloat. 

Q: Putin’s regime has caused an exodus of journalists, politicians and activists over the last few years. Unable to voice their protests in Russia, they have had to leave the country. Is there still any real opposition in Russia?

Voicing opposition in Russia currently is practically impossible.  Even semi-independent media are pushed out of the country.  Before Navalny was killed even his lawyers were arrested.  The closest cities from where one can hear opposition voices in Russian are Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw, Berlin, Tbilisi, Erevan, Amsterdam and Prague.

Q: In an interview, author Boris Akunin asked Navalny: He said: “What does Russia mean to you today?” Navalny answered: “A place where I understand everyone and feel at home. A country where my language is spoken, and my people live. I'm capable of separating country and government, so in these dramatic times, I love Russia as much as I always have.” That profound love of homeland -- a dissident movement that stems from love of country that is separate from the political regime or government strikes me as such a Russian sentiment. How does it strike you?

We feel that it is not exclusively Russian sentiment but a sentiment of a true patriot in the best sense of the word.  Putin’s propaganda claims that loyalty to the dictator and his decisions, however bad they are for the country, is equal to patriotism.  Navalny was a true citizen who challenged Putin and his company who hijacked the country and changed the constitution to stay in power. 

Q: In that same interview with Akunin, Navalny said that the book that had the most influence on him was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he read as a boy and opened his eyes to literature, which was one of his greatest pleasures. Does the choice of that book surprise you? 

We love Mark Twain, too.  He was also quite a rebel.  Literature is national, of course, but it has impact across language barriers.  That’s why humanities need to be supported.  Humanities give you critical thinking skills and broaden your horizons.

Q: He was an intelligent man, a man who loved his family and his life, and yet he persisted, knowing where his journey would take him. Do you think he had some of the elements of the the Holy Fool or yuródivyy (юродивый)  – in that his apparent “foolishness” wasn’t acting crazy, but in persisting with his mission even though it meant he would suffer and lose everything. 

A person who over a decade stood virtually alone against a brutal regime is certainly an extraordinary being.  Even when he was prosecuted he never lost his sense of self and his sense of humor.  Even in his explosive investigative reports and documentaries he used satire as a powerful weapon against authorities.  Looking ridiculous is one of the greatest fears of dictators, and Navalny knew it well.

Q: Do you think there is someone that can take up his mantle? His daughter has proven to be very vocal and an activist, and his wife has announced she will continue his work.

We only wish eventually Russia will get a woman who is an opposition leader and soon the president.  

Q: As tragic as his loss is, do you still have hope for Russia and Ukraine?

 Absolutely, yes.  A lot of what happens in Ukraine bears heavily on what will happen in Russia and indeed the world.  Helping Ukraine is vital to defending democracy worldwide and returning Russia to the democratic path.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

Slava Ukraini!  Especially in February when we mark the second year of Russia’s barbaric invasion in Ukraine.