Feb 18, 2024

In Navalny’s death, echoes of Stalin, CNN.com

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room,” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN. CNN — We don’t yet know the exact details of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny’s death, reported Friday by the Russian prison service — and we may never find the precise truth. But as US Vice President Kamala Harris put it in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, “Whatever story they tell, let us be clear, Russia is responsible.” Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin practices not plausible deniability but implausible deniability when it comes to the deaths of his most prominent critics and rivals. Does anyone seriously think that the plane crash last year near Moscow of the Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had mounted an armed insurrection, was an accident? (The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.) What we do know is that Putin’s life project is to effectively recreate the KGB state, win the war in Ukraine and Make Russia Great Again. These projects are now intertwined because repression since Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost exactly two years ago has dramatically increased in Russia. Human Rights Watch points to the “increased war censorship, imprisonment of vocal critics, and the crushing of human rights activism.” And what better way to communicate that the Russian opposition is effectively dead, than by silencing its most prominent leader, Navalny, who is as much a well-known dissident in the West as physicist Andrei Sakharov and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were during the Soviet era. How did Russia, under Putin, get here? One of the most important events in Putin’s life was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was the beginning of the end of the de facto Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. When the Wall fell, Putin was a KGB officer in Dresden in what was then East Germany. The Soviet Union imploded two years later. The context for the fall of the Wall and the implosion of the Soviet state was that Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev had been liberalizing the Soviet Union for several years with his policy of “glasnost” or “openness.” Gorbachev had also pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan after almost a decade of a bloody war there in 1989, a conflict that the Soviets believed was a quagmire they needed to extricate themselves from. Putin drew two big lessons from Gorbachev’s rule: The most dangerous moment for an incompetent authoritarian regime is when it begins to liberalize (to paraphrase French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville). And the most dangerous thing a Russian leader can do is lose a war as the Romanovs did in World War I, which helped spark the Russian revolution in 1917. Gorbachev’s pulling out of Afghanistan in February 1989 signaled to Eastern Europe that the feared Soviet military was something of a paper tiger, and within nine months, the Berlin Wall fell. Putin made a point of not attending Gorbachev’s funeral in 2022, signaling his disapproval of Gorbachev’s record and worldview. By contrast with Gorbachev, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and was critical to the Allies winning World War II. After more than two decades of rule, the Soviet dictator died in 1953. It appears Putin, a close student of his own brand of Russian history, as he showed during Tucker Carlson’s odd recent interview, plans to rule more the way of Stalin than the way of Gorbachev. After all, Putin has essentially fixed the Russian constitution so he can continue seeking election as the country’s leader until 2036. Indeed, Putin is running for re-election for president in March. Last month, an anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin also started running in the presidential election. But as his campaign gained interest, the Putin regime put an end to that just over a week ago. Now Putin will be running largely unopposed. How will news of Navalny’s death be received in Russia? Most Russians get their news from Russian television, which is effectively now Kremlin TV. It’s likely that Russian television will be silent about Navalny’s death, choosing instead to tout the Great Leader Putin, who will surely romp to electoral victory next month, content in the knowledge that the man who was his most effective opponent is now dead. But the international community need not remain silent. Navalny should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to communicate what this means to the world. This would require the Nobel Committee to change its rules about not making the award posthumously. Still, it would send a powerful message to Russians and the world — just as Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize for Literature did in 1970.