Navalny Died a Barin

The Putin regime murdered Alexey Navalny on February 16, 2024.

I consider this to be a bleak confirmation of most everything I wrote in The Z of History, and in this post, I will attempt to explain:

  • Why the murder was likely directly ordered by Putin and how this testifies to the senescent ghoulishness of late stage Putinism.
  • The negative selection this exerts on its dwindling stock of apologists.
  • The progressive liquidation of all alternate points of view that are not perfectly aligned with it (“jail is programmed” principle), and not in the interests of winning the war, but of regime preservation.
  • Collapsing regime competence levels (“что ни делает дурак, все он делает не так” principle).

Finally, I will speculate on what this heralds for the regime’s own long-term viability.

 

Murder She Wrote

From the start, my intuition was that the operation was “almost certainly ordered or okayed” by Putin (that is, perhaps the initiative came from Patrushev, as with the Wagner hit, but it was Putin who signed off on it). There was precedent – Putin had, after all, tried to kill Navalny before with novichok poison in 2020. There was the symbolic date, exactly a month before the Russian pseudo-elections. Finally, there was Navalny’s disappearance within the Russian penal system from Dec 5-25. At the time, there were theories that these antics were a trial balloon to gauge the public reaction to escalated repressions against Navalny. In retrospect, I think that was the correct take. Putin found the public pushback to be encouragingly lackluster, and moved forward with a more terminal solution to his Navalny problem.

Since Feb 16, the kremlins have given no cause to revise this assessment:

(1) The shifting explanations of Navalny’s cause of death from initial claims of “blood clots” to some novel medical condition called “sudden death syndrome.” Incidentally, these seem almost tailor made to get the anti-vaxxer rightoids who are Putin’s core American constituency very excited, and I do wonder if it was actually viciously intentional, and redolent of how Putin smirked as he ascribed the crash of the Wagner plane to Prigozhin and Co. getting drunk and playing with grenades.

(2) Denying Navalny’s body to his grieving relatives for at least 14 days while they do “chemical analysis”. If the Russian leadership was genuinely shocked by Navalny’s death and desperate to prove their innocence, if only to forestall the inevitable reputational fallout, they would logically be going out of their way to expedite an open and transparent investigation. Instead, Putin spokesman Peskov calls Navalny’s widow “impudent” for blaming Putin, and chief regime propagandist Margarita Simonyan is openly celebrating it.

(3) Spate of promotions and awards for the people likely to have been complicit if this was a murder.

(4) Navalny is a no name loser with a 2% approval and therefore an army of bots has been mobilized to make that point on Twitter, and people laying flowers at monuments to the victims of repression across Russia have been getting arrested (close to 500 to date) in “accordance with the law” ala Peskov.

In my view, the only semi-plausible Putinist apologetics touches concerns the question of what Putin stood to gain from it. Cui bono? But this implies that there is any actual rhyme or reason to what Putin does. What did Putin gain from insisting a Russian Koran burner be tried and extrajudicially brutalized in Chechnya? What did Putin gain from imposing long COVID quarantines on people wishing to meet up with him? Why are you posing questions to a dictator who somehow managed to become infected by Facebook boomer memes without even using the Internet, and expecting rational answers?

There are plenty of hypotheses. Perhaps he was just pissed off by the failed interview with Tucker Carlson or by the Navalny team’s very last investigation about his elder daughter, Maria Vorontsova – though I suspect the Decision was made long before both those events. Perhaps he wanted to intimidate the Eurogays gathering to discuss Ukraine war aid at Munich – apparently unaware that he has long become a laughing stock internationally. Maybe he was elated over Russia’s “victory” in Avdeevka – apostrophes on account of the Afghanistan tier losses involved in capturing a Donetsk suburb with a prewar population of 30,000 – and wanted to “compound” on it. Or perhaps Putin just wanted to to feel like he might have felt after the downing of the Wagnerites, like a big important capo wielding the power of life and death over his thralls. This imagery of medieval despotism is not an exaggeration for effect. Under a “normal” regime, democracy or dictatorship, he could have just put the Wagner ringleaders on trial for mutiny and treason – offenses they were unambiguously guilty of! – and imprisoned them, and then, if necessary, “vanished” them into the night and fog. But dealing with traitors the legal way or just shooting them is too normie for Putin. No, he needed to blast their plane out of the sky, casually murdering a civilian stewardess and two pilots in the process to wild Z approval and popular indifference.

As I pointed out in The Z of History, the psychopathy of the late Putinist state is ultimately a matter of probabilities and Bayesian updating. In retrospect, the evidence that the regime targets people who are neither Islamists, nor security service renegades, had become very solid by 2021. The Wagner episode was, to me, the final nail in the coffin. The likelihood that the fourth largest air disaster of 2023 just randomly happened to accrue to the orchestrator of the only coup attempt against Putin in his quarter of a century in power is just so astronomically low that denying it is on a similar level of epistemic nihilism to denying Russian election fraud. Furthermore, when ordering the plane crash Putin, Patrushev, and everyone else involved knew they were murdering civilians who had nothing to do with their internal mafia dispute.

Now to be sure, there is a theoretical chance that Navalny died from “natural” causes aggravated by his prior poisoning and the harsh conditions of his imprisonment. (Even in this scenario, regime culpability would only be modestly diminished, since they created the conditions for his death). However, Navalny was 47 years old, and appeared hale in his video taped court appearance the day before. In between that, as well as other evidence – prior murder attempt; transfer to an ultra-remote prison colony in the Arctic a month previously; and extremely suspicious behavior after the fact – all point towards the version that it was an intentional execution. (I’d assign it about the same chance as biolab leak origins of COVID i.e. 90%).

In her uplifting video announcing that she will carry on her late husband’s work, Yulia Navalnaya hinted that the opposition knows what happened, who, and how. I allow that this is true even in the narrow sense given Russia’s quite thorough penetration by Western intelligence, and that the strategy might be to wait for the kremlins to come up with their final official version before spilling the beans on what really happened.

 

It Didn’t Happen But If It Did He Deserved It

The question of motives is at least not an entirely irrational one – the Navalny murder is misaligned with the goal of winning the war, though it loads on the dubious notion that kremlins privilege that over regime preservation. However, the great bulk of Putin apologetics rely on much dumber arguments coupled with villainous gloating.

Here are some of the most common “themes” I identified:

It was a CIA operation to discredit Putin and make him into a martyr and/or a Ukrainian operation to drum up Western support for arms supplies.

Putin, the world’s unluckiest politician. So many of his critics keep croaking from enemy action even in the remotest corners of the Russian Federation.

But OK, let’s allow that this is true. What does it say, then, that Putin, who has ruled Russia for nearly a quarter of a century, has created such a dysfunctional and penetrated state that foreign agents are free to run amok and whack his enemies (to make him look bad) even in the most remote Arctic penal colony? Even as Russia is engaged in an “existential war” against the countries of those agents in Ukraine? How does this theory even make Putin look good? Why would you support such a loser?

But what about Gonzalo Lira? Snowden? Assange? Ashli Babbitt?

Gonzalo Lira was eight years old older, fatter, a chain smoker, allegedly suffering from a terminal disease, and in jail on charges that most any country would prosecute. Even so, I said that letting this happen was an extremely bad idea on Ukraine’s part – the correct play was deportation. Nonetheless, there is not much of an equivalence between someone who can most charitably be described as a dissident geopolitics pundit, and Russia’s most prominent anti-corruption activist and opposition politician.

I have consistently opposed and condemned US regime harassment of Assange and Snowden. But neither were murdered to date. Moreover, Snowden really was a traitor in the narrow legal term of the word, even though what he did was morally justified and Russia is correct to offer him refuge (even though its motivations for doing so are purely to do with “owning” America). Meanwhile, Assange was a foreigner, which does make US persecution of him on espionage charges an exercise in tyrannical extra-territoriality, but by the same token excludes it as a violation of the rights of an American citizen. In contrast, Navalny was a Russian citizen (not a foreigner) whose “treason” amounted to making the Putin clique look bad and corrupt by producing exhaustively sourced blog posts and videos chronicling their malfeasance. This is not illegal under any Russian law.

Regarding Ashli Babbitt, many if not all countries would shoot protesters trying to storm their parliament. Russia is certainly one of them.

Navalny was a Nazi and a racist ethnonationalist.

Navalny intermittently advocated fash-adjacent views more than a decade ago. However, the edgeposting typical of halcyon Russian Livejournal culture and the comparisons of immigrants to cockroaches date to the late 2000s, and it’s noteworthy that even the kremlins mostly stopped trying to foist the Nazi label on him after c.2017. In effect, Far Leftists – not to mention actual Nazis – have a longer statute of limitations on ancient shitposts than most Kremlin propagandists.

In any case, there’s a good case to be made that Navalny only ever embraced nationalism in pursuit of an oppositionist electorate, and generally engaged in behavior that’s dubiously compatible with Russian ethnonationalism in principle even in the pre-Crimea era. (I have a section on this here, and you might want to search for his history with Tesak in particular).

In any case, the Crimea annexation changed everything, and by 2017 an opinion poll of actual Russian nationalists (Sputnik & Pogrom readers) suggests that 0% of them still considered him to be a Russian nationalist.

However, all of this is quite besides the point, and is entering “but he deserved it anyway” territory at that. What difference to the legality or lack thereof of murdering him do Navalny’s views on federal subsidies to Chechnya and Tajik immigration make?

Hail Putler for whacking an American agent and traitor!

This is ultimately the only Z argument I respect. It’s brutal, but refreshingly honest, instead of slimily duplicitous like the others.

Amusingly enough, the only other major class of ideologues who are openly celebrating Navalny’s death are certain NATO and Ukrainian nationalist personalities, who are still aggrieved over Navalny’s insistence several years ago that the status of Crimea should be decided by a free and fair referendum on the basis that Crimeans are not a “sandwich” to be traded back and forth. (As I pointed out in The Z of History, it’s indicative in the sense that this is exactly how pro-Ukrainian maximalists see Crimeans and Donbassers, why I do not consider them to be good people even if kremlins are far worse, and hence why I refuse to endorse a return to the 1991 borders even if achieving that peacefully was practical, which it obviously is not anyway).

In any case, they and the raving Zs make good company, and strongly deserve each other.

Beyond that, Putinist apologetics around the Navalny murder descend to the gutter level, revolving around traditional American rightoid cuckold fantasies and #DiedSuddenly narratives. This just reinforces the point that I made in The Z of History that pro-Russian discourse in the West has been monopolized by all manner of freaks and scumbags: “Whenever one now sees sees the Russian flag, [Z], or ☦️ on a Twitter profile, it’s a safe bet that it’s accompanied by a rant about the WEF, the Great Reset, and very strong opinions on entomophagy.” This is the audience that the kremlins decided to cater to and such are the “fans” they got at the tail end of their Human Centipede chain.

 

Jail Remains Programmed 🚨🏃🚓👮

Another point I made in The Z of History is the profoundly cannibalistic nature of the late Putinist state:

Meanwhile, everybody who was anybody – that is, anyone who is a barin as per Prosvirnin, as opposed to the gray NPC mediocrities whom Putinism champions – has ended up in sidelined, in jail, or dead. Though they might otherwise despise each other, both Navalny and Strelkov are far more colorful and interesting than Putin. They are not afraid to debate each other or Putin. But Putin is afraid to debate them, and has jailed them on drummed up pretexts. Navalny in particular he has tried to poison, and demonstratively refuses to acknowledge by name. Libertarian nationalist and hero of the first Donbass War Vitaly Afrika, whose Diary of a Terrorist memoir is one of the premier exemplars of Ukraine war literature, is now in exile in Latin America hiding from extremism charges (he also happens to hate Putin and predicts Russia will lose the war). Russia’s least incompetent general, Surovikin – whose fortifications played a key role in the failure of the Ukrainian summer offensive – was dismissed because he made Gerasimov feel bad because his own strategic insights boil down to insisting that the troops shave daily.

And now Putin ordered Navalny’s death, and in what I suspect will emerge to have been in the most insultingly banal way possible, like ordering his FSB goon squad to novichok him properly this time. Instead of conscripting him to the Ukraine War, like the Unknown Fathers did to the hero of The Inhabited Island. That would have at least been a “cool” evil thing to do, worthy of a sci-fi villain. Or just shooting him in an “escape attempt” or paying another con to shiv him – even that would have been more dignified.

On this note, some more developments in the <2 months since I wrote that longread:

(1) Boris Kagarlitsky, Russia’s leading Marxist intellectual, who supported Crimea and the early Donbass Rebellion but was avidly opposed to the Ukraine War, has been imprisoned for 5 years for “justifying” terrorism. He was initially given a fine, but he refused to accept the implicit suggestion to emigrate, and is now on track to spend more time in jail in Putin’s Russia than in his previous stints for political crimes under both the Yeltsin and Andropov regimes.

(2) Sergey Udaltsov, a Communist activist and Left Front leader who avidly supports Z but has a history of anti-Putin street activism, was arrested for “justifying terrorism” in some old posts and is awaiting trial.

(3) Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who needs no introduction, remains in jail, with his wife Miroslava Reginskaya rushing to insist that he feels “very healthy” and has “no suicidal intentions.”

And this folks is why I keep repeating my mantra that jail is programmed. You can be a liberal pro-Western anti-corruption activist (Navalny), you can be a pro-Donbass anti-war Marxist (Kagarlitsky), you can be a Soviet revanchist Z head and rabble-rouser with KPRF ties (Udaltsov), you can be an Orthodox White Guardist with a superlative dedication to realism in historical recreation (Strelkov) – none of the details actually matter, you’re a moron for thinking they matter, because all politics in Russia revolves around the random whims of a deranged boomer and his coterie of bootlickers and paid mercenaries, who do not need any smartass of whichever ideological flavor to disturb their fantasy world in which they are both waging and winning an existential war against NATO.

The only thing that materially concerns YOU, you personally, is the programmed and metaphysical inevitability of Russian horror prison and that is literally the only thing any sane person should be studying and thinking about.

 

The Art of Losing Friends and Making Enemies

In the past couple of weeks, the kremlins were handed an unprecedented opportunity to make a play for the “hearts and minds” of American rightoids and deepen the fissures that have lately stalled American military aid to Ukraine – and enabled Russia to make the paltry and corpse-strewn advances that it has. Tucker Carlson was willing to coordinate, offering Putin a softball interview that was supposed to become a major hit on Twitter. He even went out of his way to praise Moscow’s relatively high living standards and functionality, in the face of widespread ridicule, in order to make the underlying point that Western sanctions had failed to collapse Russian welfare.

Carlson’s reward was to be remorselessly humiliated – cucked? – and by no less than Vladimir Putin himself. Instead of trotting off “reasonable” talking about NATO expansion, Wokeness, Biden crime family corruption in Ukraine, and unisex toilets targeted at American rightoids – perhaps with a magnanimous gesture such as freeing Evan Gershkovich thrown in – Putin went on a long history lecture that will go unappreciated outside a very narrow circle of frog history posters and made strange comments about Polish culpability in being attacked by Hitler that will not be met by fanfare outside The Unz Review. I mean, I’ll admit it’s ironic – not to mention morbidly flattering – that Putin basically confirmed my prewar intuition of his casus belli for the war to come. But this should have been targeted at actual Russians! Not at Tucker Carlson listeners!

And then they capped off this PR trainwreck with a display of villainy as demented as it is cartoonish.

In conjunction with the conclusion of the Battle of Avdeevka and Putin’s boorish burning of bridges with his only fans in America, there is now a very real chance that the Navalny murder – which reveals not just the regime’s moral bankruptcy in the most unambiguous terms to date but excludes any chance of a “normal” political transition – will directly translate into increased Western military aid to Ukraine. There are already early signs of this reaction from the Nordic countries, with Sweden sending a record high aid package and Denmark committing to transferring its entire artillery park to Ukraine. I suspect that even many of the more introspective MAGA people are privately considering that Putin is not quite right in the head. In the event this snowballs, it will happen against a backdrop of loss ratios continuing to inexorably swing against Russia, the progressive depletion of its Soviet armor and artillery stocks, and American technocapital throwing its weight behind swarm AI drones for Ukraine.

In this context, I would note that in her list of requests to the EU Foreign Affairs Council, Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya – now crowned as the queen of the Russian opposition movement – notably refrained from demanding increased Western funding for Ukraine aid. Like her late husband, she is a Russian politician, and presumably understands that regardless of the injustice of Putin’s war, demanding weapons to kill Russian soldiers is not an appropriate thing to do for any politician with genuine electoral aspirations. Instead, she limited herself to requesting non-recognition of the results of Putin’s upcoming pseudo-elections, real sanctions against regime insiders and enablers, and easing immigration for oppositionist Russians as opposed to the current approach of making them bear most of the inconveniences of a war almost none of them support.

In the meantime, it is Putin’s vindictive vanity and short-term prioritization of regime stability that poses the greatest risk to bringing the war he launched and so fecklessly prosecuted to a close that is non-catastrophic for Russia. With leaders like these, who needs enemies? However, it is still Yulia Navalnaya and her supporters who are traitors, and so are you for making this point, because fuck you, that’s why. Hail Putler!

Now one might realistically point out that perhaps this is not so irrational from Putin’s perspective, on the basis there there is only limited intersectionality between Putin’s interests (regime preservation), and the interests of the Russian state (winning the war) and of the Russian people (ending the war), and this misalignment only gets worse with time, as the kremlins scour away all remaining democratic accountability and pluralistic feedback mechanisms. Hence my prediction that jail is programmed for Z, literally regardless of what even happens in Ukraine.

Consequently, even many anti-Putin analysts such as Tatiana Stanovaya have opined that Putin was not irrational to take the opportunity to liquidate a long-term threat to his power.

However, I mostly disagree with this logic:

(1) It’s hyperbolic to say that Navalny had an approval rating of 2%, but it really couldn’t have been more than 10-15% even in the context of being a natural magnet for the anti-war part of the electorate. As a convicted felon, he was in any case ineligible to run in any elections; in the event that he was freed and his rights reasserted, Putin would have long lost power anyway.

(2) Most everybody knows that the Russian elites and Putin himself are thieves anyway. They were not widely known as murderers outside opposition circles.

As Masha Gessen suggested, even Navalny himself didn’t correctly assess their true degree of viciousness, and the attendant risks of returning to Russia in 2021*:

He imagined himself as Russia’s Nelson Mandela: he would outlive Putin’s reign and become President. Perhaps he believed that the men he was fighting were capable of embarrassment and wouldn’t dare to kill him after he’d proved that they had tried to. He and I had argued, over the years, about the fundamental nature of Putin and his regime: he said that they were “crooks and thieves”; I said that they were murderers and terrorists. After he came out of his coma, I asked him if he had finally been convinced that they were murderers. No, he said. They kill to protect their wealth. Fundamentally, they are just greedy.

He thought too highly of them. They are, in fact, murderers.

This is potentially risky for the kremlins for three reasons:

First, in the past two days I have observed a consolidation of the Russian liberal opposition, previously riven by factional and personal rivalries such as the one between Navalny and Max Kats, behind Yulia Navalnaya. Only time will tell if this is temporary, or a new normal. Nonetheless, if the intention was to cut off the “head” of the opposition on the eve of the pseudo-elections, it has failed for the time being.

Second, the mood within the opposition has obviously become totally uncompromising. To the extent that any even minimally plausible route to a peaceful power transition existed, it is now definitively off the table.

Third, I think there’s some chance – less than 50%, but more than 10% – that this results in the repression machine going into overdrive, and the emergence of an actual Russian resistance movement (as opposed to the current state of affairs characterized by Ukrainian agents/saboteurs and their occasional unaware or unwitting Russian dupes, as in the terrorist bombing of the Crimean Bridge and the assassination of Vladlen Tatarsky).

* Historical aside: Personally, I think Navalny also miscalculated his personal approval rating, and the extent to which Russian society was prepared to mobilize behind him. The idea that the Levada/VCIOM polls inflated Putin’s ratings was popular in late 2020-21 – and not limited to liberal circles! For instance, the host of a nationalist talk show – then oppositional, now hardcore Z – I appeared on in April 2021 challenged my claim that Putin had an approval rating of 60%, asserting it was 10-30% (!?). If this is accurate, then this was a pointed and sadly terminal lesson in the dangers of succumbing to wishful groupthink that could have been avoided by interacting more productively with moderate regime supporters.

(3) In life, Navalny was a controversial and ambiguous figure, prone to personal conflicts and promoting questionable people to leadership positions in his organization.

In death, he has become the prime martyr of Russian liberalism – a point clearly made by both Mikhail Zygar (of All The Kremlin’s Men fame, and probably modern Russia’s most influential politological writer; in exile abroad) and Dmitry Glukhovsky (of Metro 2033 fame, and probably its second most influential sci-fi writer). (Incidentally, back to the “jail is programmed” theme, both are considered to be “foreign agents” and live in exile, with Glukhovsky in particular having been sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison).

(4) Putinism’s political prospects cannot be considered independently of his war, and to the extent that this results in more Russian deaths and less territory won (if not more territory lost) and a worse position at the negotiating table, it materially affects the extent to which Putin can claim it as a victory, for all the efforts of his propaganda machine. With attendant effects on the stability of his regime, short of Russia going full totalitarian.

My assessment is that the Navalny murder is a defining moment in modern Russian political history, and constitutes a “burning of the bridges” internally as the Ukraine War was internationally. It will probably have a markedly deleterious impact on the war, and while I am sure the Putinists are privately drinking champagne, I don’t think it’s even entirely obvious that this will be good for regime stability in the long-term, not to mention their own individual prospects in a future that is now increasingly bifurcated between post-war color revolution or a totalitarian desert.

 

EDIT: The Day After Publishing This (Feb 21)

Andrey Morozov (Murz), a prominent Russian milblogger who built the LNR’s milcomms system – much more sophisticated than the Baofengs the Russian Army started the war with – committed suicide today after intense pressure from Kremlin propagandist Soloviev and his goons over his recent revelations of extreme Avdeevka losses and the lack of any official accountability for it.

This really was a suicide – the lengthy farewell note is entirely within his style. Nonetheless, it is yet another example of Putin’s Russia being lethal to the colorful characters with agency who actually get things done and are it’s only hope for success.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.

 

Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.

 

Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.

Comments

  1. Mickey Droy says

    You’ve been hacked.
    Not sure if it you blog or your mind.
    But this is lunacy. 4,429 words on Navalny …

  2. As I’ve said on Substack Notes, though Navalny was not a great leader, he was subject to clear cruel and unusual punishment.

    “Instead of trotting off “reasonable” talking about NATO expansion, Wokeness, Biden crime family corruption in Ukraine, and unisex toilets targeted at American rightoids – perhaps with a magnanimous gesture such as freeing Evan Gershkovich thrown in – Putin went on a long history lecture that will go unappreciated outside a very narrow circle of frog history posters and made strange comments about Polish culpability in being attacked by Hitler that will not be met by fanfare outside The Unz Review.”

    I think you’re wrong on this, Karlin. Americans support unisex toilets (see 2016 NC Gov race) and NATO expansion. Russians don’t.

    Americans, who live in a sea of blatant nationalism, are more likely to sympathize with it than with concerns re: NATO expansion and social conservatism.

    Putin tried appealing to the American underclass at Helsinki (where he said he would have voted for Trump had he been an American); he now sees no point in doing so.

  3. Excellent article. I particularly appreciate your criticism of Navalny. Not to use the tired “he only had a 2% favorable opinion” line, but I always thought that he wasn’t as influential in Russia as the Western media portrayed him. But ironically, a dead Navalny will be more powerful than a living Navalny. It probably won’t be enough to overthrow Putin, but it will definitely “radicalize” the liberal opposition.

  4. I don’t get why you are upset by Navalny.

    This guy was obviously a tool of the West and literally caught on camera being paid by Western intelligence agencies. He would have destroyed Russia the same way Yeltsin did if the West had succeeded in enthroning him as president. But at least Navalny would have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Oh well.

    Navalny was no friend of Russia, and I’m not crying tears to see him dead. Quite the opposite.