Subscriber OnlyOpinion

‘Don’t despair ... We were honest people’: Alexei Navalny’s message from prison has a lesson for us all

Rite & Reason: Where Mary stood by the cross, Navalny’s mother took her stand by the gates of the bleak Arctic prison to plead for the body of her son

Christianity’s founder was executed on trumped-up charges of “subverting our nation” and “forbidding tribute to Caesar”. In the days immediately after his death, his followers could only “talk to each other about all these things that have happened.” In real danger themselves, they found courage as they remembered what he told them while he was still with them. He had said: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul”, or more simply, “Do not be afraid”.

This Christian remembering naturally aligns with the witness of others, notably in these days, with Alexei Navalny’s adhesion to truth. There is shared trauma here and a shared psychology. The “physics” of resurrection – the empty tomb – is often baffling to the modern mind. By contrast, the psychology of resurrection need not be. The Easter experience is extensively documented and available to us. That experience was one of shock, fear and overwhelming grief on the one hand and then amazement, disbelief, joy and courage on the other.

As they reel from the brutality of Alexei Navalny’s execution, his family and followers likewise experience devastating sorrow and a sense of helplessness. But there is also his enduring influence as seen in those brave Russians defying harassment and worse to lay flowers of tribute. Their witness recalls the experience of the Apostles, who were ordered “not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus”.

Vladimir Putin has consistently avoided uttering Alexei Navalny’s name, referring to him instead as “that character”, “this gentleman” and “a poor excuse for a politician”. Where Putin seeks to anonymise, Navalny continued to publicise the reality of the Russian regime, even from prison: “ ... don’t be afraid. This is our country, and we have only one ... The authorities fear those who aren’t afraid – or more precisely, those who might be afraid but who are able to overcome their fear ... We’ll make it (probably). I am fine and I have no regrets. And you shouldn’t either. Don’t despair. Everything will be fine. And even if it isn’t, we can console ourselves that we were honest people.”


Now, as then, world-weariness can intrude – questioning the utility of Navalny’s sacrifice

Navalny didn’t make it. Yet his enduring presence is captured in The New York Times headline: “In Death, Navalny Is Even More Dangerous to Putin’s Lies”. For that paper: “ Navalny spoke of his faith in God ... [He] was not afraid of suffering and chose to fight for what he believed in: ‘I believe in real love ... I believe that Russia will be happy and free. And I do not believe in death.’”

A text comes in from a Russian-speaking Irish friend, inviting me to sign an open letter of protest. That letter reads: “Dear Alexei Navalny: They killed you. Today, millions of us are weeping with your family and mourning your memory. Your courage is what dictators fear most ... Our world is holding its breath as wars rage in Ukraine and the Middle East. Facing these dark times, your legacy will give us strength ...”

So far more than 800,000 people have signed it, a digital discipleship expressing the same sense of shock and hope that marked the post-Calvary Christian experience.

At Calvary it was the women who remained throughout. It was the women who made their way to the tomb, the women who were the first messengers of the resurrection. And now we find Alexei’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, courageously to the fore, addressing the Munich Security Conference and EU ministers. Where Mary stood by the cross, Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, took her stand by the gates of the bleak Arctic prison to plead for the body of her son.

Of course there is another parallel between the narratives. Now, as then, world-weariness can intrude – questioning the utility of Navalny’s sacrifice. By this account, unless we see with our own eyes democracy established in Russia, his life and death will have been in vain. This Thomas-like acceptance of the unacceptable was anticipated by Alexei Navalny for his followers: “You are not allowed to give up ... If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong ... We need to utilise this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.”

Alexei Navalny died a lonely death. They took his body away and did not tell his family where they had laid him. His heroism is a unique witness to goodness and courage. At the same time, it also reverently evokes the prototype of all resurrection experiences.

John Redmond has recently concluded a master’s in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth