Aleksej Navalny in 2007. Foto: Aleksej Yushenkov Bron: Wiki Commons

Roel van Duijn: The return of the hero Navalny

Heavy protests in the streets of Moscow after Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 3,5 years in a penal colony. “They imprison one man, as a means to intimidate millions of people,” Navalny said. Will his endless suffering in the end free his country from a tyrant?


By Roel van Duijn

Alexei Navalny is a classic hero, one who seeks and finds the meaning of life.

For more than twelve years he has been fighting a struggle of life and death with the government of Russia and he’s been shooting his arrows into the bullseye. This bullseye is the nastiest disease in the country: the infectious corruption. Time and again Navalny is imprisoned at demonstrations and under pretexts. His face was pelted with a caustic liquid, turning it green and blinding one eye. At his last conviction, for so-called theft of money at a lumberyard, a faked charge, he was conditionally sentenced to three and a half years in prison. As of this writing, it is safe to predict that when you read this he will be imprisoned somewhere far away. Because what is he up to? He survived an attack because he was allowed to go to the doctor in the nick of time, boldly enough abroad.

What made him definitely a hero is that he found the courage to fly back to Moscow. Knowing what to expect. That is unique.

Are there more examples in Russian history of such a heroic return to the motherland?

There are plenty of exiles in their history, but Litvinenko, the former spy who fled to London, stayed there and was murdered by his former colleagues. Khodorkovsky, owner of the oil company Yukos who did not want to join the oligarchic circle around Putin and financially supported the opposition, disappeared in a prison near the Chinese border for seven years, and was forced to move to Switzerland after his release in 2013. But he lacks the extraordinary courage to return. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writer, did return. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because in his books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, he had masterfully exposed the derelict system in the camps. He returned in 1994 elevated with the Nobel Prize to receive an award, which he refused, but he was able to live a life full of accolades until his death. What made him a hero were his books, but not his return. It was warm and risk-free.

There was another, who was not welcome and yet returned. That was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, like Navalny, a lawyer by profession. As communist leader in 1907, he had fled Tsarist police violence and settled in Switzerland – as Khodorkovsky did more recently. Lenin was a Marxist theorist and teacher, and when he returned in April 1917, he managed to transform Russia into another country within a year. All over the former Russia, which he now called the Soviet Union, statues were erected and paintings were painted of him. He had become an official hero, but there was still a big difference between his return and Navalny’s. Like Navalny, he had experienced the support of Germany, but the support for Lenin had nothing to do with respect for human rights. Support for Lenin was part of the German warfare. At that late stage in the World War, that country was painfully trapped between the Western and Eastern fronts. To attack France anew with force, the Emperor and his generals devised a ruse to eliminate Russia. They sent Lenin, with about twenty comrades who wanted Russia to stop fighting, on a sealed train to St. Petersburg. Not without money. He received about 70 million euros for propaganda for the cessation of warfare, the overthrow of Kerensky’s provisional revolutionary government, and the building of his party. The origin of all that money, with which Lenin instantly outshone his dissenting party members, had to remain strictly secret. In my view, Lenin was on his return, with the support of dictatorial Germany, not a hero but a pawn in the game of the belligerent enemy. A true hero relies solely on his own strength and bravery. And that’s what’s special about Navalny’s unprotected return.

Fortunately for Lenin, no one knew about the Germans’ money. Unfortunately for Navalny, many Russians believed Putin’s lies that he is a Western spy and that the attack on him was nothing but a stunt by Navalny himself. But the true hero keeps going. And some Russians pick up on that and it moves them. While Russia experts still wrote before Navalny’s return that there was general apathy in the country, his audacious return turned the dullness into rebellion.

What is the magic of a hero’s return?

American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) delved into hundreds of myths and classic folktales, and, according to him, all of these beloved stories revolve around the hero’s return. Time and again, he says, the protagonist is forced to leave his safe environment by an inner calling or a stroke of fate. To endure a trial by fire in an unknown land and to return triumphantly. You come across this even in simple fairytales like Frau Holle. The poor girl leaves home, fulfills the tasks that Mrs. Holle assigns her, walks through the gate from which gold rains and returns home rich. Departure, initiation, fulfillment of the task, and return. That’s the basic scheme.

The same for blogger Navalny.

His departure from Russia must have initially been a mystery to him. Screaming in pain on a plane, a hospital here, a hospital there. In a coma, he does not even know that he is in Berlin, after all, his departure was unintentional. This fits with the basic scheme of the hero story: fate likes to have a say when a hero leaves. His job is to recover from Novichok poisoning; indeed, this gives the hero a super strong feat and moreover he unmasks one of the perpetrators of the attack. On his return, he is caught, immediately brought before the court, and is convicted, but a few days later he hears about the massive demonstrations across the country.When he is now in prison, the demonstrations will continue. Navalny’s return gloriously fits the mythological scheme and thus has struck a chord in the human soul.

And there is one more thing that truly fits this 44-year-old man from Moscow. In the mythological scheme, the hero returns home with a treasure. In Navalny’s case, it is the film about the secret palace of Putin’s, the enemy to be defeated. The film is a treasure as it has been clicked more than 90 million times and has motivated many anti-Putin protesters to take to the streets, despite police, despite punishment.

Does that also mean he will win? That we are entering a year in which not only Trump but also his dictatorial friend Putin must leave the scene, as the corrupt fraudster that he is?

Vladimir Putin arrests, punishes, tortures, and can pay his police, for now. He does not have to be afraid of elections because he arranges the results with one nod to the chairman of the electoral committee. Navalny is not allowed to participate while Putin is in power. Even his wife or friends of Navalny cannot prevent Putin from running. And the media, primarily television, is under his thumb. How can the imprisoned Navalny ever break his power?

Lenin returned in April 1917, and in July a workers’ revolt flared up in Petersburg and was crushed. Lenin had to flee again, now to Finland. An apparent defeat, but a few months later he returned once more and now the official but false hero Lenin triumphed.

The course of Lenin’s return shows that the real hero Navalny does not have to be immediately successful in order to be at the head of another Russia in the long run. The owner of the secret palace will do everything he can to get in Navalny’s way. He would rather not give a new order to his secret service to kill him with nerve gas, that is becoming apparent. But he will have the man he calls “Nobody” perform forced labor or freeze on an Arctic island. Is Nobody then eliminated?

The fact that Putin gave him that name can make him look ugly. When the hero Odysseus was imprisoned by the Cyclops in his cave, he said his name was Nobody. One night, Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk, and he and his crew put out the one eye of the monster with a burning log. The hero could then cunningly escape the blinded giant and it did not help him to cry out to his fellow cyclops for help, for when they asked who had blinded him, he roared: “Nobody!” Odysseus now returned safely to his wife in Greece and had the strength to massacre all the occupiers of his house.

The consummate hero Navalny has gone through fire. He has given himself a halo of invulnerability and he certainly has a chance. Success does not necessarily mean that he will conquer the power himself. The Jewish hero Moses died before he himself could enter the Promised Land. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out the night before his death that he probably would not be with his people much longer. The success of a hero is that he brings a new spirit and through that his aspirations get the strength of a hurricane.

At least that is what the universal hero stories, from Frau Holle to The Odyssey, teach us about the future of Alexei Navalny in Russia.


Roel van Duijn is a former Dutch politician and elderman of Amsterdam (1943). In the Sixties he was the founder of the highly influential Provo-movement. Now historian and author of many books, of which the latest is ‘A son for the Führer, the Nazi Utopia of Julia op ten Noort’ , Van Duijn is living in Amsterdam and Fulda in Germany. 

Translated from the Dutch by Pamela Docters