By now, you have probably seen the news that Aleksei Navalny, another leading critic of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, appears to have been poisoned. It must seem so horrible, but also, perhaps like the kind of thing that does happen “over there,” in Russia, in Belarus, in authoritarian states.
It’s much more horrible up close. Sometimes I find it hard to believe this is my life. I have known too many attacked in a similar way as my friend Aleksei seems to have been. And in what feels like a terrible instance of déjà vu, it was less than two years ago that we were working with the same activists to arrange the same flight to the same hospital in Germany to evacuate and treat the father of my child, Pyotr, when he was unconscious from poisoning.
We were getting the same runaround from doctors in Russia, who were putting out the same type of ridiculous stories that it wasn’t poison, that maybe he had done this to himself. And in the same way, they delayed the transfer while the trace of toxins vanished from his blood. It was horrible to sit by his bed there in Berlin, as Aleksei’s wife, Yulia, is doing now, and think I may never fully get back this person I call Petya, this person I love, this vital, funny, kind person.
What political end could be worth doing this to another human being? I will tell you that there were times I would just go outside for a walk, because what else could you do, and there were times we would tell a joke by his hospital bed, something to try to have a laugh, to cut the tension, to cut the awfulness of this thing that was happening.
Three fellow dissidents whom I’ve known personally have been murdered (Boris Nemtsov, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov) and two beaten almost to death (Mikhail Beketov and Oleg Kashin). I myself was sent to prison for two years just for singing a song, and many, many activists in my country have been sentenced to more time and suffered far worse fates. This is the reality I live with day to day, that we in Russia and my friends in Belarus are living with day to day. You learn to live with it, to fight it as you can, deal with it how you can, but it becomes your life.
And of course it’s not just activists who are targeted by Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism: The greed and corruption of this president and a handful of families that are close to him affects everyone, every day. Inequality is skyrocketing in Russia. Unrest is growing. Many Russians are tired of backward-looking, post-imperial, oppressive, Cold War-style politics and ready to become a forward-looking country focused on building infrastructure, better schools and health care. Since the 2018 election, Mr. Putin’s popularity has been on the decline, hitting an all-time low of 59 percent in May.
Our president has only just recently had the law changed so that he can stay in power until 2036, but his program of repression didn’t start out this blatantly. These things happen in pieces, bit by bit, small acts. And each one may even seem relatively benign at first, perhaps bad, but not fatal. You get angry, maybe you speak out, but you get on with your life. The promise of our democracy was chipped away in pieces, one by one: corrupt cronies appointed, presidential orders issued, actions taken, laws passed, votes rigged. It happens slowly, intermittently; sometimes we couldn’t see how steadily. Autocracy crept in, like the coward it is.
Nadya Tolokonnikova is an artist and activist and a founder of the band Pussy Riot.
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