Navalny is the latest victim of the Russian deep state’s merciless treatment of dissidents
I still vividly recall the time I lived in a rundown part of Hollywood. I was renting a tiny studio apartment on Sycamore Avenue, just off Hollywood Boulevard, having moved there with the intention of establishing a career as a screenwriter. This was twenty years ago now and every night the area would come alive with a cocktail of desperate marginalised humanity.
In the building next to mine lived a group of transvestite hookers and whenever passing by they’d proposition you from their windows. Having successfully made it past you would invariably encounter one of the many crackheads who also lived in the street, doing your best to avoid any engagement longer than a few seconds as a police chopper circled overhead, its spotlight light scanning the streets below looking for whoever and whatever. On the corner of Sycamore and Hollywood, meanwhile, members of the local gang were always out selling drugs. Once they knew that you belonged and were not a threat they were cool though, and in time you would even get to know some of them.
But of all the various types who colonised this part of the world, the award for the most sinister and must-be-avoided easily went to the Scientologists, operating out of the opulent building on the opposite corner from the one the gang members occupied. The glazed look in their eyes was accompanied by stuck on smiles as they proselytised relentlessly, inviting you to partake of the higher truth which they and only they were in possession of. Whenever I walked past them, quickly, I would ponder the order of desperation it takes for people to seek sanctuary and solace in a cult which exists on the premise of a rejection of the real world, with all its attendant complexities and disappointments, torn between feelings of disdain and sympathy for those who had.
If anyone had put it to me then that some 15 years later I would find myself joining a cult, underpinned by the same rejection of reality, I would have been mortified. Yet that is precisely where I found myself with my association with Russian media. As a regular contributor to RT for the best part of seven years, and also Sputnik International for two years, I lost count of the number of times I gave live interviews that were less about analysing major events and breaking stories, and more about trotting out the party line.
For example, when MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, I was contacted by RT in Moscow and asked to write an article refuting the allegations in the West that it had been downed by Russian backed rebels with a BUK anti aircraft missile system supplied by Moscow. It was at such times you were expected to hit one for the team, even though you knew in your heart that you were doing so at the cost of your own integrity. Rather than allow that to happen, I would endeavour to sit on the fence instead of emphatically denying what I knew to be true — i.e. that MH17 was indeed shot down by Russian-backed rebels, albeit undoubtedly accidentally; i.e. that the Skripals were poisoned by Russian state actors, as was most recently Alexei Navalny.
When it came to the aforementioned article on the downing of MH17, by the way, the editor in Moscow rejected my initial draft, I recall, on the basis that it was insufficiently rigorous in its refutation of the allegations that Russian-backed rebels were responsible.
Overall, my experience of working within the belly of the beast of Russian state media confirmed to me that the adage, ‘It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it’, is 100 percent true. To witness the intellectual contortions its reporters and contributors routinely perform in their coverage and analysis of major events is to witness the presentation of an alternative reality spinning on an axis of unreality.
When it comes to the poisoning of arch Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, just on the basis of Occam’s razor — the theory that of all the competing explanations of an event, the simpler one is most likely to be correct — the notion that German doctors and intelligence would falsify their diagnosis and assertion of Novichok as the substance used to try and kill or silence him, and that Angela Merkel would potentially imperil the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project which Germany and Russia are involved in by going public with such a false accusation, this is fanciful at best and simply ludicrous at worst.
That 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, 34 of them since 2000 under Putin’s watch, stands as an indictment while being reflective of the extent to which the legacy of political violence and gangsterism that pervaded in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union is yet to be eradicated.
The most high profile act of political violence in Russia involved the assassination of influential Putin critic Boris Nemtsov on 27 February 2015. Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge in close proximity to the Kremlin two days before he was due to attend a rally in protest at Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Nemtsov was also a vocal and longstanding critic of government corruption and Putin’s authoritarian leadership. This was no ordinary political murder. Here was someone who’d previously enjoyed a glittering political career under Boris Yeltsin, rising to the post of deputy prime minister in 1998 before resigning when Yeltsin dissolved the government. A trained physicist, Nemtsov was also prominent in the transition to capitalism in Russia in the 1990s.
Boris Nemtsov was inarguably a thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side, someone whom unlike Navalny carried real political weight in the country as a man widely considered to have been of estimable moral integrity. Though five men, all Chechens, were tried and convicted of Nemtsov’s murder in 2017, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna Nemtsova, and others, maintain that they are still waiting for justice.[iii]
Other high profile Putin critics who’ve died in dubious circumstances are businessman Nikolai Glushkov, businessman and oligarch Boris Berezovksy, human rights activist Nastya Estimerova, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. There was also the murder/execution of Chechen separatist Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019. Putin described Khangoshvili as a “cruel and bloodthirsty person” in response to his death, alleging that he was one of the organisers of the Moscow metro terrorist attack in 2010, which claimed the lives of 98 people.
The most controversial extra-territorial attempt to settle accounts with an enemy of the Russian state involved former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal. He, along with his daughter Julia, are alleged to have been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok by GRU agents in Salisbury, England, where Sergei was living in exile and where his daughter was visiting him at the time of the attack on 4 March 2018.[iv]
Though there remain serious questions surrounding the circumstances of the attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia, taking things in the round — the way that so many high profile critics of Vladimir Putin have been murdered or died in suspicious ways — it’s impossible escape the conclusion that the Russian deep state is running its own version of Murder Inc. when it comes to dealing with opponents of Putin and those considered traitors to Russia under his leadership.
Of course, within the environs of the cult of RT and Sputnik International, it’s all a dastardly plot by Western governments, intelligence agencies and media to undermine Dear Leader Vladimir Putin. On this, speaking for myself, my father passed away 13 years ago now and I have no wish or desire to replace him, neither with Vladimir Putin or anybody else.
If my experience has taught me anything it’s that leaving the cult that is Russian media is akin to getting back on your feet again after years spent standing on your head.
[i] See https://cpj.org/europe/russia/.
[iv] For a comprehensive background to the Skripal case, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/09/world/europe/sergei-skripal-russian-spy-poisoning.html.