Alexej Navalny (Mitya Aleshkovsky/Wikimedia Commons)

Navalny: a rose is forever

What happened in Russia on February 16 reopened a wound that we were getting used to. And it reminded everyone again that “nothing exists without freedom.” After the death of the opposition leader, here is the provocation that his life represents.
Giovanna Parravicini

Something has changed in Russia in recent days – something that, despite the tragic nature of the moment, gives new hope. The death of Aleksej Navalny has reopened a wound that, month after month, seemed to be slowly anaesthetising. Unfortunately, we get used to everything, even to a war that seems so far away, and whose real dimensions cannot be perceived, at least from the country’s big cities where life continues in apparent normality. Or it all dissolves into political considerations about the wrongs and motives of the world's superpowers, which generally end with the soothing mantra “things are not so clear-cut,” which allows you not to take sides or to choose the most comfortable position.

What changed last Friday, February 16? Suddenly we were faced with a man who gave his life for what he believed in, and gave it consciously, from the moment he decided to return to Russia on January 17, 2021, from Germany, where he had been rushed for treatment following a poisoning attempt. There they detained him at the airport and sentenced him several times (the last was in August, where he was sentenced to 19 years in a special regime prison; he spent about 300 days in an isolation cell).

The 'political' Navalny and his positions can be debated. Certainly, not everyone agreed with the programmes he presented in the past. But Navalny was also a man who risked right up to the end, with all his humanity. This can be seen, for example, in his post for Easter 2014, in which he, a convert after having been an “atheist until the age of 25, and a rather militant one at that,” wished everyone a Happy Easter in his easy-going language, both “Orthodox and non-Orthodox, non-believers and atheists”, because, as he asserted, “it seems to me that Easter can claim the title of Everyone's Holiday. It is definitely better than New Year's Eve, my friends.”

Thinking back to the Passion of Christ, without censoring questions and perplexity, but fascinated by the new perspective that opened up before him: "What are all our 'difficulties' and 'problems' compared to what He had to experience? But Good, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity still prevailed. (Yes, I too find it strange that all these things are written with capital letters, but how else can they be spelled?). And they will always win. It is written in a strange sentence in an incomprehensible language, now repeated a million times over: ‘Christ rose from the dead, by his death he trampled down death and gave life to those who were in tombs’. Happy Resurrection Day to all of you, believers and non-believers alike. Happy feast of the inevitable victory of Good!"

Perhaps it was precisely this intuition that suddenly, after months of passivity, prompted thousands of people across the country to go and lay flowers on make-shift altars or memorials dedicated to him, defying the presence of the police and even arrests (during which some 400 people were arrested). Late on Friday afternoon, many people spontaneously found themselves in the streets, walking in the same direction towards Moscow, in particular towards the stone from the Solovki monastery-prison in Lubyanka Square (the KGB headquarters), and the 'wailing wall', the monument to the victims of the repressions erected in 2017. The rose that each person held in their hand was like a signal, the symbol of the same heart that beats in each person, of the same truth that imposed itself on each person: one can give one's life to affirm something that is worth more than life. It was not impotent anger that stirred in their souls, but a moved astonishment: that humanity can be so great and fearless, and that in its name we can recognise ourselves together, on the same path. There was a need to look at each other, to recognise that we were united, of which the heap of roses that continued to grow, like a giant red flower on the snow, was the emblem.

Navalny's roses reminded me of the white ribbons of the 'freedom walks' that people put up as a sign of protest after the electoral fraud of 2011, but above all as a sign of solidarity, of recognition of a dignity, truth, human freedom, which cannot be suppressed by any totalitarian regime, of responsibility for building a civil society on a human scale. It seems like an eternity since then, gestures that seemed harmless can now cost freedom or even life, demonstrations that seemed the norm now seem unfeasible, many of the protestors have had to flee abroad... Yet those roses indicate that the flame continues to smoulder, and the testimony of a righteous person can suddenly make it blaze and burn.

Those roses also reminded me of another post by Navalny, about how he came out of his coma, thanks to the presence of his wife. For it is he, after all, who now helps us out of our daily 'coma': “I am lying down. I have already come out of the coma, but I do not recognise anyone, I do not understand what is happening. I do not speak and I do not know what it means to speak. And all my time is spent waiting for Her to come. It is not clear who She is. I do not know what she looks like. Even with a blurry look I can see something, I can't fix the image. But She is different, that is clear to me, so I always stand there waiting for Her. She enters and takes charge of the room. She adjusts my pillow. She does not have a quiet tone of compassion. She speaks cheerfully and laughs. She tells me things. When she is around, the stupid hallucinations go away. With her I feel very well. Then she leaves and I become sad and start waiting for her again. I have no doubt that there is a scientific explanation for this. I would pick up the timbre of my wife's voice, my brain would release dopamine, and I would feel better. Her every arrival literally became a cure, and the effect of anticipation reinforced that of dopamine. But as beautiful as the scientific and medical explanation may sound, I now know from experience: love heals and brings back life. Julia, you saved me and let them write it in the neurobiology textbooks.”

Read also – Fr. Giussani: "Christianity as an event today"

If it is true that there are immutable realities for eternity – and judgement is one of them – each rose laid in the snow on the Solovki stone remains forever. One by one, they are signs that refer to the essential, like so many others that, emerging suddenly within the fabric of events, fill us with wonder and emotion. Like, for example, the fact that Jurij Ševčuk, leader of the rock group DDT, during a concert in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, dedicated the song Freedom to Navalny and, commemorating his death, said: “To us Russians, he spoke of freedom. And he spoke about it well. He reminded us that we can all become free in the best sense of the word.” And he went on to say: “Because faith without freedom is fanaticism, good and proper. And work without freedom is slavery. A heavy, very heavy slavery. And love without freedom is despotism. Nothing exists without freedom. Everything is tinged with black.” These are the words uttered a few weeks earlier by Fr. Aleksej Uminskij (an Orthodox priest reduced to the lay state for refusing to pray for victory), to indicate the responsibility that lies ahead for each of us, and from which we cannot exempt ourselves whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The fact that a rock star repeated the words of an Orthodox priest on a stage to thousands of fans means that an authentic word follows unimaginable paths and produces unimaginable effects, that there are links dictated by the very heart of the person, irreducible to the web of silences and half-truths that seem to want to ensnare us today. From his imprisonment, Navalny could assert that he was not afraid and exhorted everyone not to be, precisely because he had experienced that “love heals and brings back to life,” and he had also intuited the existence of a greater Love, with a capital letter, which gives meaning and fruitfulness to every sacrifice and generates unity. Within the person and between people. In unpredictable but certain ways.