Russia’s Mandela

The hope was that he was Russia’s Mandela.

The hope was that he was Russia’s Mandela. That Alexei Navalny would eventually emerge from prison to lead his nation into a new era.

That hope was dashed last week when it was announced he had died at the notorious “Polar Wolf” penal colony in the Arctic Circle.

Many were astounded when Russia’s key opposition figure voluntarily returned home, as he did in 2021, after surviving an outlandish poisoning attempt. He outlined his reasons in the closing statement of his 2021 trial. And like Mandela, he spoke of the sustaining power of his Christian faith. Formerly, he said, he was a militant atheist:

“But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities, because everything becomes much, much easier.”

Christians will argue endlessly about the political implications of the Bible, but Navalny found profound clarity in Scripture: “There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation. It is not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying.”

Navalny quoted Jesus’ teaching “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” as “an instruction to activity”. Thus he had no regrets and even a real satisfaction about his decision to return to Russia: “Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions, and did not betray the commandment.”

I dislike the rush to “claim” some heroic figure or another after death for a particular group. But if Navalny wished to own his faith so publicly at such a moment, it seems only right to acknowledge, in his death, what had become such a mainspring of his actions in life.

This column was first published on Facebook. 

Image credit: CC-2.0, Michał Siergiejevicz at