The medical consensus is that it takes roughly two months for someone to die of starvation. Dying, as Gore Vidal drily observed, can be a good career move, but it has its downside. For a hunger strike to succeed, two conditions must be met: first, mere dilettantes and dabblers need not apply because the authorities need to be convinced of your commitment and preparedness to lay down your life; second, they need to care if you do.
It is the euphemism of the millennium to say Alex Navalny is not well. He is suffering from the following: a spinal hernia, sciatica, a bulging disc, tuberculosis, a high temperature, a hacking cough, and the loss of feeling in his legs and hands. He has shed 13 kilogrammes. Don’t worry, though, the prison ‘doctors’ had something for that. They gave him a coronavirus (COVID-19) test. Negative. There are any number of things which may cause his death, but coronavirus is not among them. Whatever does not kill you does not make you stronger; it makes you go ‘’Ow’.
Putin’s press poodle, Peskov, noted The Unknown Blogger was not entitled to special treatment, which makes you wonder what normal treatment looks like and if everyone in Russia is entitled to a course of Novichok on the national health system?
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, warned Putin that if her husband were to die ‘his death would be on Putin’s conscience’ but there’s an obvious problem with this admonition: the Russian president does not have one. I do not recall ever detecting bags under Putin’s eyes betraying sleepless nights after the downing of MH17 but perhaps the Botox treatment conceals this. Whatever is inside Putin (other than Peskov and occasionally Medvedev) was inserted with a screwdriver. The Kremlin is utterly bereft of any moral dimension.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was despatched to the Gulag during its grimmest years just after WWII when hunger strikes seemed redundant given the shortage of food, articulated the dilemma: ‘We have derived a naïve faith in the power of the hunger strike…it’s a purely moral weapon. It presupposes that the gaoler has not lost his conscience’. You can see where I’m going with that. Solzhenitsyn spent more than a decade incarcerated in some form or other and critics always claimed his eventual release was a reward for turning informant rather than a capitulation to political pressure.
There is a long tradition of dissidents resorting to hunger strikes both in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union but the amorality/inhumanity of successive regimes undermined its impact. Andrei Sakharov is perhaps the best known. The West loved him and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize for his troubles but it did not help his cause at home, where he was declared ‘Domestic Enemy No.1’ by KGB boss Yuri Andropov. Even under the generally benign leadership of Gorbachev in the mid-80s, the Ukrainian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, spent large parts of her imprisonment in a strict-regime labour camp on hunger strikes, and the title of her memoir, “Grey is the Colour of Hope’, tells you how that went.
In recent years Pussy Riot and several Ukrainian political prisoners all tried to force the hand that (force) fed them without tangible success. The more attention a political prisoner receives outside the Russian Federation, the less likely that prisoner will be treated leniently or even fairly by the gigantic meat-grinder within. Force-fed a constant diet of state propaganda, one half of Russians canvassed think Navalny is rightly imprisoned.
Such is the adamantine clamp in which the Kremlin grips Russian society, the possibility of grass roots opposition being able to mount a real threat to Putin’s regime is slender. External support may be the best hope for Navalny and the democratic, anti-corruption movement, but the main problem here is the multitude of problems besetting the West in its dealings with Russia. Sure, Angela Merkel brought up the issue of Navalny’s treatment in a call with Putin today, but this was just part of a wider conversation encompassing Syria, Libya, the Donbass, Crimea, cyber-warfare and Nord Stream II, and she probably had to overlook a few. American presidents and European leaders spend their time racing firetrucks round the world, hosing down blazes wherever the Russians have just committed diplomatic arson last. For the most part, the West simply responds to an agenda set by the Kremlin.
This is the predicament of NATO and the West. Russia occupies huge geopolitical bandwidth and requires infinite diplomatic capital, because they are active across so many fronts. If you are a Western leader you will have to devote more time and resources to addressing Russia’s congenital malefaction than its relative size and importance would otherwise demand. Russia can exploit multiple bones of contention to create distractions and extract concessions elsewhere and they will exert leverage by any means, foul or fair. Disproportionate and asymmetric is the modus operandi. Navalny’s misfortune is to be just one dish served up in the banquet of East-West contention. He could easily end up as just another bargaining chip in the give-and-take of realpolitik.
Putin’s strategic vision is overestimated. He is a tactician who plays a bad hand well, mostly because he ignores the rules to which other democratic leaders are bound. There is a huge economic price paid by Russians for this, a price set to rise further when enhanced sanctions are imposed by the West, as they surely must be, but for the Kremlin and the oligarchy this is of secondary importance. The maintenance of political stability and control of economic power is the sole objective.
While Navalny was having his throat swabbed yesterday and begging for medical attention, Vladimir Putin was signing into law a bill that will enable him to remain Mafia Don until 2036. Juxtapose those two images.