Prison outside of Moscow. June 10th. Late morning.
Navalny is seated at a table in a windowless room when Putin enters. Navalny glances at him but does not rise.
Putin closes the door which has a rectangular glass window through which a guard standing outside now looks into the room.
The table is bare.
A fluorescent light on the ceiling casts a greenish opaque light into the room.
Putin sits down across from Navalny.
The two men look at each other for a moment.
‘I beat you,’ says Putin without any expression.
Navalny smiles faintly, eyes riveted on Putin.
‘No, you haven’t.’
‘Yesterday, the courts labelled your group an extremist organization, so you won’t be able to be part of any election… and no one will want to come near you.’
‘I heard,’ replies Navalny, calmly. ‘The court is like your dog. Worse. And I pity those groveling judges… who’re willing to tarnish their names and that of their children, to satisfy you… people with no sense of history.’
‘You think you have a sense of history?’ asks Putin.
‘I do… and one day you will be sitting on this side of the table… because real judges, not clowns, will pass judgment on how you’ve misled our people and corrupted government.’
Putin shakes his head, dismissively, an expression of pity for Navalny.
‘I can’t deny you your fantasies… which is all you have left… just fantasies.’
Navalny has his eyes on Putin as he clasps his hands and rests them on the table.
‘I am in complete control of your life…’ continues Putin, ‘you live because I allow it.’
Navalny doesn’t flinch. ‘You really think you can keep the Russian people silent?’
‘I do,’ returns Putin, ‘not just silent but happy… for in surrendering to my will they have discovered they like it.’
Navalny turns away for a moment, the expression sad, as he thinks of the quiet agony of his beloved Russia, surrendering to the will of a man. How did it get to this point? Where were the bright lights of Russia, the intellectuals, the poets, the writers? Where were they that they didn’t scream in horror at their nation’s slow descent into their present state?
Navalny now glances at the guard peering into the room through the small glass window.
He returns to stare directly at Putin.
‘You may well kill me… I’m well aware it could happen any moment… even today… whenever you wish to give the order… but the movement I’ve started is far greater than me… I’m awakening this great country, my land… awakening them to see how you are holding them back… just so you can remain in power. Look at yourself… what regimes do you defend in this world? Assad in Syria, who’s been butchering his people for years… Myanmar’s generals who’re wantonly killing brave protesters … Maduro in Venezuela, who has impoverished and destroyed a once prosperous nation. In all of them, you have aided in the brutal repression of freedom… aided in the denial of people’s rights… while causing immeasurable suffering. Tell me, just how do you sleep at night?’
Putin smiles with self satisfaction. ‘Very well. Right through the night.’
Navalny closes his eyes for a moment, the expression grim.
‘Why did you want to see me?’ he asks. ‘What for?’
‘I’m not sure,’ begins Putin. ‘I suppose that I take pleasure in seeing an opponent defeated… maybe beg for mercy.’
‘Go to hell, man. Go to hell,’ replies Navalny angrily as he pulls up in his seat. ‘Do not imagine for a moment that you have crushed me or our movement. You will never do that. And none of us will ever beg for mercy from a despot like you. You can have me killed right now and I will die a free man, not a slave like the Russians who bow to you. So, go to hell, Putin.’
The guard at the window, struck by Navalny’s intensity, cracks the door open and takes a step in.
Putin calmly waves him off. The soldier closes the door and returns to looking through the window.
‘You cannot take our thirst for freedom from any of us,’ continues Navalny, firmly, ‘no matter how many rules you pass, no matter how many of us you poison, like you did with me… but you’ll never know what freedom is… no, it’s not in you… the only thing in you is the desire to oppress and control others.’
Putin sits back in his chair and crosses his arms. He stares at Navalny.
‘I didn’t poison you,’ he says calmly.
‘No? Then who did?’
‘I don’t know.’
Navalny shakes his head slowly as he looks down at the ground in disbelief.
‘There are other actors in Russia…’ says Putin softly.
‘People I have no control over.’
‘What a convenient excuse. I suppose that includes all those responsible for cyberattacks on other nations, and the hackers who interfered in the elections in America.’
The two men look at each other directly.
‘You really expect me to believe that?’
Putin shrugs his shoulders.
‘I believe nothing you say to me, nothing,’ says Navalny. He glances off for a moment, then returns to face Putin.
‘Why don’t you walk away while there’s still time… before you start turning your machine guns on Russians protesting in the streets… before you start massacring your brothers and sisters and our children in broad daylight…’
‘That will never happen,’ says Putin, calmly. ‘My great accomplishment… has been to turn Russia into a politically docile nation… capable of great accomplishments in other areas… but politically docile.’
‘Like in China,’ says Navalny.
‘China has learned much from us.’
‘Yes… the wrong lessons. I cannot understand how an intelligent man like you has chosen to ignore assisting your land in its development. I cannot understand how you stubbornly refuse to see that Russia needs to grow up… to evolve politically… to learn to give up supporting autocrats… communists… despots like you… and rise to become a nation that values freedom of expression… and to be able to support the quest for freedom in other nations… anywhere in the world.’
‘You want Russians to be like Americans?’
‘Russians need to learn how to become enlightened Russians. We may find things in common with Americans but we want to find our own path… like any other self respecting people in this world. We want to find our uniqueness.’
Putin nods slowly.
‘Americans have their own problems they are struggling with,’ continues Navalny, ‘like race, and the idolatry of the super entrepreneur, which has led to the absurdity of their not paying any taxes, which fosters inequality…but to their credit, Americans keep working on it. Sometimes they have a dinosaur sneak in to lead them, but they eventually get past them.’
Putin rubs his nose as he weighs Navalny’s words.
‘I am amazed to hear you talk… it’s like you live in another world… maybe that’s why I wanted to see you today.’
Putin leans forward a little, speaking softly.
‘Russians want nothing of what you talk about… they have found peace in their souls… and peace is having a strong boss… like Stalin… and yes, like me. They like to have a father figure who helps them go to sleep quietly at night… go to sleep knowing that their country is feared in the world… that no nation dares to pick a fight with us. But you don’t get that.’
‘You are so wrong about what Russians want…’ responds Navalny with fervor, his expression filled with wonder, ‘Russians want to dream… dream with their eyes open and under a bright sun… they want romance…’
‘Romance?’ asks Putin.
‘Yes, Russians want to fall in love with freedom… and all its possibilities.’
Quietly amused, Putin takes in Navalny’s enthusiasm. ‘I knew there was something wrong with you… but didn’t know you were a romantic.’
Navalny sits back in his chair. He now seems tired, despondent. How could Russians have endured this man governing them for 20 years?
Navalny closes his eyes for a moment. Why did Putin really come to see him?
He looks Putin in the eye. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I wonder about that, myself,’ replies Putin.
Putin has been thinking to himself that there is a strength about Navalny that he finds appealing… a commitment that drives the man to put his life on the line for his nation… to endure being poisoned and still return to Russia knowing he would be imprisoned, maybe even killed. And as Putin secretly admits to his rival’s boldness… the courage to defy whatever may stand in his way… even death itself… Putin quietly acknowledges that he envies Navalny.
‘Oh, yes…’ he begins again, ‘there was something I wanted to tell you… you know how there’s been talk that you would be awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace?’
Navalny looks intrigued. Yes, of course he knew that.
‘Well…’ continues Putin, ‘… now that our courts have ruled you and your movement an extremist group, I don’t think the West will have the guts to go forward with that idea.’
Navalny lets out a laugh.
‘You poor man,’ Navalny says, his expression bright again, ‘of course they will. They will do so now more than ever. Like the Americans say, just to rub it in.’
Putin frowns. ‘No, they won’t. They won’t dare embarrass me like that.’
‘Yes, they will,’ says Navalny defiantly, with relish. ‘Your actions labelling me an extremist just moved me to the front of the line.’
But Putin is not laughing.
‘And, of course, you won’t let me go receive the prize but I and all Russians with a thirst for freedom will smile in our hearts that the world acknowledges our yearnings.’
Navalny leans forward, brashly. ‘Is that what you really came here to tell me?’
Putin stares back at him with simmering anger.
‘The world is not afraid of you, Vladimir… they know who you are. They know what you mean, and they stand by the Russian people who want to be free.’
‘I will be meeting with Biden in Geneva on the 16th of this month…’ says Putin.
‘I know… just try to be on your best behavior when you meet…’
‘Because Biden is not Trump.’
Putin rises from his chair abruptly as he looks down at Navalny.
‘It is up to us to light up the fire that will warm the hearts of all Russians, and we will do it,’ says Navalny, with renewed strength.
‘And up to me to pour cold water on them,’ replies Putin, icily.
He turns and crosses to the door.
The guard opens it and he exits.
Oscar Valdes. Oscarvaldes.net