Foreign Policy Blogs

Putin’s Deadliest Catch: Snowden Joins Navalny in Moscow

Putins prized catch

As Edward Snowden slipped into Moscow this afternoon, asylum documents in hand, he joined another recently freed man: Alexey Navalny. Russia now has two famous cyber-whistleblowers on its hands, and hasn’t yet figured out what to do with either.

One thing is for sure, Putin’s planned meeting Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit is now looking increasingly unlikely.

The similarities between Snowden and Navalny are striking. Both have become famous for exposing the corruption and abuses of power that underpin the power centres of their respective societies. Both are creatures of the internet. Both are idealists who have an (overinflated?) belief in the power of unfiltered information to protect freedom. Both are young, fearless and ready to give up their lives for the causes they believe in. Both are photogenic, eloquent and extremely media savvy. Interestingly also, they are both politically slippery: their ideological beliefs do not clearly or readily fit into established paradigms of left and right.
Neither is without a dark side. For Navalny, it is the spectre of nationalism, the persistent reminders of the chauvinism and borderline racism for which he was once expelled from the liberal Yabloko party. He is also known to identify closely with neoliberalism, as Sean Guillory eloquently reminds us with his latest post. For his part, Snowden has been accused of hypocrisy in claiming to stand for freedom of information while seeking asylum in a country notorious for its state censorship and other civil rights abuses.

But perhaps the main thing that unites the two men is the threat they pose to the established order.

Navalny’s revelations that Russia’s ruling party was a “party of crooks and thieves” unravelled Putin’s key argument that he was the only man who could rescue the country from corruption. The whistleblower’s online campaign has made it impeccably clear that in fact, the reverse is true. Navalny is an existential threat to the Russian order because he has revealed not just what everyone already knew – that the government’s control is ultimately based on corruption – but the mechanism by which it operates. Those kinds of revelations make it possible for people to take concrete actions. It is the agency that Navalny has made possible that scares the government.

Similarly, on one level, Snowden’s revelations of U.S. cyber-surveillance merely confirmed what many have long suspected. However, by revealing the details of the specific operations and how they work, Snowden has not only exposed the hypocrisy of American claims to be guarantors of freedom, but also given people practical ideas as to how exactly to push back against the new surveillance state.

It’s no wonder that Obama would like to do to Snowden what Putin is planning to do with Navalny: throw them in jail and lock away the key. The identical behavior of democratic America and authoritarian Russia in response to these respective existential threats proves that the two great powers have a lot more in common than they would like to admit.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs