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Navalny’s death shames those of us who merely ‘fornicate and read the papers’

Unthinkable: The Russian opposition leader risked his life for a cause. But he didn’t set out to be a martyr

How do you feel about the death of Alexei Navalny? Sad? Of course. Shame?

“Definitely. He puts us to shame,” replies Irish-American academic Robert Meagher. “I think there is a kind of grief too or mourning that there’s nothing in our life that would draw us outside ourselves to the extent that we would lose our life, or lose our obsession with our own life, or think of something larger than ourselves that draws us to others.

“It is an interminable selfishness that [Albert] Camus saw as the outcome of the 20th century, that we simply don’t have any connection. Others can cry out in pain and it’s actually a form of entertainment.”

When news of Navalny’s murder broke, Meagher was the first person I thought of speaking to. Not just to try to understand why I feel somehow chastened – “forgive us”, mourners cried at his funeral – but also to try to make sense of Navalny’s heroism.


Meagher is a world expert on the French-Algerian philosopher Camus who is often quoted – or misquoted – on the question of whether to give up your life for a cause.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes: “What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.” This is sometimes rephrased as: “If there’s something worth living for, there’s something worth dying for.”

However, the two statements are “not at all the same thing”, Meagher points out. Camus “fiercely attacked the irresponsible blood mysticism of some French intellectuals”, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, “who exalted the blood sacrifice of the Hungarian revolutionaries from the safe comfort of their desks”.

They were thinking “in the spirit of Patrick Pearse… that history required blood sacrifice, the spilling of martyrs’ bloods”. This “was something [Camus] strongly opposed”.

Camus showed courage throughout his life – fighting in the resistance against the Nazis and later making himself an enemy of the Soviets – “but then he wasn’t sacrificing his life, he was risking it”. Similarly, “Navalny knew he was risking his life but I don’t think he was seeking martyrdom”.

Camus’s death in a car crash in 1960 remains the subject of conjecture. Witnesses gave evidence pointing to sabotage and a recent book uncovered evidence he was assassinated by KGB agents over his anti-Soviet stance.

Camus was 46 when killed, Navalny 47 – the latter, according to his widow and his exiled team, at the hands of former KGB operative Vladimir Putin. They have accused Putin of ordering his murder to scupper his release in a prisoner exchange.

The parallels between Camus and Navalny are uncanny. Both partly worked in journalism – utilising the primary medium of their day. Both opposed fascist and fanatical ideologies.

In a famous exchange with an Algerian student, who was calling on Camus to back a guerrilla independence campaign that included planting bombs on trams, Camus noted his mother – then living in Algiers – could get killed in an attack. “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” Camus replied.

“It may be the most famous statement Camus ever made – and it was widely misquoted and misprinted,” says Meagher.

“He was urging respect for human life. He was basically saying that kind of justice is not worth my mother’s life. What he was rejecting was terrorism.”

What he also rejected, in words and deeds, was apathy. In his novel The Fall, Camus likened the condition of “modern man” to someone who “fornicated and read the papers”. Navalny similarly held up a mirror to us when he said, in a recording made before his return to Russia in 2021: “You’re not allowed to give up… Don’t be inactive.”

Both men believed in the power of small acts of integrity – and here they share something with another man targeted by Russia’s authoritarian regime. On February 25th 2022, as Putin’s tanks advanced on Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskiy (46) was widely expected to flee Ukraine to save his skin – only he didn’t. He declared in a social media broadcast “the president is here” in a mobilising act of defiance.

The author Timothy Snyder has spoken about how Zelenskiy’s decision to stay in Kyiv caught western observers by surprise. He put it down to “the politics of inevitability” – a belief that has taken hold in the weakened democracies of Europe and United States that we can’t stop the juggernaut of history; all we can do is run or hide – and hope we don’t get crushed.

Camus “despised Sartre and other French intellectuals for the Marxist belief in the necessity of history,” notes Meagher. Navalny insisted no individual was powerless. His widow Yulia Navalnaya has taken up the fight in his spirit, urging voters in Russian elections on March 17th to spoil their ballots or “just come and stand at the polling station and then turn around and go home”. Such small acts are far from futile.

But what can you or I do about injustice – be it overseas or domestic?

Camus suggests a couple of remedies. First, stop thinking of historical events as inevitable. Second, take risks in democratic debate – you might even make friends with someone you thought was an enemy.

“The most sacred bond for Camus was friendship,” says Meagher. “It’s hard to put in a simple recommendation ‘practise friendship’ or ‘make friends’ but I think the moral practice he would recommend is dialogue. He said we die without dialogue – certainly something within us dies without dialogue.”