Generational Talent

February 16, 2024

Alexei Navalny is dead, murdered by the man whose corruption and brutality he dared to contest.
How is it, I sometimes hear from friends or relatives here, that in a country of 300 million we cannot find some more talented person to run for president? This, I believe, misunderstands the nature of politics. True political talent is extraordinarily rare. It is some combination of charisma, empathy, leadership, courage…I think of people like Barack Obama or Bobby Kennedy. You may think of others. Whatever one’s perspective, the list is short.

Alexei Navalny had that talent. He was, in fact, a generational talent. In postcommunist Russia, I can recall only one, maybe two others. Boris Yeltsin, who was Russia’s first retail politician. Perhaps Boris Nemtsov, whom Yeltsin shoved aside in favor of Vladimir Putin.

When I think of Navalny, I think of him on the hustings when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013. It was a glimpse of some alternative Russia in which there was room for talented politicians rather than corrupt functionaries. Smart, principled, and—not least—funny, Navalny built an organization staffed by people who believed in him. He met Muscovites where they lived; he asked for their votes. I thought then that he might be president someday. Putin must have feared the same.
In the prologue to her magisterial Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, Rebecca West writes of hearing a news alert from her hospital bed. “Switch on the telephone! I must speak to my husband at once,” she cries. “A most terrible thing has happened. The King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.” The nurse replies, “Oh, dear! Did you know him?” “No,” West says.” “Then why,” the nurse wonders, “do you think it’s so terrible?”

I did not know Alexei Navalny, though I know some who did. My heart is with them and with Navalny’s family. Yet the reason I lay in bed this morning, the reason this man in his fifties was reduced to tears, is because I understand why one man’s death can be so terrible. Generational talents come along…roughly once a generation. Navalny’s death leaves a hole.

I remember when Yitzhak Rabin was killed. Young and hopeful, I recall thinking that the peace process would survive him. I remember the friend who told me that assassins often get what they want. Yigal Amir got his way. Vladimir Putin may as well.
As I write, there are flowers at memorials to victims of Stalin’s repressions, flowers laid in memory of Alexei Navalny. In today’s Russia, even this small act requires courage. Russia does not lack courageous people. But for now, and after today, it lacks a person who can channel that courage into a movement for what Navalny never stopped to call the “beautiful Russia of the future.” Someday, another generational talent will appear, and perhaps Russians will then realize the future that could have been. Until then, there will only be despair.