Alexei Navalny’s hunger strike in a penal colony to the east of Moscow has a particular resonance in Ireland, where the hunger strike has played a role in politics, both national and local, from the mists of the country’s pre-Christian Celtic culture up to the 1980s, when Bobby Sands, a republican prisoner and member of the British Parliament, died after a 66-day fast in a Northern Ireland prison.
Navalny and Sands have different demands, but their methods are similar. What the two have in common is their use of a tactic that has shown in the past to be exceptionally effective at bringing attention to political causes. In Ireland hunger strikes have met with success through the creation of political martyrs; it remains to be seen if the same will be true for Navalny.
Hunger strikers have twice played key roles in Irish history. In the Republic of Ireland, the part of the island that gained independence from Britain in 1922, schoolchildren are taught of a martyr called Terence MacSwiney who died in Brixton Prison in London in October 1920. He had been found guilty of possession of “seditious materials” and a cipher key and was sentenced to six years in prison. He immediately went on hunger strike. The international attention he drew was immense for MacSwiney was no ordinary prisoner. He was the Lord Mayor of Cork, the third largest city on the island of Ireland.
The French newspaper Le Petit Journal devoted its entire front page to a striking, if imaginary, drawing of an emaciated MacSwiney on his prison bed. Daily bulletins on his condition attracted international attention and, when he died after 74 days without food, there were protests in the form of mock funerals with empty caskets in Boston, Chicago and Melbourne, Australia. The report of his death was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times of October 26, 1920.
A small anti-colonial struggle in a very small country had become a major world news story. A lesson was learned that the hunger strike, with its daily bulletins of deteriorating health and approaching death, was an unmatched method of gaining national and international attention. In MacSwiney’s case it also served as a “recruiting sergeant” for the Irish Republican Army in its attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland. Two years later independence was granted to two-thirds of Ireland — a remarkable achievement of a small group of political and military activists against what was then the world’s most powerful empire.
Irish republicans knew they did not have the power to win a military victory over such a powerful opponent, but they were among the first groups in the world to recognize the power of international publicity. They used it with great power and efficiency, and the hunger strikes played an extremely important role in gathering support for their cause. Nowhere was this support more effective than in the United States, and pressure on London from American politicians and the general public was decisive in persuading Britain to let go of its oldest colony.
Six decades later, the MacSwiney case was very much in the minds of those who took on the hunger strike as a weapon in Northern Ireland in 1981. The treaty signed in London in 1922 had given 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties independence within the British Commonwealth on a basis similar to Canada and Australia. Those 26 counties later left the Commonwealth and became what is known as the Republic of Ireland with its capital in Dublin. The six northeastern counties remained part of the United Kingdom under the name Northern Ireland but they contained a substantial minority of areas, mainly Catholic, that wanted unification with the Republic.
The “Troubles,” as they came to be known, led to extreme violence by a newly formed IRA. Bars, restaurants and places of entertainment were bombed. Innocent people’s lives became tools in a political struggle. In 1971 the British government introduced “internment” or imprisonment without trial in a sweeping measure across Northern Ireland. Many of those interned were subjected to “inhuman and degrading treatment” — a euphemism that stopped short of describing certain actions as torture.
Ten years later, republican prisoners went on hunger strike with a series of five demands. They considered themselves political prisoners, rather than mere criminals, and demanded the right to wear their own civilian clothes and to freely associate with one another, no prison work, regular visits, letters and parcels, and restoration of remission of their sentences lost through their protests.
The hunger strikes were staggered at intervals to prolong the attention they attracted. The most prominent of the hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected during the hunger strike as a member of Parliament at Westminster for the Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The comparison with MacSwiney was now complete: a democratically elected public representative was on the way, slowly, to his death.
The British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resolutely opposed any concessions to the protesters. When Sands died on the 66th day of his fast she announced that he was “a convicted criminal who had taken his own life.” The same attitude was taken to the deaths of the other hunger strikers who followed Sands to the grave. Catholic prelates in England and Ireland were divided on the issue, with England’s Cardinal Basil Hume following the Thatcher line and Ireland’s Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich opposing it.
Once more the attention of the world was drawn to Ireland by a hunger strike. Once more the hunger strike, its consequent deaths and London’s intransigence acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.
The IRA and its supporters had learned their lessons from MacSwiney’s hunger strike 60 years earlier and applied them with apparent success, but can the same lessons can be learned in Russia from Navalny’s hunger strike?
To start with, Navalny’s demands are very different from those of either MacSwiney or Sands. He simply wants to be cared for by his own personal doctor.
The Kremlin has in the past echoed Thatcher’s description of Sands as a convicted criminal when referring to Navalny. He has, after all, been arrested and imprisoned several times and has regularly been called a criminal by supporters of Vladimir Putin.
I have seen Navalny in action at protests in Moscow, where demonstrations are so strictly regulated that it is very easy to break the law. I have no doubt that he has, on occasion, deliberately got himself arrested and on one occasion I saw him confer with his communist fellow demonstrator Sergei Udaltsov in order to prolong a meeting past its legal time limit. In those days, arrests were followed by short terms of imprisonment and demonstrators and authorities alike gained from them. Navalny’s serial imprisonments gained him sympathy and publicity at home and abroad, but they also allowed the Kremlin to point him out as an incorrigible lawbreaker.
That ended last summer with the attempt by Russian security services to kill Navalny in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Since then, however, Russia’s approach appears to have mellowed, and the government appears to be taking steps to avoid the mistakes British leaders made with Irish hunger strikers. Moscow’s ambassador to London, Andrei Kelin, has stated that Russia will not allow Navalny to die in prison and one presumes that he was speaking after consultation with the Foreign Ministry rather than stating a personal view. It seems unlikely, therefore, that, if Navalny dies, Russian President Vladimir Putin will echo Thatcher’s strident announcement of a suicide attempt by a convicted criminal. The regime may have wanted their most prominent enemy out of the way when they had a chance to eliminate him in Siberia, but things have changed. He is now in their care and if he dies blame cannot be directed elsewhere.
For their part, Navalny’s supporters appear to have learned some, but perhaps not all, the lessons from past hunger strikes and are using every opportunity to draw attention to his plight. He is reported to be near death just three weeks into his fast whereas in the case of MacSwiney and Sands their deaths did not occur until well into their ninth and tenth weeks. It is possible that Navalny’s general health is in such a poor state after his poisoning with Novichok last summer that he is likely to die after a much shorter fast. The one way to be sure of this is to allow his doctor, or an independent non-Russian medic, to care for him, which would mean Navalny could start taking nourishment again. Starving to death is hardly worth it for such a minor reward.
If the Kremlin lets Navalny die, the comparison with MacSwiney and Sands would come to an end. In Irish history those who died were replaced by activists who were equally if not even more dedicated. Separation from Britain had become a national movement supported by an international community. Britain cared about world opinion and that played a major part in reaching a compromise. But does the Kremlin worry about world opinion?
Russia’s attitude has strikingly been compared to that of the supporters of the London soccer club Millwall FC whose slogan is: “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
The truth is that Navalny’s death could severely damage opposition movements in Russia. None of Putin’s other domestic opponents have anything like Navalny’s charisma, and those who would succeed him if he dies are unlikely to be as effective. It can be argued that his mastery of social media would live on in the form of his videos illustrating Putin’s corruption, but many Russians actually expect their leaders to be corrupt and wouldn’t mind a trickle-down of their wealth.
There has also been a dark side to Navalny’s media contributions; westerners have been dismayed by some of his posts that express elements of Great Russian nationalism, support for the retention of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation and fierce opposition to imamigration from the Muslim former republics of the Soviet Union.
His views on these issues have made one adversary of the regime become just as firmly opposed to Navalny as he is to Putin; Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the liberal pro-western Yabloko party, has already denounced Navalny’s views, writing that “A democratic Russia, respect for people, and a life without fear and repression are incompatible with Navalny’s policies.”
Replace Navalny’s name with Putin’s in the above statement and the real truth beams out. Navalny has already made that point with his life; his death would not make it any more true, nor make it any more powerfully.