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Greater Love Has No One than This: To Lay Down One’s Life for One’s Friends

Published on: February 26, 2024
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Alexey Navalny

On Friday, February 16, 2024, Russian Penitentiary Service (FSIN) that is responsible for the thriving GULAG system informed the world that Russia’s “Prisoner no. 1,” Alexey Navalny, collapsed during the daily walk in the camp and died shortly thereafter.

While everyone who cared about Navalny had feared for his life every day since January 17, 2021, when he returned to Russia after recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt by the Kremlin, the news still came as a gut-punching shock. Despite three years of imprisonment in inhuman, torturous conditions, despite knowing that Putin hated and feared him so much that he couldn’t utter his name, despite the record of the Russian GULAG system, Navalny loomed larger than life, unbreakable, always smiling, always filled with joy, hope, humor. His posts on social media conveyed by his fearless team were inspiring, funny, and, above all, free—the words of someone whose freedom was “not of this world,” whose courage was based in faith that moves mountains. The day before the devastating news he appeared in a brief court video laughing and mocking the federal judge. He just couldn’t have died, couldn’t have left those he loved and served with all his being…

There already are and will be more countless obituaries and detailed analyses of Navalny as an extraordinary political figure in the country suffocating in political mediocrity. But I want to talk about the meaning of martyrdom and its paradox. The paradox of the world in which the country that calls itself “Holy” and the bulwark of Orthodoxy is waging the genocidal war that is threatening to engulf all. The paradox of the Church which, in the persons of its primate, hierarchy, clergy, and faithful, is the voice of that war, stoking hatred and fear. And the paradox of the real voice of the Church sounding the loudest from the politician who started his career in the fight with corruption and theft, and ended it by ascending the Cross.

What can we, the Orthodox, make of the fact that one of the strongest Christian sermons in recent years was delivered as the last word in the unjust trial of an opposition leader?

If you want, I’ll talk to you about God and salvation. I’ll turn up the volume of heartbreak to the maximum, so to speak. The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually rather sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists and I was once  quite a  militant atheist myself. But now I am a believer, and  that helps me a lot in my activities, because everything becomes much, much easier. I think about things less. There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation. It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying. And so, as I said, it’s easier for me, probably, than for many others, to engage in politics. 

A man recently wrote to me, “Navalny, why does everyone write to you, ‘Hold on, don’t give up, be patient, grit your teeth?’ What do you have to tolerate? You kind of said in the interview that you believe in God. The Bible says, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.’ Well, that’s just great for you, isn’t it!” And I thought, how well this man understands me! Because it’s not that I’m fine, but I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity. And so, while certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back, or about what I’m doing. It’s fine, because I did the right thing. On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction. Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions, and did not betray the commandment.

And there’s one more important thing. Without question, this whole Biblical passage—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled”—comes across as overly theatrical to modern ears. It is assumed that people who say such things are crazy, not to put too fine a point on it—crazy oddbods who sit there alone in their rooms with disheveled hair, attempting to cheer themselves up by any means possible, because they are lonely and not needed by anyone. This is the key point. Our authorities and the system as a whole try to tell these people that they are pathetic loners.

The first priority is to intimidate people, and then to prove to them that they are loners, and to imply that no normal or sane person would adhere to teachings of this kind. This attempt to make people believe that they are loners is highly significant, since it represents one of the goals pursued by the authorities. Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter books was a remarkable philosopher who said something very wise about this topic. You might remember her saying to Harry Potter, in an attempt to give him courage in the face of adversity; “Well, if I were You-Know-Who… I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else…” There can be no doubt that our own You-Know-Who in his palace would also want that.

These guards are great chaps, and the guards in my prison are also decent folk, but they don’t talk to me—they have apparently been forbidden to do so. They sometimes come out with stock phrases. This is also very important, because the aim is for me to feel unceasingly lonely. Yet this is not how I feel at all. And I will explain why. This teaching—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”—appears somehow esoteric and odd, but in fact it is the central political doctrine in modern Russia. Your Honor, what is it, this phrase or slogan, the most important political slogan in Russia? Where does power lie? Power lies in truth. That is what this teaching is saying. That is how it could be compressed into a Tweet, omitting the unnecessary words such as “for” and “thirst.” This is what it essentially means. And the whole country repeats in many different permutations that power lies in truth, and that whoever holds the truth will be victorious.

– Alexey Navalny’s closing remarks in Moscow City Court, February 20, 2021.

I quote this passage in its entirety because these words speak louder about Navalny’s faith and martyrdom than anything that can be said about him. For three years, he has been grilled about why he returned to Russia, to certain imprisonment and likely untimely death. For three years, his supporters have debated the wisdom or futility of that action. But for Christians, there should be no mystery in this. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25)

Alexey Navalny found his life by ascending his cross. Amen.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Inga Leonova

    Editor-in-Chief at The Wheel Journal

    Inga Leonova is a practicing architect, writer, and educator. She is editor-in-chief of The Wheel, a quarterly journal of Orthodoxy and culture. She taught a course on Monotheism, Culture, and Sacred Space at the Boston Architectural College, and serves as a thesis advisor at the New England School ...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University