The ten Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to impeach President Trump are being hailed for their courage. For the most part, they deserve it. By putting the interests of the country ahead of their positions in the party and their re-election prospects, they were willing to take personal risks for the sake of a larger cause—including perhaps the risk of physical danger, as several of them have reported receiving death threats and one even took the precaution of buying body armor.
Rep. Tom Rice, whose vote for impeachment came as a surprise to many in Congress as well as in his South Carolina district, summed up the stakes well. When asked if he realized that his vote could cost him re-election in 2022, he responded, “If it does, it does.” He added, “You tell my constituents I love ’em, and it’s the honor of my life to do this job. I’ve tried to do my best to do the right thing and represent their interests, but if they decide that it’s time for me to come home, that’s OK, too.”
Rice’s calm confidence contrasts with the shameless cowardice of most of his Republican colleagues. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin complained that House Democrats didn’t give due consideration to his suggestion of a censure for Trump—as if, having survived one coup attempt and while preparing for another, members of Congress should have merely stated their displeasure with the president for inciting a mob that tried to assassinate them and done nothing to prevent his repeating the offense. Rep. Chip Roy, while conceding that the president committed impeachable offenses, whined with embarrassing flaccidity that the article of impeachment was poorly drafted.
Unfortunately for Gallagher, Roy, and the other craven House Republicans who wouldn’t risk re-election to stop a coup, one of the clearest examples of political courage of the century has been playing out 4,000 miles away. Aleksei Navalny, the de facto leader of the Russian opposition, nearly killed last summer in a poisoning attack, boarded a flight back to Russia. Most House Republicans cowered, refusing to hold Donald Trump accountable; Navalny went back home to confront the regime that tried to murder him.
Navalny had been staying in Berlin since the Russian security agency FSB poisoned him before an August 20 flight from the southern Siberian city of Tomsk, where he was organizing with his Anti-Corruption Foundation. The flight made an emergency landing in Omsk after Navalny fell seriously ill, and he was later medevaced to Berlin, where doctors identified the poison in his system as belonging to the novichok family of chemicals invented in the Soviet Union, which agents of the Russian military intelligence organization GRU used against Sergei Skripal in England in 2018. (Skripal, who had been a double agent for the U.K. in the 1990s, and his daughter both survived their poisonings, as did a police officer who investigated the crime and a bystander, while one other person exposed to the powerful toxin died.)
Navalny had previously survived attacks in which unidentified assailants threw acid in his face, partially blinding him in one eye. He has repeatedly faced politically motivated criminal charges, and the European Court of Human Rights declared him a political prisoner for a house arrest designed to prevent him from leading protests. Russian authorities also held his brother in jail as a hostage for almost four years.
During his post-poisoning recovery, Navalny, who rose to prominence by releasing videos documenting the corruption of members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, partnered with the investigative firm Bellingcat to find one of the FSB agents responsible for his poisoning. Navalny duped him into admitting his role in the operation, including disclosing the detail that the FSB agents had laced Navalny’s underwear with poison.
Navalny’s is only the latest in a long line of poisonings and other mysterious illnesses and deaths among those opposed to the Putin regime. In addition to Skripal, Vladimir Kara-Murza, an architect of the Magnitsky Act that sanctions human rights abusers in Russia and elsewhere, has twice survived being poisoned. Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who spied for the United Kingdom, was famously poisoned in London with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in 2006. Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister of Russia and the leader of the opposition to Putin’s authoritarianism, was shot just yards from the Kremlin in 2015. Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who reported critically on the Second Chechen War as Putin was using the operation to cement his authority, survived what she suspected was a poisoning on an airplane—only to be shot to death in her apartment building in 2006.
More than a dozen other Russian émigrés who crossed Putin or posed a threat to him have died under mysterious circumstances in the years since the former KGB colonel ascended to the presidency.
With all this in mind, and doubtless anticipating that the most likely outcome returning to his country on Sunday would be his immediate arrest (as indeed it was), and also knowing that political inmates in the Russian prison system can expect particularly harsh treatment, Navalny went home.
It is unclear how democratic Navalny’s politics are. While his expressed Russian-nationalist sentiments are far from the enlightened liberal norms of Russia’s freer neighbors, he is a passionate defender of the rule of law. But since Nemtsov’s assassination, Navalny has been his country’s most notable and successful critic of the Putin regime’s corruption and election-rigging.
Young, educated, cosmopolitan Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the people who turn out in mass protests against Putin, dream of Russia being a “normal country” with real elections and the rule of law. Tens of thousands of Russians have been willing to protest in the streets for this idea. In 2019, young students, some barely teenagers, braved police truncheons and mass arrests to demand basic civil rights. Navalny is willing to risk so much more: He has dedicated his life—and, as has been the case for his forebears, may give his life—for a vision of the Russian state that has never existed.
That is not the case in the United States. Gallagher and Roy were born and raised in a “normal country”—the “normalest” of them all. They didn’t volunteer to fight for something that might be impossible, but to protect what already was. The oath they swore was purely defensive, “to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The risks they willingly assumed weren’t police beatings, poisonings with nerve agents, or assassinations by secret agents.
They were just asked to risk, as Rice put it, their constituents asking them “to come home.” Anyone following Navalny’s odyssey could only regard the spinelessness of congressional Republicans as pathetic. Gallagher, Roy, and the rest can’t compare to Navalny; they can’t even match the everyday bravery of Tom Rice.