By Ben Judah
Russia's opposition has turned into a hero cult. What was a protest movement has morphed into a one-man show called Alexei Navalny.
The man who first fought Russian corruption with crowdsourcing is now running for mayor of Moscow. But for his 10,000 volunteers, mostly kids in their early 20s with no Soviet memories, he is already president.
His campaign "feedback sessions" resemble a rock star meeting the fans. When Navalny shows up, the volunteers chant his name. When he speaks they rush up, trying to get his signature or shake his hand.
Navalny's charisma matters more than his politics. His volunteer army is vague on his policies — some are banal, like a paid parking system, some worrying, like hiring a "private security firm for the city." But the volunteers are not vague when talking about his greatness.
Why Navalny? This triggers a flood of adjectives. He's strong, his supporters say, honest, beautiful, charismatic and powerful. It triggers moralistic outburst — "Russia must live without lies." But it always comes down to this: "Only Navalny is tough enough to take down Putin."
Navalny's campaign sells Navalny. It sells a cult of personality, with Hollywood looks and brash TV showman comebacks.
Navalny stickers appear on cars. His supporters are encouraged to rename their Wi-Fi networks, "Navalny_Our_Mayor." There is the "For Navalny" newspaper and, of course, t-shirts. Not to mention the activists calling themselves "The Brothers of Navalny."
Don't call this a protest movement. This is the Navalny movement. It happened because the opposition failed to build institutions. Project after project flopped. Online elections for its "coordination council," billed as an alternative parliament, came to naught.
Then the street protests fizzled. Attempts to build a real party went nowhere. Pushes for a regional network ran aground. Briefly promising fronts like the League of Voters disappeared.
Meanwhile, other so-called protest leaders (not named Navalny) remained a bunch of squabbling political pygmies.
Navalny is the only thing that worked. His brand has boomed though his party-building failed.
The poll results are stunning. Two years ago less than 6 percent of Russians knew about Navalny. Now more than 40 percent know who he is — and more than 70 percent in Moscow.
Navalny's name recognition beats almost all Russian politicians, except President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. That's phenomenal for a man unofficially banned from national TV.
Putin is the Navalny cult's accidental instigator. By late 2012, it became clear that mass protests were finished. The chatter in "free Moscow" - that crammed demimonde of gloomy dissident bars where activists think up new Facebook campaigns — was depressed and resentful. Why did Navalny not run for president? Why did he let this go to waste?
Putin saved him — by trying to put him in jail. But Navalny stole his own show trial. With electrifying speeches, he managed to make Putin look like the coward for wanting him behind bars.
The court handed down five years. Navalny was cuffed and taken away. But when more than 10,000 supporters rushed to demand his release, their hero was suddenly let go pending an appeal. The reversal reeked of amateurism. Even fear.
Navalny's return to Moscow recalled Lenin's return to Russia in 1917, entering Finland Station. Hundreds were gathered, shouting his diminutive — "Lyosha" — like he was their close friend. Even ex-Kremlin image consultants are impressed. "Write his biography … Write it!" Faceboooked Gleb Pavlovsky, a longtime Putin spin-doctor.
Is this cult a bad thing? Even if so, there is something worse — Russia is being pillaged. Putin's clique is extracting billions from the state budget. They are profiteering from everything from the national pension fund to gigantic Olympic contracts. Navalny labels them "bloodsuckers" — and he is right.
But his cult deludes the opposition. It is actually tiny. Navalny has less than 10,000 hardcore opposition supporters. Worse, those giving up every spare hour to volunteer for Navalny think he might actually win the Moscow mayoral race. This escapist frenzy hides the grim reality — that in Moscow, Navalny is only polling at 20 percent. Crushing disappointment beckons.
Navalny is not on the verge of power. He looks set to lose. He has really been released only to legitimize Putin's candidate. Once the election is done, the Kremlin probably intends to throw him back into a Siberian prison colony.
This cult of personality is endangering the opposition. It is almost impossible to imagine an opposition without him. But it may only be a matter of weeks — when his suspended sentence is expected to come into effect.
Pinning every hope on a hero distracts from the real task. Building up a real party — something closer to Polish Solidarity than this one-man show. Russia needs hundreds of Navalnys — and hundreds of party cells.
Is Navalny to blame? No. He is a real hero trying to build up a party. He did not make Russia so prone to lionizing its chieftains. Russia is made of weak institutions. In all walks of life — from banking to the arts, from the opposition and even the Kremlin itself — authority emanates from charismatic cults.
Navalny allies say this is exactly like America's hero worship — pointing at President Barack Obama. But the difference is that presidential cults are crushed by a system so full of checks and balances it virtually neutralizes charismatic power.
Russia has no real political institutions. Only personalized power. Imagine, for a minute, that Putin's regime continues to rot. There is a risk history could repeat itself - with a new leader cult replacing the old. Unchecked and unbalanced personality cults - even of good men like Navalny - are dangerous things.
Russia's falls hard for its heroes. The nation is seeking a white knight, who can emerge from this dark wood to battle evil.
Russia's liberals should know by now such fairy tales turn into nightmares. In 1990 they hailed Boris Yeltsin as their savior. In 2000, their white knight was Putin.
This is not a curse. It is what happens to hero cults in a weak state.
(Ben Judah is a Reuters columnist. The opinions are his own)