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Normalcy Interrupted: Heroes in the Time of Covid

A few months ago, I asked a class of Japanese university students if they thought the Olympics should go on, as planned, this coming summer. A resounding “No” was the answer from most. And can you blame them? The recent headlines had been about record-breaking Coronavirus infections and vaccines that were promising but not yet available. The mere possibility of hosting the Olympics led to a ripple of questions. Would Japan require every athletic team to be vaccinated? What if they hailed from countries where a vaccine wasn’t available, or was only available in short supply for the most vulnerable of the population? Would those athletes be barred? And what about spectators and press, would they be allowed? If not, what’s the point? The Olympics were supposed to rekindle the dimming embers of Japan’s economy, not smother it with more debt.

Most students were engaged in a unified head nod of “no” while suggesting more and more ways the Olympics could end badly.

But one student tentatively raised his hand. If we can do it safely, he said, I think we should. The Olympics give people hope, a feeling of pride.

And he wasn’t alone. A few of his classmates admitted they could also see the advantage to having the Olympics, under the right circumstances. Sports, they argued, can show the best of what humans are capable of. Olympic athletes demonstrate what’s possible when a person with a natural ability works tremendously hard on a specific goal for years. They are the triumph-ers over obstacles. The undeterrables, shrugging off doubt, fighting through fatigue, and persevering when their sport (or their reputations) fall out of favor. They represent a stability forged by the human will. They are inspiring.

And most people could use a little inspiration. Like a natural disaster, the Coronavirus rose up seemingly out of nowhere and splashed down indiscriminately, challenging people in large and pedestrian ways. Those with anxiety or depression wrestled with their mental health alone in their homes. Those with children got crash courses in homeschooling. Science experiments frothed in the kitchen sink beside plates crusty with egg yolks, and kids wilted with boredom on Zoom. Rocky marriages got rockier. Police precincts and domestic violence hotlines across the globe reported an increase in calls for help. And in Japan, the suicide rate nearly doubled. Those who could, reinvented their lives to happen within the confines of their domiciles. Lives got awkward as newborn horses, hooves clattering against the floor as they struggled to find their footing in this new reality.

As of today, less than 6 months before the Olympics are slated to begin, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists the games will go on. Among the Japanese, public support for the games is low – about 20 percent, according to a recent Kyodo news poll – but in a speech to Japan’s congress on Jan. 18, Prime Minister Sugo Yoshihide said the games would be “proof that humanity defeated the Coronavirus.”

The day before Prime Minister Sugo’s speech, Alexei Navalny stepped off a plane in Moscow. At 44, the Russian has become the most popular anti-corruption crusader in his country, and possibly the world. Tall, fit, and with just a few wrinkles around his eyes when he smiles (which he does often) he does not look like a middle-aged man recently recovered from a poison-induced coma that many believe was meant to end his life. But that’s who he is.

Navalny was returning from Berlin where he had been receiving medical care since Aug. 22, the second day of his coma. While there, labs in Germany, France, and Switzerland independently confirmed he’d been poisoned with Novichok, a lethal nerve agent developed by the Soviet government as a stealthy addition to its Cold War arsenal.

This was the second time in recent history that Novichok had been used in an attempt to assassinate an enemy of the Kremlin. Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who had spied for the Brits, had been the first. In 2018, Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious and foaming at the mouth on a park bench. Novichok was later discovered on the front door of the former spy’s home in Salisbury, England.

The use of Novichok incriminated the Kremlin in Navalny’s case. But so did an early-morning call he made to a Russian intelligence agent he believed had been involved. Posing as a colleague under pressure to write a report, Navalny coaxed the details of the poisoning out of the agent: Navalny had been under surveillance. The agent had put the poison on the inside of Navalny’s underpants – the codpiece. He didn’t die, the agent thought, because when he got sick on the flight to Moscow, the pilot made an emergency landing.

Navalny has a lot in common with an Olympic athlete. He’s affable but seems to have a greater stockpile of determination than the average human. He’s single-minded in pursuit of a goal most would call crazy. Failure – for the twinkle-eyed, media savvy mischief-maker who’s positioned himself squarely against Putin – is far more likely than success. And if he does fail, except for an entry on Wikipedia, history will quickly forget him and all his efforts. Of which there have been many.

His career in anti-corruption began in 2007 when he hatched a scheme to expose shady government officials and the companies they ran. He’d buy a few stocks in those companies, which would get him through the doors at shareholders meetings. Then, he’d stand up and ask embarrassing questions about company ownership, followed by blog posts of the companies’ accounting records.

But when, in 2011 and 2012, a protest movement emerged in response to blatant election fraud, the 34 year old lawyer stood out among the many calling for demonstrations. He had dubbed Putin’s party the “The Party of Crooks and Thieves,” and the name had stuck. Later, the slogan became the movement’s rallying cry, shouted by the tens of thousands who turned out in the greatest expression of condemnation the government had faced since the collapse of the USSR.

Over the next few years, Navalny’s following increased slowly, steadily, and in tandem with state-lodged criminal charges. In 2013, he ventured deeper into politics and entered Moscow's race for mayor. Mid-campaign, the government charged him with embezzling over $200,000 while working as a consultant four years earlier, a charge widely believed to have been fabricated.

Navalny was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in jail. Before being escorted out of the courtroom, he tweeted: “Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t stay idle.” By afternoon, protestors were pouring into Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow. Police in flak jackets faced off with a crowd clapping and yelling for Navalny’s release, producing a chaos that rattled well into night.

Surprisingly, it worked. The following day, Navalny filed an appeal and was released.

By 2016, he was ready to run for president. To anyone other candidate, what unfolded the following year would have seemed like bad press. There were stints in jail – three of them – for unsanctioned protests, an attack with green dye that left one eye partially blind, and a retrial for the earlier embezzlement charge that ended again with a 5-year sentence (this time suspended). According to Russian law, this conviction would keep him from holding public office. And yet, support for Navalny rose like an airplane after takeoff, unfazed by the shakes and sputters of turbulence it hit as it made its gradual ascent.                                         

*

On Jan. 17th 2021, after 5 months of convalescing in Berlin, Navalny strode through the airport with the casual air of somebody who had already won. Dressed in a lightweight green jacket over a hoodie, he looked relaxed but unprepared to meet the subzero bitterness of the winter that awaited him. He told a small crowd of reporters, “This is the best day in the last five months. I’m home.”

To no one’s surprise, Russian police arrested him at passport control for violating parole. Not long after, protests broke out across the nation as another Navalny trial got underway. Thousands, disturbed by what they viewed as precedent-setting corruption, stormed public squares, and then endured cramped conditions in jail cells filled to capacity. According to OVD-info, a Russian organization that monitors political arrests, approximately 9,000 were taken into custody during the two weekends of protests that followed Navalny's return.

Today, the protests have dwindled to a couple hundred or died out altogether. And Navalny’s suspended sentence from the 2013 embezzlement charge was commuted to 2 years 8 months in a penal colony. His wife, Yulia, has retreated back to Germany.

Navalny’s future, like that of the opposition movement he headed, is uncertain at best. Tragic at worst. Though to a lesser extent, isn’t this the shared reality of our time? Our lives lived in an unmapped territory somewhere between uncertainty and tragedy? Inundated with a succession of grim Covid numbers (2.4 million dead globally, 4,000 Americans died in a single day last month, just to name a few) fatigue sets in, and the mind shuts off rather than take on the emotional reality of those statistics.

Perhaps, this is why my student raised his hand to make the very unpopular suggestion that the world could use the Olympics despite (or perhaps because of) the lingering pandemic. It would enable us to simply change the subject. Take a break from the all-consuming Corona, and (from a safe distance) give ourselves over to the celebration of simple, human strength. And those incorrigible oddballs – in this case, the athletes – who dare to put a single lofty goal at the center of their lives.

*

Just two weeks after being sentenced to a penal colony, Navalny was back in court. This time, he’d been charged with defamation. In 2019, he had criticized a pro-Kremlin ad promoting a constitutional amendment to extend presidential term limits, calling the Russians featured in the ad “lackeys and traitors.” The prosecution argued the remark amounted to defamation and, because it included a 94 year old WWII vet, suggested Navalny may be hiding a neo-Nazi agenda.

According to Financial Times journalist Max Seddon who attended the trial, the former real-estate lawyer defended himself by saying he “felt negatively about everyone who supported the constitutional changes.” Later, he added, “Defamation requires spreading demonstrable false facts.” There had been no evidence of that.

And then, a change of subject: Navalny told the judge, in his cell he had cucumbers from his wife, and 3 kilos of salt. Since talking about the law seemed to be a waste of time, did she happen to have “a good recipe for pickled cucumbers?”

In response, the judge said nothing.

And, Navalny did what he does best. With a twinkle in his eye, he smiled.

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