Slaughter & Rees Report: Help Avenge the Murder of Alexei Navalny

How? By redoubling efforts to build trust within and among organizations’ stakeholders, say Dean Matthew J. Slaughter and coauthor Matthew Rees.

Last Saturday marked the second anniversary of Russia launching war against Ukraine. And February 16, 2024, marked another tragedy linked to Russia’s further descent into autocracy: the state-sponsored murder of Alexei Navalny, lawyer and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. 

Since December, Navalny had been detained on trumped-up charges in the infamous “Polar Wolf” prison, which sits 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in Siberia. That prison was the final stop in a campaign of terror that Putin unleashed against Navalny over many years. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and longtime observer of Russia and of the former Soviet Union, recently wrote about one example of Putin’s campaign against Navalny that crystallized the former’s shocking cowardice and the latter’s (and his wife’s) towering bravery.

Agents of the [Federal Security Service] trailed Navalny to Siberia [in August 2020]. They broke into his hotel room and, in a plot that might have been scripted by Gogol, spiked his underwear with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent. Navalny wore the poisoned garment aboard his flight home to Moscow and, sitting in seat 13-A, he soon found himself howling in agony, as his body began to shut down. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk. Somehow, Navalny survived. He was eventually flown to Germany and, with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, at his side, he came out of a medically induced coma and steadily regained his strength. But he declined permanent refuge in the West. Do not be afraid, do not give up, was his constant refrain, and he refused to betray his own counsel and principles. In January, 2021, Navalny boarded a flight to Moscow, knowing full well that his moral prestige represented an intolerable threat to the regime. Putin had him arrested at the airport.

That arrest marked the final end of Navalny’s freedom. And his murder at the hands of the Russian government is but the latest example of Putin’s widening autocratic grip, which of late includes imprisoning journalists and empowering a mercenary group—and which, the weekend of March 15, will almost surely include Putin “winning” another phony election.

Putin is, sadly, setting the standard for the many autocrats who are curtailing democracy and human rights across the world. That troubling trend is documented in a report released today by Freedom House, a research and advocacy group that monitors democracy, political rights, and civil liberties throughout the world.

The corrosion of trust within and across countries is one of our world’s most insidious problems.

Freedom House’s survey of countries throughout the world finds that global freedom declined in 2023—for the 18th year in a row. The decline affects one-fifth of the world’s population, with political rights and civil liberties weakened in 52 countries. “Almost everywhere,” writes Freedom House, “the downturn in rights was driven by attacks on pluralism—the peaceful coexistence of people with different political ideas, religions, or ethnic identities—that harmed elections and sowed violence. These intensifying assaults on a core feature of democracy reinforce the urgent need to support the groups and individuals, including human rights defenders and journalists, who are on the front lines of the struggle for freedom worldwide.”

Other groups and analyses have reached similarly sobering conclusions. Analysis by Our World in Data shows that the number of people globally with democratic rights declined from 3.9 billion in 2016 to 2.3 billion in 2022. Another Freedom House report, released last year, found that Internet freedom throughout the world has declined for 13 consecutive years. Artificial intelligence is the newest tool in the autocrats’ arsenal, and it is being used to manufacture and manipulate images, audio, and text, with one goal in mind: undermining political opponents. 

Amidst this bleak state of affairs, what are we to do?

To answer this in an empowering rather than vapid way, it helps to remember that a favored weapon of autocrats is preying on distrust. Autocrats replace the confusion and fear of distrust with simplistic, “othering” stories that accrue power to themselves—such as Putin’s deranged and sickening claim that invading Ukraine was in part to “denazify” the country.

The corrosion of trust within and across countries is one of our world’s most insidious problems. In early 2023, the global communications firm Edelman released its 23rd annual Trust Barometer, this year based on interviews conducted with over 32,000 respondents across 28 countries. The headline summary of the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer—and the report itself—makes for dispiriting reading: “A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today—deeply and dangerously polarized.” People voice deep distrust of government, the media, and NGOs—both the institutions collectively and their leaders. Within almost every country, distrust cleaves deeply along economic class. In the words of Edelman, “People in the top quartile of income live in a different trust reality than those in the bottom quartile.”

Around the world, there is one institution—and set of leaders—that people trust much more than the government, the media, and NGOs. What is that institution? Business.

But the newly released 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer reiterates a striking finding of recent years. Around the world, there is one institution—and set of leaders—that people trust much more than the government, the media, and NGOs. What is that institution? Business. Of those four broad institutions tracked by Edelman, “business remains [the] only trusted institution.” Even people who feel polarized widely trust business overall—and they trust their own employer even more. People tend to report more trust in their employer than they do in their neighbors or in people in their local community.

So, in the spirit of thinking globally but acting locally, we two Matts gently suggest that you many readers who are (or who someday will be) business leaders play your modest part to help avenge the murder of Alexei Navalny by redoubling your efforts to build trust within and among your organization’s stakeholders. The more people think and feel they belong in and can contribute to your organization’s mission, that trusting empowerment will make them less inclined to be afraid and to be silent in other walks of their lives. Broader trust will embolden more people in more countries to push back against autocratic bullies like Vladimir Putin.