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Classmate reflects on Alexei Navalny's time at Yale

Alexei Navalny photographed at Yale's private club Mory's, in July 2018.
Michael Cappello
Alexei Navalny photographed at Yale's private club Mory's, in July 2018.

Among those mourning the death last week of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are the friends he made in his brief time at Yale University.

In 2010, Navalny was a member of Yale's World Fellows Program. Each year, the program selects 16 mid-career program applicants from around the world to spend the fall semester networking and sharing ideas.

Current Yale lecturer Ted Wittenstein was in the program with Navlany and got to know him well.

“He was only at Yale for about six months,” Wittenstein said. “But in doing that, he became part of the Yale community. And so there are a number of Yale professors and alumni and other colleagues who just have fond memories of Alexei and his family and all that, of course, he went on to represent.”

Wittenstein is currently Lecturer of Global Affairs and the executive director of International Security Studies at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. He said Navalny had already gained prominence for his anti-corruption work in Russia prior to arriving in New Haven. That focus on making Russia a better place never seemed far from Navalny’s thoughts.

“He would say things like, 'You know, when I get back to Russia, we're going to try to change things,'" Wittenstein said. “‘We're going to expose the corruption in Russia.’”

But the seriousness of Navalny’s commitment to his life’s work didn’t keep him from enjoying New Haven. Wittenstein said Navalny developed a taste for “Louie’s Lunch” hamburgers, New Haven pizza and American football.

“I had some very funny exchanges trying to explain the rules to him at the time, but he became very passionate about it,” Wittenstein said. “He really enjoyed his time on the Yale campus.”

Navalny died in a Russian prison about three years after he voluntarily returned to Russia, knowing he would likely be arrested, or worse, when he arrived.

“He couldn't encourage people to protest the government and risk their own lives and safety and family, if he wasn't prepared to do the same,” Wittenstein said.

As people remember Navalny’s courage in fighting the regime of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, there are voices who are also remembering Navalny’s past as a far-right ideologue with little tolerance for immigrants. Wittenstein encourages people to understand the nuance of Navalny’s attitudes.

“Did Alexei have certain views as a Russian nationalist that might be out of line with how Americans or Europeans view issues? Of course,” Wittenstein said. “[But] was he considerably more moderate and tolerant and respectful of human rights and human dignity than his alternative … than his opposition foe in the Russian regime in Mr. Putin? Without question.” Wittenstein said. “I do think his time on the Yale campus really did expose him to a wide range of more moderate and tolerant viewpoints.”

Wittenstein said Yale’s World Fellows Program will commit to honoring Navalny's legacy. And for anyone else who wants to honor Navalny’s legacy of standing up to corruption and authoritarian rule, Wittenstein has this advice.

“Continue to speak up and speak out against injustice everywhere,” Wittenstein said. “That's the right way to honor Alexei, as we all go forward in our own areas of the world.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.