At first glance, it looked like an episode from nineteenth-century Russian novel: A general challenging his opponent to a duel. In reality, it was direct threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic political opposition.
On Tuesday, Russia’s National Guard chief, Viktor Zolotov, released a YouTube video challenging opposition leader Alexei Navalny to a duel, calling the anti-corruption activist a “scoundrel,” and threatening to turn him into a “tenderized beefsteak.”
The video, nearly seven minutes long, was posted on the official YouTube channel of Russia’s National Guard. Zolotov, appearing in uniform and wearing an officer’s peaked cap, addressed the activist directly and with barely contained anger in his voice.
“You have made me the subject of insulting, defamatory remarks,” Zolotov said. “You know, it is not customary among officers simply to forgive. From time immemorial, scoundrels have had their faces smashed and been called to duels.”
Addressing the activist as “Mr. Navalny,” Zolotov continued: “No one is stopping us from reviving at least some of these traditions, by which I mean seeking satisfaction. I challenge you to single combat — in the ring, on the judo mat, wherever, and I promise to make juicy, tenderized meat out of you.”
The reason for the challenge? In a recent video investigation, Navalny accused the leadership of the National Guard, or Rosgvardia, of being part of a scheme involving buying food for soldiers at inflated prices from a single supplier.
Navalny clearly hit a nerve with that investigation. In his video, Zolotov admitted that there are cases of corruption but said that corrupt individuals are being brought to justice. But Zolotov’s YouTube address also made clear his views on Russia’s opposition: Navalny, he said, was a product from an “American test-tube” and a “puppet” placed to destabilize the political and economic situation in Russia.
That is the conspiratorial mindset of Russia’s leadership in a nutshell. In the official Russian view, routinely amplified in state media, the country’s political opposition are fifth-columnists in the pay of some foreign power.
Navalny has been excluded from state media coverage but has gained a wide audience through social media. The protests that he organizes have become a vehicle for expressing discontent with the rule of Putin and government corruption.
Most recently, Navalny organized protests against a widely unpopular proposal to overhaul Russia’s pension system. Russian independent monitoring group OVD-Info said Russian police had detained over a thousand people in nationwide protests Sunday. The largest number of detentions occurred in St. Petersburg, where images of the detention of a school-age boy and older pensioners quickly went viral.
Russia’s National Guard took the lead in many of the crackdowns on Sunday. Navalny himself sat out the protests: he is currently under administrative arrest for organizing an unsanctioned rally in the capital in January.
Some online commenters noted the irony of challenging someone to a duel while they are in government custody. In a short essay posted on the independent news website Meduza.io, Yakov Gordin, a historian of duelling, said the episode “bears no resemblance to real dueling tradition,” as Navalny isn’t an officer – and isn’t trained to fight (Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard, is).
Others rushed to Navalny’s defense. Champion swimmer Viktor Soldatov challenged Zolotov to a swimming contest, saying the Rosgvardia chief would be “like a sprat in tomato sauce” in the pool compared to him.
Asked to comment on the video, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he agreed with Zolotov that slanderous statements should be “nipped in the bud” and said the video should not be taken as a physical threat to Navalny.
But there’s a chilling subtext to the YouTube challenge. Opponents of Putin often end up in jail, run out of the country, or dead.
Opposition activists have long accused the Kremlin of creating an atmosphere on social media and elsewhere that encourages violence. In 2016, a video appeared on the Instagram account of the pro-Kremlin Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov showing two prominent Russian opposition figures in the cross-hairs of a sniper’s gun sights.
The physical threats to the opposition are real. Activist VIadimir Kara-Murza barely recovered from a mysterious poisoning. Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia’s most high-profile opposition leaders, was gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015. Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading investigative journalist, was assassinated on Oct. 7, 2006 – on Putin’s birthday.
Against the background of this history, Zolotov’s challenge looks less like a duel, and more like a threat.
CNN’s Darya Tarasova also contributed to this report from Moscow while Radina Gigova contributed from Atlanta.