Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader with ties to Yale University, was poisoned, according to the German hospital where he is being treated. Navalny remains in a medically induced coma. The 44-year-old is known for his anti-corruption investigations against Russian state corporations and senior officials, and he participated in Russia’s 2018 presidential election.
Ten years ago, Navalny spent several months in New Haven as part of the Yale World Fellows Program. Emma Sky is the director of the program and recently spoke to Connecticut Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Diane Orson after more than 150 fellows signed onto a letter voicing support for Navalny.
What follows are edited highlights of that conversation:
Emma Sky: He was part of an extraordinary cohort that had a number of fellows who decided after that experience that they were going to go into politics. It was a time where people who were like-minded, they met each other and they decided if you want to make change in the world, you’ve got to go into politics -- that politics really is the way of bringing about change.
Diane Orson: More recently Leonid Volkov was a World Fellow in 2018, and he was a campaign manager and a chief of staff for Alexei Navalny on several campaigns -- including an attempt to get Navalny on the presidential ballot. Can you talk about Volkov’s time here at Yale? What did you learn from Volkov while he was here? What kind of challenges did he face?
I learned that to be an opposition politician in Russia is extremely difficult. There is constant harassment and surveillance, and it takes tremendous courage and resilience. And people like Alexei and Leonid display that on a daily basis.
A letter was put together in support of Alexei Navalny and signed by many World Fellows from many, many different countries around the world. What are the common threads that bind these Yale World Fellows together?
I think the response from the World Fellows network has really been amazing. So Alexei was a 2010 Yale World Fellow and members of his cohort drafted this statement, and then it was shared with all World Fellows in the network and I think over 160 signed up from 80 or more countries.
Many fellows have a sense that democracy is on the retreat, that authoritarianism is rising, and they feel the space for dissent is shrinking. And they feel vulnerable and they’re not sure who is going to stand up for them. So they stand by each other, and they show support for each other. Every World Fellow knows that if they are ever arrested or threatened or attacked, they are part of a community that will stand in solidarity with them.
We do know that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. Do you think the Yale World Fellows Program and its invitations extended to rising opposition leaders in countries such as Russia affects the university’s relationship with countries like Russia?
Yale is a university that attracts the brightest and the best from all over the world. And I think it is important for a university’s reputation that it maintains an open policy to accepting people from different backgrounds, whether they are in support of the government or opposed to the government as long as they are law abiding and committed to the principles and values of Yale.
So of course it’s inevitable that when opposition figures earn their place or win their place at a place like Yale it may bring some tensions. I think that’s understandable.
But it’s not that Yale University goes out and seeks opposition leaders. We have plenty of Russian students that are not active in politics, and we have some who are.
I think there are many people around the world who put their lives on the line campaigning or standing up for the rights of others, and it’s important to them that America cares. And I think in recent years there’s a sense that now if people get into trouble, then who is going to champion the values of human rights and the values of democracy?
I think there’s a worry now that America no longer plays the role that it used to play. It is no longer seen as the champion of human rights or the standard-bearer of democracy. And yet there are people all around the world who passionately believe in human rights and who passionately believe in democracy.
Tucker Ives adapted this interview for web.