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  • Mike

The Labyrinth Threatens

We, along with most others, were both shocked at the news of the death of Alexei Navalny, the arch opponent of Putin. We had expected to hear of further charges against him, of declining health. But not this. Not now. It will take time for the whole story to emerge but there seems little doubt that it was a state-authorised murder not ‘natural causes’ as Kremlin sources would have us believe. Navalny simply disappeared slowly into the legal-penal labyrinth. It sounds very much like Kafka.

We should not think that this labyrinth is simply a Russian problem. Two cases going through the UK courts here are very different from this, to be sure. But again the labyrinth of officialdom looms. News today that the rejection of the appeal by Shamima Begum against the decision to strip her of her UK citizenship meaning that she will have to remain in Syria where there are threats to her well-being. We also have seen this week the continuing process of Julian Assange’s appeal against extradition to the United States where he would very probably face a lengthy prison sentence. The charge against both is that they are in different ways threats to national security. Both processes have dragged on for years. Human beings caught in huge punishing bureaucratic labyrinths, whatever the right and wrongs of the particular situation.

All these cases involve at some level a conflict between the security and well-being of the majority over against the freedom of the individual. ‘The greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people’ has always been a major political issue. Of course that means that difficult minorities may suffer if they get in the way of majority or at least of powerful interests even if they are innocent. As Navalny did.

All of this is immeasurably beyond my pay grade.

However we can learn something small from these huge stories. We all find ourselves drawn into various labyrinths. We will all have felt great frustration at some time when we have reached a dead-end on some helpline which we have found most unhelpful. Getting an appointment with a medic at the local NHS facility can be a problem for most of us at some time. ‘For all other customer enquiries press #4…’. Or ‘this is not our problem, you need to contact the supplier…’

The problem is one of access. Of being blocked.

The labyrinth is a concept of ancient origin. And it has endured because being blocked, being thwarted in our plans, is an experience which is as old as the hills. There has been a renewed interest in the idea of labyrinths in recent years. Some cathedrals have them as permanent features in their floors, like Gloucester and the oldest and most famous one in Chartres. And you may well find them painted on the ground in children’s playgrounds. They have lasting appeal because they symbolise the basic human desire and need to find a way out of bewildering situations, and the frustration of not finding it.

Navalny paid with his life stuck in an Arctic Siberian penal labyrinth because of his immense courage. But it is widely reported that he was also sustained by an irrepressible humour and hope that his country could be a happier place. He dreamed of a ‘happy Russia’.

It remains to be seen if Navalny’s sacrifice will contribute to the realisation of his dream. But his courage and hopefulness are a lesson to us all.




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