Alexei Navalny has been the most prominent campaigner against Russia’s massive oil-fueled corruption, reaching millions of viewers with witty video exposés. Now imprisoned in a penal colony after returning to Moscow following his recovery from a poisoning, he has made his own bodily suffering a potent symbol of protest, tapping into a deep Russian tradition of dissent.

His enemies see him as an illegitimate pretender to the Russian throne. His fans are captivated by his ability to survive assassinations and withstand torture. I was among those who nominated Alexei Navalny for the Nobel Peace Prize, and I am going to explain why I believe he deserves this honor.

The award will be announced in October 2021, and the ceremony will take place in Oslo in December. Concerned world leaders, excited Russian émigrés, and former Peace Prize laureates (such as Lech Wałęsa, who also nominated him) would all congratulate the dissident with much gusto. Navalny would look good in a tailcoat; for all his vivacity, there is something old-fashionedly prim and direct in his bearing. But he will not have the chance to wear one: Navalny will stay in a penal colony east of Moscow, where his only possible moves are to a punishment cell or the prison hospital.

In a June interview with NBC, President Vladimir Putin refused to guarantee that Navalny will get out of prison alive. But on this and many other occasions, Putin avoided mentioning Navalny’s name, using strange figures of speech (“a Berlin patient,” “this prisoner”) as if he had neurotic fears about saying it aloud, or—as Moscow gossip has it—because the Russian president’s favorite hermit from Mount Athos forbade him from naming his enemy. In the meantime, policemen search the branches of Navalny’s political organization, his followers are banned from taking part in elections, and a young man has been sent to prison merely for wearing a T-shirt that said “Freedom for Navalny.”

If Navalny were awarded the Peace Prize, he would be the fourth laureate to receive it while incarcerated. The first was Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist who received the prize in 1935 for revealing the details of German rearmament, which was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans were rebuilding their aviation industry in secret collaboration with the Soviets, training their pilots on bases in Western Russia (as shown recently in Babylon Berlin, a noir television series). Ossietzky investigated these classified activities in a series of scandal-provoking articles. Convicted of treason in 1931, he was granted amnesty a year later but refused to emigrate. Immediately after engineering the Reichstag fire of 1933, the Nazis arrested Ossietzky again. He accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in a note that his friends smuggled from a concentration camp near Oldenburg where he endured long-term torture. The Nazis banned any mention of Ossietzky’s name and forbade German citizens from accepting future Nobel prizes.

Several months later, Ossietzky died of tuberculosis, which he caught in the camp. A few years after that, Nazi pilots annihilated the Soviet airfields and schools that had given them shelter and training. In 1991, the University of Oldenburg was renamed after Ossietzky. It was not easy: university officials and the state of Lower Saxony had to go to court over this renaming, with the local authorities fighting against it.

The Nobel Peace Prize is akin to canonization, and Ossietzky’s story demonstrates two conditions that turn a public figure into a secular saint. One is bravery and strength under torture; the other is less obvious. A true hero of our time chooses to address its most strategic, historically central issue while it is still invisible to others. Such a figure is more than a prophet—she is a rainmaker. The secret of her art, her particular miracle, is turning her discoveries into banalities, or even obscenities, that the public appropriates as its own. In doing so, she shapes dominant perceptions of the core issue of her time—anticipations of the forthcoming catastrophe. For Ossietzky, this issue was German rearmament. For Navalny, it is Russian corruption.

A lawyer by training, Navalny has reshaped himself into a single-purpose journalist and politician. In online videos enjoyed by millions of Russians, he has exposed the large-scale acts of graft and theft committed by high-ranking Russian officials. Navalny has made it clear that there is more to this “corruption” than financial crimes of absurd proportions. When a modern state, with its monopoly on violence and taxation, turns into a storehouse of illegitimate wealth, it taints its own citizens and infects other countries with massive distortions of truth and justice. For politicians, the massive, trillion-dollar scale of this enterprise makes it too big to fail; for common people, it is too large to see.

This is where Navalny’s art—his visual, ironic, personalized rhetoric—comes to the rescue. One after another, Navalny’s exposés turned dozens of elected politicians and selected oligarchs into comically hapless targets. He revealed their manors, yachts, bodyguards, and courtesans. He contrasted their senseless, tasteless luxury with their relatively modest salaries and the even more modest results of their executive activities. He combined screenshots of financial statements with bird’s-eye views (often captured by drones) of Palladian columns, Olympic pools, and gargantuan meadows, all fenced in by very tall walls and guarded by very muscular keepers.

His ultimate weapon is his own suffering body.

For all the visual ingenuity of his videos, the true secret of Navalny’s success was his continuous commentary—funny, relentless, and sometimes bawdy. In a 2017 video unveiling the grand palace of Russia’s then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, he zoomed in on a neoclassical cottage in the middle of a lake. The cottage turned out to be built for ducks. Quacking rubber ducks became a symbol for Medvedev among protesting youth.

In his January 2021 report on a palace on the Black Sea that allegedly belonged to Putin—and, of course, was many times bigger than Medvedev’s—Navalny reveled in detailing a gold-plated toilet brush and a ludicrous “acqua disco” with a stripper pole located in convenient proximity to the master bedroom. Yes, his comments were poshly, a Russian word celebrated by Vladimir Nabokov that simultaneously translates as “vulgar,” “posh,” and “slimy.” But what was truly poshly was Putin’s villa.

Symbolically, Putin’s most notorious crony, Evgeny Prigozhin—who is believed to have organized Russian military operations in Ukraine, the St. Petersburg troll factory that made propaganda for Donald Trump, and, most recently, mercenary camps in the Central African Republic—started his career as Putin’s personal chef. For these people, the move from their outlandish kitchens at home to reckless aggression abroad is quick and easy.

Refusing to pay taxes or comply with regulations while accessing unlimited resources, these princes of darkness preach and practice turbo-charged Machiavellian policies with the sole purpose of spreading their corruption. These people have no fear of the state; they are the state. Inept managers, they are efficient corrupters. Every untaxed and uncontrolled dollar buys, bribes, and kills more than a regulated one. Corrupted wealth generates more evil per dollar, and this explains its global expansion. There is a gradient of corruption, and corrupted rulers push it forward, working through their trade partners, agents, and mercenaries.

Corruption is imperialist in the same way that colonization was. But it always defeats its purpose. After a billion dollars were spent on its construction, Putin’s palace was eaten by mildew. Many more stolen millions were wasted on its reconstruction, which remains unfinished—this time, due to Navalny’s revelations.

Navalny’s art offers a peaceful, progressive response to the global corruption crisis. In fighting this scourge, he carries on the noble tradition of the muckrakers—American journalists of the Progressive era. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who first spoke of the “men with the muck rakes,” using an image from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to weigh in on the aggressive journalism of his time. These muckrakers were truly influential: for example, the publications of the historian and investigative journalist Ida Tarbell led to the passage of antitrust legislation and the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company.

Another of the historians who discovered, with much surprise, the forces of corruption in the new democratic era was John Dalberg-Acton, a professor at Cambridge, who wrote that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Taking this statement a step farther, I would say that total corruption destroys totally. Yet there are limits to this mildew. At home, the limits are set by saintly heroes like Ossietzky or Navalny. Abroad, the global public is losing patience as it watches how dark money is used for poisoning enemies, bribing officials, bullying courts, and interfering in elections.

Navalny aired his “Putin’s Palace” exposé immediately after being poisoned in Siberia, healing in Germany, and returning to Russia. The video was watched over 100 million times. Responding to Navalny’s call, on January 23, more than 100,000 people took part in peaceful protests that stopped traffic in 110 Russian cities. More than 3,000 were arrested that day.

But the palace is still home to mildew rather than, say, orphans or the elderly. Moscow lurches from one lockdown to the next, while Navalny remains in prison. Would he have achieved more if he had stayed in Germany? Igniting revolution from abroad is a well-tested Russian tradition. Alexander Herzen, Leon Trotsky, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did that.

Navalny’s return needs a strategic explanation. With his training in law and finance, his short but memorable fellowship term at Yale in 2010, his fluent English and hipster looks, Navalny is very much a part of the global cosmopolitan elite. However, he has spent most of his political career deconstructing this image. He talked approvingly about “conservatism,” proposed to regulate the growing presence of foreign guestworkers, and mixed the crowds of “nationalists” and “liberals” while marching on the streets of Moscow. Clearly, he was distancing himself from the global rent-seekers, resource traders, and mega-polluters whom he and his followers correctly see as enemies. At a time when every nation is unhappy with its elite, Russia’s oily cosmopolitans appear particularly unproductive.

While oligarchs keep their families in Europe or North America, Navalny and his family insisted on returning to Moscow. He paid for it with a coma, a hunger strike, and now the moral humiliation and sensory deprivation typical of Russian penal colonies. His ultimate weapon is his own suffering body. The aims are global, but the means are singular.

This reinvented biopolitics is what the ancient martyrs did while fighting with their times. Also rejecting emigration, Andrei Sakharov, the wisest of Russian dissidents, voluntarily presented his body for humiliation, torture, and hunger. More recently, the “actionists” such as Petr Pavlensky contributed their shocking corporeal performances—arguably the most original and effective branch of modern art—to the protest culture of the 2010s.

Hopefully, Navalny’s choice will be appreciated by the embattled Nobel Committee. Much more importantly, I hope it will be celebrated by post-pandemic Russian voters. But I have no doubt that it will be remembered by global historians.