There’s an extraordinary scene in the middle of “Navalny,” a must-watch documentary that tells the inspiring, scary, and profoundly important story of Alexei Navalny, the vitally popular Russian opposition leader who, as a presidential candidate, became such a threat to Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin tried to poison him. Most of the documentary, which was unveiled as a last-minute “surprise” entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition slate at Sundance, was shot in 2020 in Germany, where Navalny, tall and ruggedly handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a caustic intelligence (he’s like Daniel Craig’s towering boxer brother), holes up after the poisoning and tries to investigate what happened to him.
He teams up with the lone-wolf Bulgarian journalist hacker Christo Grozev (known as Bellincat), who in scenes worthy of a “Bourne” thriller is able to suss out the identities of the men who tailed Navalny to Tomsk, all on different flights, as part of an FSB hit squad. Armed with this information, Navalny, who’s a master of media (his YouTube show has millions of followers and he has posted hundreds of TikTok videos, some with 50 million views, that document the corruption of the Russian state), arranges for the exposé of his poisoning to break at the same moment all over the globe on Dec. 14, 2020. That morning, he makes a call to each of the men responsible, pretending to be a Kremlin higher-up wanting to know why the assassination didn’t go as planned.
Amazingly, one of the men — Konstantin Kudryavstev, a chemist who helped to orchestrate the operation — is fooled by Navalny’s ruse and admits, right over the phone (and on camera), to all of it. (“We did it just as planned, the way we rehearsed it many times. But in our profession, as you know, there are lots of unknowns and nuances.”) He’s basically confessing to state-sanctioned murder — and in doing so, he’s incriminating his boss, Vladimir Putin. One of Navalny’s associates claps her hand over her mouth in disbelief.
Navalny, who never ceases to be flabbergasted at how stupid — to use his word — the Russian authorities are, has a code name for that stupidity: Moscow 4. It refers to a Russian official whose password kept getting hacked, so he changed it from Moscow 1 to Moscow 2, then Moscow 3, then Moscow 4… For Navalny, the plodding thickheadedness of the Russian bureaucracy is part and parcel of the thuggish bluntness of its corruption. In the film, Navalny tells a story about his father, who lived two miles from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. When the Soviet authorities tried to cover up the catastrophe, he and others were forced to plant potatoes in irradiated soil to squelch rumors in the wake of the news clampdown. Navalny says that when he first saw Vladimir Putin’s face on TV, he knew he was looking at the that level of lying.
Yet “stupid,” for Navalny, is a kind of metaphor. No one, including him, thinks Vladimir Putin is stupid. What he does think is that Putin and the oligarchs who rose in tandem with him after the fall of the Soviet Union are looking for any excuse they can find to raid the country. It’s that belief that led Navalny, who was trained as a lawyer, to become an activist, to run for mayor of Moscow, and to launch his bid for the presidency near the end of 2016. Overnight, he became the first candidate who seemed to represent the plausible threat of a populist uprising against Putin. We see one of Navalny’s rallies, where he exhorts the crowd by shouting, “The people in power are corrupt thieves. Who is Vladimir Putin?” The crowd shouts “Thief!” They go back and forth. “Putin?” “Thief!” “Putin?” “Thief!” Then he says, showing his dark wit, “You said it, not me. Now the police have filmed us all.”
The authorities did not react well to Navalny’s campaign. Vladimir Putin will literally not say his name (Putin interviewed on TV: “In regards to the opposition and the citizen you mentioned…”), and in April 2017, Navalny was attacked outside his office in the Anti-Corruption Foundation by unknown assailants, who sprayed some kind of green toxic liquid in his face, an incident Navalny recalls by saying, “My first thought was, ‘Jesus, I will be some kind of a monster until the end of my days’.” He wasn’t disfigured, but he reportedly lost 80 percent of the vision in his right eye. The office was raided, and he was banned from newspapers and television, and from holding rallies.
Navalny figured that as he got more famous, he would actually be safer, because the regime couldn’t get away with just killing him. “I was very wrong,” he admits with a grin, facing the camera from the bar of an empty restaurant. With a mordant sense of humor about himself, he says of the documentary and its director, Daniel Roher, “I realize that he’s filming it all for the movie he’s gonna release if I get whacked.” We meet Navalny’s close-knit family: his wife, Yulia, who shares his moral gravity, though they have a playful give-and-take (she’s passionate about chess; he prefers Call of Duty), as well as his son, Zakhar, and his 19-year-old daughter, Dasha, who tells a moving story about his not being there for her high-school graduation because he was in jail. But her belief in him shines through her tears like a light.
It’s fair to say that Navalny has joined the ranks of such legendary Russian dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and of crusaders outside Russia like Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. That he was nearly killed made him a semi-martyr, but at the risk of sounding facile about it, that he survived the attack on his life elevated him to something like a superhero of freedom.
The film flashes back to the poisoning, and it could be the most sickening and calamitous suspense-thriller episode you ever saw, with Navalny first feeling the symptoms on a plane (we see cell-phone video, where his cries of agony sound barely human), which then makes an emergency landing. He’s taken to a Siberian hospital, but Yulia, standing in a corridor where there are more Russian officials than doctors, has to fight her way up to the room to see him. She finally schemes to get him out, because she fears — with justification — that if he stays in that hospital he won’t survive. (We later learn that the doctors were communicating with the FSB.) It’s German chancellor Angela Merkel who comes to the rescue, flying Navalny on an ambulance plane to Berlin, where he’s placed in the hands of doctors who revive him.
Navalny was poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, which disappears from the body within hours and is nearly impossible to trace. Ironically, it’s been called Putin’s signature poison. Navalny waits until Putin speaks at a press conference (“This patient at the Berlin clinic is receiving support from the CIA…But that doesn’t mean he should be poisoned. Who cares about him?”). He then posts the footage of his conversation with the chemist: a smoking gun that becomes a global media bomb. But though Navalny openly mocks his antagonist’s Old World assassin methods (“If you want to kill someone,” he says, “just shoot him! Jesus Christ”), the truth is that he knew he was placing himself at severe risk when he decided to return to Russia.
We see his return on Jan, 17, 2021, with a throng waiting for him at the Moscow airport, and the police cracking down on them as the plane approaches. If they’re arresting protesters, what chance is there that they’ll let Navalny through? None. They take him away. The documentary doesn’t even tell us what his trial was for (in fact, it was for violating probation), because this was a show trial: His crime was being Vladimir Putin’s nemesis. At the end, there’s a candid phone-video shot of Navalny at Pokrov Penal Colony No. 2, where he narrowly survived a hunger strike and now faces up to 20 years in prison. But the film ends with his words, in Russian, to the Russian people, and they are stirring, because what he knows is that this struggle is much bigger than him. It’s the fight against authoritarian rule in the 21st century, a fight that no nation is immune from.
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