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The 2022 documentary “Navalny” opens with filmmaker Daniel Roher posing a question to Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition figure whose notoriety is just shy of that of a folk hero and construed by many as the metaphorical “anti-Putin”, the possible vehicle of Russia’s redemption: What message would Navalny leave behind to the Russian people in the event of his death?
“Come on Daniel, no way,” Navalny responds. “It’s like you’re making a movie for the case of my death. Let it be another movie, movie number two.”
Alexei Navalny, leader of the oppositional Russia of the Future Party, founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, and lawyer, is often portrayed as somewhat of a last chance for a democratic Russia. Navalny certainly presents himself as one of the greatest existing threats to Putin’s regime.
It is perhaps with a touch of narcissism that he has propelled himself from the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, through to his poisoning and exile in Germany, and his cinematic return to Russia aboard a commercial flight surrounded by fervent reporters. It is perhaps that same touch that led him to proclaim, “Putin might as well hang a massive banner above the Kremlin: Alexei, please, do not under any circumstances come back home!”
Swept away by Navalny’s outward heroics, the documentary also touches briefly on his flirtations with Russia’s far-right, including his condemnation of corruption and Russia’s ruling party at the 2011 “Russian March.” But even while Navalny criticizes militarism, his condemnation often appears sourced from pragmatism, rather than a concern for human wellbeing. The film documents Navalny’s response to a question posed at a political rally about what he thinks of the wars in Ukraine and Syria, to which he says, “Do you want to pay for a war?”
While many of Navalny’s political inclinations appear to veer away from those that govern Russia today, this is not always the case regarding Ukraine. In 2014, he famously said that Crimea wasn’t just “a sausage sandwich to pass back and forth,” stating that it “will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine.”
Similarly on Bucha, Navalny noted that the body of a man with his surname had been recovered, along with hundreds of other civilians killed by Russian soldiers. “Everything indicates that they killed him because of his last name… Apparently, they hoped he was a relative of mine,” Navalny wrote. While it is unclear if he was correct that the man was targeted due to his surname, his passport was left next to his body. His name was Ilya Ivanovich Navalny. As it turns out, the two were related: Navalny’s father is from Chornobyl, and the man was a second cousin.
In another tweet, Navalny compared the cost of firing a Javelin missile to the number of views his team would generate to tell “the truth about what is happening in Ukraine,” as if ad funding was comparable or superior to tangible defense.
Roher’s documentary also follows Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator with Bellingcat, as he works with Navalny to expose Navalny’s poisoning by agents of the Kremlin in August 2020. We are shown Navalny aboard a flight to Moscow from Siberia, where he had filmed a piece on local corruption, screaming in agony following his poisoning by Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. “If you want to kill someone just shoot him, Jesus Christ,” Navalny says to the camera.
From the plane, Navalny is taken to a hospital where he is attended by a medical team, as his wife and supporters desperately push for his release. After several days, enough time has passed for the poison to leave his bloodstream, and he is finally airlifted to Germany.
Using cell phone records bought off the black market, Grozev links phone numbers to car registrations, identifying agents suspected of having participated in the operation. Their investigation reveals a large-scale team dedicated to the poisoning of Russian nationals, which Navalny says “could only have been authorized by Vladimir Putin.”
In the documentary’s hallmark scene, we see Navalny pose as an FSB officer and call on the suspects to demand a report on the failed assassination attempt. One of them gives him the whole story, revealing that poison was administered on the crotch of Navalny’s underwear. “If the flight was a bit longer, I think things would have gone the other way,” he says.
While Navalny did remain in Germany with the knowledge that, if he returned to Russia, he would certainly be arrested, he did not appear to stray from the path that would lead him back. On Jan. 17, 2021, he boarded a commercial flight to Moscow with his wife and a flock of reporters. “I will make an address to all of you once we are at the airport in Moscow,” he says to the reporters. “They won’t let us film in Moscow,” one replies. “Are you saying free speech is suppressed in Russia? I don’t think so,” Navalny says.
Crowds of supporters gather to greet him and are quickly met by anti-riot troops, who begin making arrests. Viewers watch as the plane circles and finally lands, and Navalny too is arrested.
From prison, he is far from silenced, as his Twitter account tweets to nearly three million followers. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Navalny has called for Russians to take to the streets in protest, lest they become “a nation of frightened silent people. Of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane tsar.”
Whether spurred to action by Navalny or not, some did take to the streets, although polls do show high rates of acceptance for the Kremlin’s narrative on the war among the Russian population. Regardless, Navalny’s words appear to have landed for some, and on March 22 he was sentenced to another nine years in prison.
As Navalny continues to call on the Russian people to “fight for peace,” which he dubs a central phrase of the Soviet Union, it remains difficult to distinguish him from the very system that regards Ukraine as nothing more than a Russian proxy, a mirrored extension of Russia and its national interests. As he calls for an end to the war, so too may he call for peace and autonomy as an inalienable right of the Ukrainian people, rather than a means to an end for Russia’s bottom line.
“Navalny” is available to stream on CNNgo.