Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader whose arrest in January 2021 sparked the country’s largest demonstrations in years, is used to being photographed.
He’s tall, handsome, sandy-haired, and has an expressively hangdog face, and he’s a pro at appearing both disarming and indomitable while being filmed, which he is frequently – in news anchor style for his popular weekly YouTube series investigating Kremlin corruption; at rallies where he leads crowds in a “Putin! Thief!” call and response; and on the plane from Germany back to Moscow, surrounded by media as he Navalny makes calm comments while depositing his bags in overhead bins, while being surrounded by smartphone cameras. “As is customary,” he argues, “our government can be described as fearful.”
Navalny, a 98-minute documentary by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher, reveals the Kremlin’s fear of Navalny, possibly the largest danger to Vladimir Putin’s authority at home, in lucid, tense, and captivating form. The majority of the film, which had a surprise Sundance debut this week, is set in Navalny’s Black Forest hideaway during the second half of 2020, as he and his tight crew uncover the murder plan against him and prepare to go public with bombshell revelations.
Those results are astounding, both in terms of the effort put in by a Kremlin team and the shear incompetence with which they went about putting an end to a years-long scheme to assassinate Navalny. (I feel compelled to mention that the Russian government denies any participation.)
Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist with the Bellingcat group, and Maria Pevchikh, the head investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, uncover a plot straight out of a movie (there are even symbolic pinned photos on a map webbed with red yarn, which Roher films tenderly): doughy, dopey agents who followed Navalny for three years and poisoned him with the nerve agent novichok, a poison that essentially (In 2018, two Russian intelligence officials poisoned exiled former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England; both survived, and the act sparked an international outcry.)
In a sit-down interview with Navalny’s chief of staff, some claim that novichok is Putin’s favourite murder tactic, similar to “leaving his signature on the crime scene.” The plot’s audacity is nearly amazing — “even reasonable people are like what?” says one character. “Poison?” you could ask.
In his last interview with Roher before returning to Russia, Navalny tells him this. (Immediately after the poisoning, Navalny was detained in a Russian hospital against his wife Yulia’s wishes, then moved to a hospital in Germany, where he recovered for months.)
Navalny’s inner group, including Grozev, Pevchikh, Yulia (stout, unfazed, plays chess), and his 19-year-old, American-accented daughter Daria, a university student in California, are included in the film. These sit-downs provide some human flavor to the more procedural sequences of a famous dissident at work, but they don’t reveal anything that can’t be deduced from just seeing the war room.
The parallel to a Hollywood plot is fair; one moment in which Navalny prank phones his would-be assassins and convinces one of them into revealing plan specifics — how they poisoned his blue underwear, how they cleaned away evidence – had my jaw on the floor.
This isn’t a brand-new piece of knowledge. Since December 2020, the disclosures here, including the prank call, have been widely broadcast by international media and Navalny himself (a natural handler of social media, Navalny is very cognizant of his views and likes on YouTube and even TikTok, one of the more intriguing characteristics Roher manages to capture). You may already be aware of the whole tale, depending on your level of international political knowledge (mine is obviously poor).
If you do, I suppose Navalny provides a quick and devastating summary while avoiding some of the more thorny background — for example, Navalny’s political past as a Russian nationalist, which deserves a question from Roher but left me with many more.
If you’re starting from scratch, Navalny is a feast of progressively implausible information and a peek into a movement against a more boldfaced, degrading condition of affairs. Navalny was detained and stays in a jail camp 60 miles east of Moscow after his acclaimed return to Russia in January 2021.
However, given the images of joy that greeted his escape and return, as well as the assurance with which Navalny talks to Roher in this moment, the film provides optimism for a better, more free future in Russia, despite the continual shock of governmental violence.