What does it take to do combat with an authoritarian leader? What techniques does it take to maneuver in a closed system where the media are vicious mouthpieces of their authoritarian leader and prison is the price for free speech? What human qualities does it take to mount the seemingly quixotic quest of seeking to oppose — and even depose — this authoritarian leader, meanwhile expecting to live a full personal life?
It takes the courageous likes of Alexei Navalny, leading opposition leader to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, anti-corruption campaigner of international stature, and protagonist in the documentary “Navalny,” directed by Daniel Roher.
Fascinating in its detail, the film explores all the above questions. Doing combat with an authoritarian leader requires full-on, full-time direct engagement: Equivocation is impossible, calling out Putin constantly as a “thief” and “corrupt” is the only way to pierce through the state-sponsored terror. Techniques to mount such campaign include coalition-building across all sectors of Russian society; a personal team complete with dedicated anti-corruption investigators and an anti-corruption foundation; and a mastery of social media (Navalny has 30 million followers, a sizeable chunk of Russia’s 146 million). The human qualities that this seemingly quixotic project requires are on display in full in this film: not only courage, but strategic thinking, wiliness (Navalny trained as a lawyer), no small amount of charm and wit, but mainly the steely determination that your country’s leader should not be a thief and corrupt. (Navalny opted to run for president in 2018, on an anti-corruption platform, but was “disallowed” on bogus political grounds.)
Of course, calling your presiding authoritarian leader a thief and corrupt can get you killed — which Navalny nearly was a number of times, most notoriously in August 2020, when he was poisoned by Putin’s thugs while traveling in Siberia. Miraculously he survived, saved when his return flight was rerouted to Germany (Berlin). Calling your presiding authoritarian leader a thief and corrupt can also get you arrested — which he was when, defying expectation, he announced that, once recovered from his near-death experience, he would return to Russia. The film ends with Navalny greeting Russian security — “I really missed you guys” — and escorted to prison. In return, what such courage gets you is heartfelt support from your followers, with masses showing up at the Moscow airport to welcome you back. As one matron put it, movingly: “Since Navalny decided to come back, we have to greet him, because he is now the symbol of Russia’s freedom.”
Like another historical figure now in the news — Ukraine president Volodymyr (“I don’t need a ride, I need ammo”) Zelensky — the human qualities of dedication and purpose are coupled with an anti-human capacity to run toward the danger, toward the lethal peril.
The film becomes a compelling procedural — who tried to kill Navalny? — with the early entrance of Bellingcat, the independent investigative collective. Its principal Russia investigator, a Bulgarian journalist named Christo Grozev (shown in Vienna’s famed coffeehouse Café Sperl), realizing Russian media would never investigate a Kremlin-sponsored poisoning and Germany didn’t have jurisdiction, created a file and, citing Bellingcat’s “almost autistic fascination with data,” plumbed the data — flights taken by suspects, the manufacture of the nerve agent Novichok (Putin’s “signature” poison) — and soon uncovered a “nest of wasps.” Reaching out to Navalny via Twitter — “Alexie, I think we may have found out who poisoned you” — he joins Navalny to solve the case.
It is no spoiler to note, since it’s widely discussed, that the film’s highlight is Navalny pranking various of the perpetrators. With the first two, he identifies himself as Navalny and asks, “I was hoping you could tell me why you wanted to kill me?”; both quickly hang up. But with the third, Navalny impersonates a higher-up, wanting to know why the “operation” failed and “how we could succeed next time.” Astonishingly, this perp responds: “I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I would rate the job well done. We did it just as planned, the way we rehearsed many times.” The reaction of Navalny’s team is priceless. Unlike the cruel regime they’re pranking, it’s immediately proposed (by Grozev) that they secure this perp’s defection, as the “humanitarian” thing to do, or else he’s a dead man walking.
This film also documents, in telling and chilling ways, the character of authoritarianism itself. In addition to the business-like attitude the perps take in assassinating their fellow citizens, the Russian media, in the regime’s pocket, belies the regime’s murderous intent. Chief example is a TV moderator’s rant about the ineptitude of the “assassins” (this term is actually used by a panelist), which self-incriminatingly culminates thus: “Eight guys with degrees in chemistry can’t do anything to one clunkhead for years!” Putin himself will not say Navalny’s name, calling him “that citizen” or “that character in a Berlin clinic.”
And now Navalny sits in prison, in solitary. His family reports his health is not good, his back pain exacerbated by the tight confinement. Russian prisons are famously brutal places; it is not clear if Navalny will survive.
Navalny’s journey to this moment was not straight-line. Until a decade ago he was a declared nationalist who participated in far-right Russian Marches and waged war on “illegal immigration”; he also supported Russia’s invasion of the republic of Georgia and used ethnic slurs against Georgians and Ukrainians. Thus it’s fair to ask, Is his new anti-corruption campaign just an opportunistic cover for a nationalism that still does little for the workers? Noted Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker on Navalny’s political evolution, says she was initially skeptical of Navalny’s motives, but, after investigating, now believes he is “trying to imagine a post-imperial Russian national identity”: “[F]or recognizing corruption as the biggest political problem of our times, and for risking limb and life to fight it, Navalny deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.”
In the film, Bellingcat’s Grozev says he too wondered, How independent was Navalny? “Was he another fake opposition figure created by the Kremlin?” Navalny, he says, once “flirted with the extreme right,” walking “side by side with some really nasty nationalists and racists.” Had he “moved beyond all that and become a reverse Dark Knight?”
The answer seems Yes, based on the evidence, not just of this film, but of his present suffering — for that is what it is: suffering — for a New Day in Russia. Navalny knew prison was his brutal fate if he returned to his homeland, yet he chose it anyway. As of now, Navalny faces up to 30 years is prison. Tellingly, the films shows neither his family nor his team tried to dissuade him from returning: They all knew; so did he. In an ironclad system, Navalny, though now in prison, leads his life: As Albert Camus wrote, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” From prison Navalny recently messaged that Crimea’s present borders, and Ukraine’s, should be honored, thus defying Putin’s imperialist delusions in invading Ukraine — and perhaps exonerating himself from his own earlier xenophobic nationalism. Character is destiny, the ancients said — all the more poignantly for character rehabilitated. (Whether Ukrainians accept Navalny’s rehabilitation is another matter….)
This film was released last April, six weeks after Putin launched his criminal war in Ukraine, thus the war does not figure nor even prefigure in the film. Which does not undercut this film’s value at all, but enhances it. By accompanying Alexei Navalny through the stations of the cross, as it were, as he prepares to meet his fate — getting a sense of his purpose, intensity, ground reality, wit — we can better relate to the Alexei Navalny now, firing off fiery messages from his cell to the Russian people, urging them to resist Putin’s “stupid” war in Ukraine, urging them to throw off “madman” Putin. “Urging” them? More like daring them.
One hopes the Russian people hear him. One hopes such courageous patriot survives his Hell.
“Navalny” is nominated for best documentary in the 2023 Oscars (airing next Sunday). This film can be viewed at CNN or streamed online. An endnote to the film reads: “While Navalny was recovering in Germany, his team was making a top secret investigative video. Two days after Navalny returned to Russia, they released ‘Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Biggest Bribe.’ Within a week it was viewed over 100 million times. Navalny’s arrest and the video’s release inspired widespread protests across Russia.” For dubbed version of this video, see here.