«Murder is a terrific way to solve problems. But once you’ve started killing, it’s hard to stop», says Alexei Navalny in a sardonic assessment of the Kremlin’s method of quashing dissent. And he should know — he narrowly escaped death by poisoning from nerve agent Novichok, believed to be president Vladimir Putin’s signature hit weapon, in an assassination attempt in 2020, while taking a plane from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. The Russian opposition leader is the namesake and subject of Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny, screening at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival. The film offers a broad sense of Navalny as a man and a political figure pitted against Russia’s increasingly authoritarian leader. It hones in on his investigation, together with open-source citizen journalism organisation Bellingcat, into the plot of his own poisoning, finding that truth really is as bizarre as fiction.
The film offers a broad sense of Navalny as a man and a political figure pitted against Russia’s increasingly authoritarian leader.
A modern thriller
Navalny opens with Navalny and Roher debating what kind of documentary this should be. «Let’s make a thriller», says the opposition leader, chiding the director for potentially recording footage for «a boring movie of memory» should he «get whacked». The sensational circumstances around the poisoning, Navalny’s recovery in Germany, and dramatic return to face arrest in Russia are, indeed, what gripping political thrillers are made of. But the conversation, even while half-joking, underlines that today’s landscape of power struggle in Russia is very much centred around who controls the narrative, through rampant disinformation and silencing, or counter-tactics that break through the propaganda-hold Putin has on the Russian people. The fact Putin even refuses to refer to Navalny by name in television segments conveys the fear the Kremlin, desperate to neutralise any genuine opposition threat, has that widespread popularity could gain momentum around Navalny as a personality, even as they fear repressing him too openly will make him a martyr in citizens’ eyes.
Footage of the day of Navalny’s poisoning shows his Moscow-bound plane making an emergency landing in Omsk after he has taken ill and his wife Julija fighting for him to be transported to Berlin for treatment. It is dramatic, even while offering little that we have not already seen in extensive news coverage. Suspense builds around the way an unofficial investigation, led by Christo Grozev of Bellingcat (a «Bulgarian nerd with a laptop», as an initially skeptical Navalny calls him), is able to unearth the identities of the kill squad. Grozev once doubted Navalny’s authenticity as an opposition figure rather than a government plant to fake an illusion of democratic choices (a common practice of the Russian state). But in this treacherous world where agendas are never entirely out on the table, they come to trust one another and identify the eight men from the FSB who had trailed Navalny on trips across Russia for years. We have close-up insight into the methods of Bellingcat, which deciphers evidence through its digital traces, using data brokers on the dark web to buy phone records and flight logs. The Russian state is operating «a domestic assassination scheme, on an industrial scale», they contend, with the government paying a team of more than twenty people whose only job is to kill dissenters. The sheer unbelievability of such a brazen operation paradoxically protects it.
Tension peaks as Navalny calls his killers on the phone one by one to question them about the plot — and succeeds in hoodwinking one scientist into admitting in a later-published tape that they focused the poison on his underwear and other details.
The sheer unbelievability of such a brazen operation paradoxically protects it.
The power of the web
Bellingcat’s results are impressive — even as Navalny contends, with his typical, irreverent sarcasm, that the FSB is characterised by a stupidity he has nicknamed «Moscow 4», after a Russian official’s easy-to-hack password changes. The Kremlin denied the authenticity of the recording, accusing Navalny of delusions of persecution and a Freudian fixation on his own crotch area; accusations almost as outlandish as claims in the state-sanctioned media that he took ill not from poison but from drinking moonshine or a cocaine-fuelled gay sex orgy, or taking an illegal anti-depressant sourced from the United States. In a surreal Russia, in other words, where it can be hard to distinguish between conspiracy theories and over-the-top realities, the fight for the narrative that citizens believe goes on. Navalny knows the power of the internet and social media in this battle. He has made TikTok crucial in spreading his words, posting hundreds of videos on his diggings into corruption. His 2021 documentary Putin’s Palace, about an alleged corruption scheme headed by Putin over the construction of a lavish dacha in the Caucasus, released on Navalny’s YouTube channel, was viewed over 100 million times in a week when uploaded.
Roher stays close to Navalny through the filming, showing a warmer and more human side to the steely and fearless, sometimes blunt opposition figure, as he feeds a donkey and pony with his family while recuperating in Germany’s Black Forest. But the film is not just smooth public relations. Navalny’s controversial connections to the far-right early in his career are addressed, albeit cursorily. As there are many nationalists in Russia, one must associate with them to secure power, he declares, even calling it his «political superpower» to talk to anyone. Brutal pragmatism, then, is couched as a necessity. But there is idealism, too. We hear little about Navalny’s formative years. Still, we learn that his father grew up close to Chernobyl and that the state lies surrounding the disaster politicised the family around the need to vocalise the truth to one another. Navalny appeals directly to the audience to follow his courage in dissent and not give up. «If they kill me, it means we are incredibly strong», he says — an astute observation that the harsher the repression of citizens, the weaker and more fearful the state.