As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, Vladimir Putin remains the West’s Public Enemy #1. But Putin has his own nemesis and it isn’t Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It’s Alexei Navalny, the outspoken and hugely popular leader of Russia’s opposition, what little there is of it to be seen. Oh, it exists but to be an enemy of Putin is risky business, as the award-winning CNN-HBO documentary, NAVALNY, shows.
Back in 2020, the charismatic political figure took Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher (ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND) with him to the Siberian city of Tomsk where he wanted to bring attention to the corruption that exists there. As the camera rolled, Navalny made light of the curious absence of police that day, mildly bothered that his being there wasn’t important enough to warrant their attention. As it turned out though, the authorities were well aware of his visit. On his flight back to Moscow, Navalny started crying out in agony. The pilot quickly diverted the plane to nearby Omsk and Navalny was whisked off to a hospital where there were strict instructions that he receive no visitors, including his equally formidable wife, Yulia, who quickly flew in from Moscow. Under tremendous pressure from EU leaders, Navalny was eventually airlifted to a hospital in Berlin where doctors there identified that he had been poisoned with novichok, the same nerve agent that was used on former Russian military officer and British spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, two years earlier in the British city of Salisbury. Simply put, novichok is Putin’s calling card.
Roher caught up with Navalny after his release from hospital when he went to the Black Forest for five months to recuperate. The filmmaker pulls no punches with his subject, asking him about his dangerous alliance with Russia’s extreme right. Navalny is well aware of what these people stand for but he’s also a pragmatist. It’s a case of his enemy’s enemy being his friend. While in Germany, Navalny meets Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, who has a knack for getting incriminating information off the Dark Web. Here’s where the story takes a fascinating turn. Through Grozev’s sleuthing, they are able to piece together who poisoned Navalny and, in a piece of filmmaking that seems too bizarre to be true, Navalny calls each of these men up to ask them about their mission. Amazingly, one of them admits to doing it. It’s truly hard to believe that Putin’s agents could be so inept but they were… are… were.
The Navalnys may have been able to live quiet lives in the West if they so chose but that’s not what Alexei, or Yulia, for that matter, wanted. In 2021, Navalny flew back to Moscow and was promptly arrested upon his arrival. He is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence though no one believes he will ever make it out alive. He has decided to be a martyr.
A friend of mine has a favourite saying, “When authoritarian regimes crumble, they do so with surprising speed.” For now, Putin is still in power and the war in Ukraine goes on.
NAVALNY has already garnered a number of prestigious accolades including a BAFTA and a PGA Award. It’s also up for the Oscar award for Best Documentary and will probably win.
The film is streaming now exclusively on HBO Max. It’s shocking, it’s fascinating, it’s funny and it’s sad. It’s also must-see viewing.
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