| Photo: Sundance Institute/Disclosure
Alexei Navalny, the strongest antagonist Vladimir Putin’s smart and brave man once said, when he became famous years ago: “it will be troublesome for them if they kill me”. Today, however, he says: “Yes, I was very wrong.”
In August 2020, the journalist, comedian, dissident and politician noted how strange it was not to be bothered by the police while campaigning in Siberia. He would find out why he was treated so kindly on the way home when he became violently ill. On the long flight from Siberia to Moscow, he would have died had the pilot not made an emergency landing and provided first aid measures at the nearest hospital. When his wife managed to get him to a hospital in Berlin that was not crowded with Russian agents, doctors declared that Navalny had been poisoned with Putin’s murder weapon: Novichok, a lethal chemical that can infect just by touching the skin. . Putin might as well have left an autograph signed on a knife before shoving it into Navalny’s back. “Murder,” says Navalny, “is a great way to solve problems. But once you start killing, it’s hard to stop.”
Navalny, a moving and urgent documentary by Daniel Roher that just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before arriving on HBO Max later this year, doesn’t really answer the question we’ve longed to hear: how can a man with a wife and two boys keep sticking your head in places where Putin could cut it off? However, this cinematic portrayal of the bravest man in the world will polish Navalny’s profile and add some pressure on Putin to release him or at least let him live. Navalny is currently and indefinitely a guest of Pokrov Penal Colony #2, arrested on spurious charges. He is the world’s greatest political prisoner.
In the documentary, which covers particularly the last two years of Navalny’s electrifying life, the maverick handles hair-raising events with panache and wit. He has an abbreviation for the clumsy stupidity of Vladimir Putin’s henchmen: Moscow. He tells us that Putin’s intelligence chief’s email password, until it was hacked, was Moscow1. He switched to Moscow2 and got hacked again. So Moscow3, then. . . .
At its most fascinating, Navalny takes us through the work of detective for a Bulgarian ally named Christo Grozev, a data miner who blandly describes how he manages to get passenger lists from a travel agent he just paid dollars in cryptocurrency. By devouring mountains of such data, Grozev was able to discover the identities of the assassination squad members who traveled from Moscow to Siberia when Navalny traveled, and discover their phone numbers. After he recovered from the assassination attempt, Navalny began methodically calling out to each man on the crew to confront them about what they had done: “I was hoping you could tell me why you wanted to kill me,” he would ask, receiving a tone as an answer.
Opportunistically, we see Navalny assume an identity fake as an intelligence bureaucrat and call one of the scientists involved in the production of Novichok to discuss how the chemical was planted in Navalny: in his underwear, near his crotch. “We did exactly as planned,” says scientist Konstantin Kudryavtsev. “The way we rehearse many times.” Whenever Kudryavtsev claims that it is not appropriate to discuss such matters on an unsecured phone, Navalny keeps him talking anyway: Moscow4.
After Navalny posted this link on the internet, Putin gave a lighthearted discussion of the whole situation at a press conference, answering questions about why there was no criminal investigation into the bombing. against Navalny’s life, with claims that his antagonist is a CIA asset, adding with a laugh, “who cares about him? If that was the intention, they would have finished him off.” Kudryavtsev, however, later disappeared, indicating that the inadvertent confession of the attack was indeed important to Putin.
Navalny, who was in a coma for five weeks after the assassination attempt, decided as soon as he woke up that he would return to Russia and receive whatever punishment Putin could dream up. The documentary vibrates with tense footage of his nervous flight home, during which he was accompanied by a crowd of journalists. We watch as Navalny walks through the airport and heads towards the passport controllers – at which point we lose sight of him when the police say, “Come with us.”
Brief interviews with Navalny’s university wife and daughter make it clear that the family respects and honors his desire to continue fighting to free Russia from Putin’s grasp, but watching, you conclude that at some point someone would convince Navalny that he won’t be able to make any kind of counterpoint to Putin if he is killed. After being attacked with chemicals three times by the regime, Navalny would act wisely if he would stop proving his mettle and start thinking more strategically.
However, instead, he seems perfectly prepared to become a martyr. If Navalny comes out of prison to continue the fight, it will be a glorious day in Russian history. But all of his allies fear that degrading conditions in prison will simply end his life without Putin having to resort directly to assassination. There are many ways to kill a prisoner without looking like an executioner.
Invited to giving a farewell statement to the world in the event of the worst, Navalny says, “My message to the situation where I get killed is very simple: don’t give up.” He adds, “If they decided to kill me, it means we were incredibly strong.”
*Kyle Smith is a Fellow of the National Review Institute and a film critic.