‘Let’s make a thriller out of this movie,” suggests Alexei Navalny to his director, Daniel Roher. “And then, if I am killed, you can make a boring movie of memory.” It’s typical of the man: for someone in a situation of such precarity, Navalny seemingly struggles to take anything too seriously. It’s clearly a defence mechanism – and in the circumstances, who can blame him? The alternative might involve surrendering to despair, and that would help no one.
And anyway, Navalny has been living on the edge for long enough to be used to it. This startling, terrifying documentary (BBC Two) offers up a potted history of Navalny’s anti-Putin, pro-democracy activism. At times, he seems like a one-man opposition: equal parts politician, provocateur and investigative journalist. He’s not ideologically bound – in fact, there’s an interesting segment where Roher probes his brief, pragmatic-going-on-troubling alliance of convenience with the far right. But mainly, he’s portrayed in the mainstream Russian media as that most dreaded of things: a liberal.
Navalny is very much a figure of his era. He namechecked The Wire and enjoyed social media discourse with its creator, David Simon. Much of his most successful work has involved exploiting social media and mobile filming technology, which is partly why his name has spread so far beyond Russia. For Navalny, social media is a weapon and a shield. When, for example, he and his wife, Yulia, board the plane that is returning them to Moscow, he is relieved rather than irritated to be greeted by a forest of filming phones. When you oppose a regime that shrouds its deeds in darkness, there cannot be too much light. But did Navalny overestimate the protection his fame – and people’s fascination with him – was offering? “As I became more famous, I was sure my life was becoming safer. Because it would become problematic for them to kill me.” He pauses for a moment before remarking wryly: “I was very wrong.”
Yes he was. Navalny’s 2020 near-death experience occasioned by Russia’s signature nerve agent novichok is the heart of this film. While recovering in Germany, he joins forces with Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev (“a nice Bulgarian nerd with a laptop”) in an attempt to dig out the facts about his poisoning. What ensues is remarkable – the point at which Navalny enters the realms of the entertaining but far-fetched espionage thriller. With a surprising degree of ease, Grozev and Navalny’s small team uncover the identities of the Federal Security Service (FSB) agents sent to kill him. They even get their phone numbers. And then, Navalny rings them, one by one, to ask why they did it.
At first, it doesn’t go well, mainly because Navalny can’t resist saying who he is. The agents simply hang up. Eventually, though, he poses as a Kremlin investigator, looking to explore the reasons for the mission’s failure. Soon enough, one of his would-be assassins is singing like a canary. The ensuing conversation is one of the most jaw-dropping things you’ll ever witness – it’s clearly all in a day’s work for the agent who, as Navalny fights to keep the incredulous glee out of his voice, drones on about dosage, the exact placement of the poison in Navalny’s underpants and the annoyingly quick reactions of the emergency services. “Poor guy,” smirks Navalny at the end of the conversation. “They will kill him.”
Navalny’s resistance cell has a small, charmingly ad hoc air about it. But the film brilliantly captures the innate foolishness of his opponents, too – the absurdity as well as the darkness. There is always, in the end, something innately laughable about autocracies – probably because the distortions necessary to sustain their poisonous fictions can eventually only play out as either horror or comedy. At one point, a Kremlin-endorsed talkshow posits liberals’ “endless homosexuality” as an explanation for Navalny’s weakness and near-death. Vladimir Putin goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid even saying Navalny’s name, which, believe it or not, doesn’t cut the mustard as a public power-play. His persona couldn’t seem more of a contrast to Navalny’s robustness – the impression of Putin is overwhelmingly one of fragility and paranoia.
In fact, Navalny’s sturdiness is such that it’s faintly surprising when events play out as we know they must. Navalny seems the moral winner throughout. His calm confidence is infectious. But he’s still in prison, facing up to 20 years. Sometimes, sadly, realpolitik trumps narrative justice. The film ends in a darkness that is all the more pronounced for our knowledge of where Putin is about to take Russia and the world. In the end, if this story is a thriller rather than Navalny’s “boring movie of memory”, it will need another chapter to reveal its happy ending.
Navalny is available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and CNN+ in the US. It will be on HBO Max in the US from 26 May. An Australian airdate has yet to be announced.