Oscar-winning ‘Navalny’ tells terrifying and funny story

by Trudy Rubin

The awarding of the Oscar for best documentary to the film “Navalny” was well-deserved, not only because it is a riveting film, but because it prods us to think about what will happen to Russia if Vladimir Putin loses his war on Ukraine. 

Alexei Navalny is Russia’s best-known opposition politician, whose health has been deteriorating since he was jailed on trumped-up charges in 2021. The film is a gripping detective story that traces how he was poisoned by Russian intelligence agents while on a speaking tour in Siberia, miraculously escaped death, and returned to Moscow after treatment in Germany. Navalny was arrested at the airport and is likely to stay imprisoned so long as Putin retains power. 

When Navalny’s wife, Yulia, took the stage to accept the award for him, she praised her husband for “defending democracy.” In an emotional speech, she said softly, “Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love.”  

The documentary offers a taste of the media savvy of Navalny’s team, which has previously made comprehensive documentaries on corruption by Putin and his cronies. While recovering in Germany, Navalny and his colleagues tracked down one of the Russian Federal Security Service agents who had put poison on Navalny’s clothing. 

Amazingly, Navalny duped this army chemist on the phone into believing he was a high-level officer with the security services. The agent reveals the whole plot, down to how the poison was laundered out of Navalny’s underpants after he was carted off to a hospital. The horror is intercut with hilarity at the incompetence of the Russian agents. 

When I asked Navalny, in 2018 in Moscow, if he feared he might be killed on Putin’s orders, he retorted, “Right now the cost is higher than they want.” But he added with grim humor, “Maybe they are saving this tool.”  

That tool was activated in August 2020. The attempt on Navalny’s life came at a moment when he was rallying young people to stage anti-government demonstrations in remote Russian cities, even though he was banned from running for office. 

The documentary lays out in dramatic detail Putin’s complete willingness to have those who oppose or fail him killed — from the charismatic former vice premier Boris Nemtsov (shot down in front of the Kremlin) to the many senior officials who have mysteriously fallen out of windows during Russia’s murderous war on Ukraine. 

In Navalny’s case, the method was poison — the globally banned nerve agent Novichok, which had been used in a murder attempt on a Putin foe in Salisbury, England, causing an international scandal. 

Putin’s approval of another Novichok assassination attempt shows the Russian leader’s indifference to another such scandal. He just denies the poisoning — much like the massive Russian war crimes in Ukraine — ever took place. 

So the “Navalny” film forces us to ponder whether there is any decent alternative to killer Putin should his Ukraine war lead to his ouster. At present, his position still seems firm; he retains popular support by repression, and by using state-controlled media to convince much of his public that Ukrainians are Nazis backed by the West. 

If Navalny is not murdered in prison, and if there were ever free Russian elections — two huge ifs — the opposition activist might well emerge as a national leader. Yet even assuming these hypothetical ifs miraculously came true, there is debate over what kind of Russian leader Navalny would make. 

Some liberal Russian and Ukrainian critics point to nationalist statements that Navalny made early in his political career — before Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea — which, they claim, indicate a Russian imperialist mindset. 

Even after Russia occupied Crimea, Navalny indicated he would prefer to see a fair (not fake) referendum of Crimea’s residents to decide the peninsula’s future. This infuriated Ukrainians, for whom Crimea’s return to Ukrainian sovereignty has become a red line. 

And the Twittersphere is full of angry Ukrainian missives about the “Navalny” film winning the Oscar, amidst anger that the academy refused to permit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the audience. 

But the opposition leader’s critics refuse to admit how his views have evolved since Putin’s brutal war on all of Ukraine. Navalny has clarified his position on Crimea and repudiated Russian imperialism in no uncertain terms. 

Banned from any public access to media, the imprisoned dissident issued a 15-point platform on Feb. 20 via Twitter. 

“President Putin has unleashed an unjust war of aggression against Ukraine under ridiculous pretexts,” he wrote. 

“The real reasons for this war are the political and economic problems within Russia, Putin’s desire to hold on to power at any cost, and his obsession with his own historical legacy,” Navalny continued. “He wants to go down in history as ‘the conqueror tsar’ and ‘the collector of lands.’”  

As for Crimea, Navalny wrote that Ukraine’s borders (which include the peninsula) are “internationally recognized and defined in 1991. Russia recognized these borders back then and it must recognize them today. There is nothing to discuss here.”  

In addition, Navalny insists that “the Putin regime and its dictatorship” must be dismantled in favor of “a parliamentary republic based on the alternation of power through fair elections.”  

He wants Russia “to reimburse Ukraine for all the damage caused by Putin’s aggression” after the war has ended. He also says Russia should be a federal state that “follow[s] the European path of development. We have no other choice.”  

This manifesto is a reminder that liberal Russian alternatives to Putin still exist, even if many opposition leaders have fled or have been silenced. If the West speeds up delivery of crucial weapons systems immediately, Ukraine could still score advances this year that might undo Putin — and open the door to political change. 

That change might be for the worse, or lead to chaos. Yet the “Navalny” documentary reminds us that Russia does have other possible options. 

Western leaders must work to prevent Putin from poisoning Navalny again. 

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.