Real-Life Thriller: Top Oscar Contender ‘Navalny’ Investigates Poisoning Of Russian Opposition Leader
The award-winning documentary Navalny could be crowned with an Oscar nomination later this month, but the man whose story is told in it has never seen the film. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, remains behind bars under a lengthy sentence after daring to criticize President Vladimir Putin.
“For me, that’s a very bitter part of this,” director Daniel Roher tells Deadline. “It’s very sad that he hasn’t gotten to see the film. One thing I always think of with Navalny is how enthusiastic he was about being a film subject. He’s a very curious man and he’s very, very curious about the filmmaking process… I certainly hope I’ll get to show it to him one day.”
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The documentary from CNN Films unfolds like a political thriller, investigating the poisoning plot in August 2020 that nearly cost Navalny his life.
The charismatic politician gained a big following in Russia by campaigning against corruption by oligarchs, government officials and Putin himself (as long ago as 2011 he branded Russia’s main political party, United Russia, as a “party of crooks and thieves.”). Police tossed toxic green liquid in his face on one occasion; nevertheless, Navalny felt his growing prominence in Russia and abroad would insulate him from assassination. But then he took a trip to Siberia to organize opposition candidates ahead of local elections.
On the trip back to Moscow he fell violently ill. “Just a few hundred miles into its nearly 2,000-mile flight, the plane made an emergency landing,” the New York Times reported at the time. “Mr. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, groaning in agony before losing consciousness, was taken on a gurney to an ambulance waiting on the tarmac.”
As the film shows, Russian doctors who initially treated Navalny denied he had been poisoned. They attributed his condition to a blood sugar imbalance or other metabolic problem. Pro-Kremlin commentators accused him of imbibing moonshine. But after Navalny was transferred to Germany for treatment, doctors there said tests revealed he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent originally developed by the Soviet military and favored by the Kremlin to this day as a means of eliminating opponents.
Given that the attack had taken place on Russian soil, little hope existed of determining who had planned and executed the assassination plot, until investigative journalist Christo Grosev entered the picture. The Bulgarian-born Grosev works for Bellingcat, “an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists” that leverages data and other forensic techniques to expose misdeeds. He was in Vienna collaborating with Roher on another project when he began to dig into the Navalny case.
“Christo walked in one morning to a meeting we were having, and said he had a lead into who tried to poison Navalny. And obviously this was stunning to hear,” Roher recalls. “A week later, Christo, [producer] Odessa Rae and I were sneaking across the German-Austrian border to go to the Black Forest to essentially pitch Alexei Navalny, as well as his chief investigator, Maria Pevchikh, about the virtues of a documentary project, and why they should make the film with us.”
Grosev connected dots by obtaining telephone records of key personnel at the Signal Institute, the Russian facility where Novichok is manufactured.
“We thought, okay, [Putin] must go through the same scientists he has used before for other poisonings. So, let’s look at who these scientists were calling at exactly the time,” Grosev says. “We followed the trail of the scientists and found out they had communicated by phone to a number of [Russian] FSB security officials just around the time Alexei Navalny was leaving for Siberia. And then just around the time, in the middle of the night, when he was actually poisoned.”
Grosev also obtained flight manifests confirming a number of suspicious characters had flown to the same destination in Siberia as Navalny around the time of the poisoning.
“We found a nest of wasps,” Grosev affirms in the documentary, “a domestic assassination team.”
The filmmaker faced the challenge of presenting the complexities of the investigation in such a way that viewers could follow along.
“My directorial prompt to Christo was, ‘Explain it to me like I’m a golden retriever. That’s what I’m looking for here,’” Roher remembers.
Using telephone numbers Grosev had obtained, Navalny himself got on the phone with one of his poisoners, pretending to be a Russian official. The man spilled the beans on the whole operation. Grosev and Bellingcat coordinated with major journalistic institutions including CNN, Der Spiegel and El País to break the stunning news. To Roher, the attempted killing of Navalny fits a disturbing pattern.
“I think, more than anything, what our film illustrates is that Putin solves his problems with violence and murder,” the director states. “And in a way, that’s exactly what we see playing out in Ukraine. He had a political problem domestically, and he launched this horrible, catastrophic, stupid, useless, moronic war because that’s the language he speaks. He is, in his heart, a KGB thug. And if your worldview is oriented in 1982-KGB-world, you see things differently and you solve problems differently.”
Putin’s bloodlust extends to Grosev, the journalists says he has learned.
“I have some back-channel communication with people close to Putin because we need context for a lot of our investigations,” Grosev explains. “One of these sources came to me after the film was out and he said Putin was quite upset when the investigation came out, but now because of the film he really wants to have you killed.”
Deadline and other outlets have reported that Grosev recently became a wanted man in Russia.
“It’s the federal search warrant of Russia. It’s anonymous. You wake up one day, you find your face on Russia’s most wanted list, and you have no idea what the crime is. It literally says, ‘For committing the crime under Russian law,’” Grosev says. “There’s no way to defend yourself publicly because you don’t know what you’re accused of. It’s a very, very sinister system of [creating] the image of an enemy of the state.”
After Navalny recovered in Germany from his poisoning attack, he insisted on returning to Russia in January 2021. The film shows he was arrested on his arrival. His fate remains grim.
“A lot of people may not realize that Navalny is still in the gulag, he’s still in prison,” Roher comments. “And his personal situation has been downgraded to the most horrible solitary confinement condition.”
Roher keeps in perspective all of the awards for the documentary and the possibility of an Oscar nomination.
“I equate any attention to the film with attention to Navalny,” he says. “And that for me is very meaningful.”
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