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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a reminder that liberal Russian alternatives to Putin still exist, even if many opposition leaders have fled or have been silenced.
Western leaders must work to prevent Putin from poisoning Navalny again.
Trudy Rubin is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. ©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.
Krugman: How bad was the Silicon Valley bank bailout? Pretty bad
Opinion: The overlooked reason reparations make sense in California
Walters: California’s ghostly Tulare Lake will be revived this year
Krugman: Silicon Valley Bank in 2023 isn’t Lehman Brothers in 2008
Barabak: There’s a price for parroting Trump’s Big Lie. Will GOP care?