Watching ‘Navalny’ After his Assassination: Lessons of Fearlessness

MUHAMMED NOUSHAD reviews the documentary Navalny as its protagonist Alexie Navalny, Russia’s main opposition leader, died under mysterious circumstances lately.

Originally published in Madhyamam Eng:

When Navalny won the Oscar for the best documentary last year, I was eager to watch it, but couldn’t find it anywhere online. Last month, on Feb 16, the sad news broke: Alexie Navalny died mysteriously in a notorious Russian prison, as it was subtly warned in the documentary. Watching Navalny after his almost predictable departure was regretful, in a way. As Alexie Navalny doesn’t fit into your usual cloak of a politician or opposition leader as he fought one of the world’s richest, most corrupt, most brutal autocrats – the Russian President Vladimir Putin – in an almost David versus Goliath style battle. He was 47; still young and enthusiastic, full of life and charisma. Above all, a man of formidable courage and irreproachable resilience.

Naturally, Navalny is a gripping tale of a man’s struggle, survival, determination, courage and hope. Full of drama and emotions, you can watch it as if you are watching a Hollywood thriller, despite the interviews, excellently shot and cleverly placed. It sheds light on the man and politician called Navalny, his close aides and family, and their struggles for his life and their country’s future. With privileged access to his inner circles, Navalny offers a compelling narrative, both political and personal, in terms of content and craft, allowing us to see his family, friends and professional allies engaged in intense natural conversations.
However, let me admit that I am not a fan of Alexie Navalny’s political views in the larger sense. Especially about the way he flirted with the right-wing nationalists and the way he justified it, including in this documentary, citing coalition strategies. He was against “illegal migrations” from Central Asia to Russia and stood for Russian nationalism. Notwithstanding, one can’t resist the admiration for his epic fearlessness and impeccable determination in an increasingly hopeless political climate in which monarchs and dictators reign over the world. As Putin did and still does – through corruption, crony capitalism, unfair elections, censorship, total control and totalitarian governance. Standing up to a demonist, sadistic and megalomanic oligarch is not a small deal, someone as crooked and dangerous as Putin.

In case you are not familiar with the power Putin holds in Russia, Al Jazeera’s journalist Sandra Gathmann crisply and precisely summarises it: “Russia is Putin’s world. Everyone else is just living in it. Because they kind of have to. He controls basically everything: the state media, state-run companies, a powerful intelligence network, and his critics say, the justice system, too.” It’s against this frightening and terrorising context that Navalny stood up for his people.
Navalny started as a YouTuber – and the Kremlin ridiculed him, trivialising him as a blogger. But the millions of subscribers and zillions of views he kept drawing, with painstakingly obtained data and irrefutable video evidence, troubled the Kremlin. And the work of his team, the Anti-Corruption Foundation was consistent and unwavering. The Russian state cracked down on his team, raided his office, arrested and jailed him, threw chemicals on his face and partially blinded him, sentenced him to long years of imprisonment, and poisoned him with a Soviet-era military-made nerve agent called Novichok. And eventually banned the Anti-Corruption Foundation calling it “extremist”. But, nothing of this would stop Navalny from his political campaigns and ambitions; more importantly, his courage wouldn’t diminish. His advocacies for a more democratic, corruption-free Russia, were listened to by the people of Russia, to a great extent. On the other hand, the Kremlin called him a Western stooge, a CIA agent, whenever they were asked to respond to the allegations of Navalny. As Navalny himself says in the movie, the ultimate answer to any question you throw at them is calling you a CIA agent. One thing is clear: with the offerings of money or any comfort, no stooge will be ready to sacrifice his life. It takes real grit and commitment.
The movie starts when he is in Germany – after a carefully administered murder plot failed. They poisoned him, while he was on a campaign in Siberia, by using Novichok; as he fell ill on a domestic flight, the pilot made an emergency landing in Omsk from where he had to be taken to a Berlin hospital. He took several months to recuperate, and there, Navalny’s team invited the Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher to shoot what was happening. As Daniel admitted later, they didn’t know how the film would eventually take shape, but they were convinced that what was happening was important to document. And thus, we have this significant piece of work that challenges and exposes the Kremlin and its modus operandi on its opponents.

As stated before, Navalny’s political views can be contested – especially his allegiance to nationalism and the populist anti-immigrant bandwagon. The documentarian asks him this clearly: why do you side with Nazis in rallies? Navalny has an excuse, though – this is not an ordinary battle; we are trying to form a broad coalition. And in such situations, we will have to join hands with anyone with a common minimum agenda. After all, these people are Russians, he adds. His perspective on annexing Crimea was quite nationalistic and anti-Ukrainian, perhaps the only topic he agreed with his lifetime opponent, Putin. However, he didn’t side with Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine.
When Navalny returned to Moscow from Berlin, it was almost certain he would be arrested at the airport. He was warned enough. But he wanted to pass a message to the people of Russia, that we shouldn’t give up and be fearless. And Putin can’t gag dissidence forever by scaring people. At the airport, thousands of crowds had gathered to welcome him home. The authorities didn’t know how to handle the protests. They rerouted the flight, which was filled with international journalists. And once he landed, at the immigration counter itself, Navalny was taken into custody. What awaited was long trials, Navalny’s hunger strike in jail, several verdicts to keep him behind bars for eternity, extremely harsh conditions, and eventually the news of his martyrdom.

Towards the end of the movie, Daniel, the filmmaker, asks him what he wants to convey to the Russian public if he gets killed. His simple reply in English is, ‘Don’t give up’. Daniel then requests him to speak this in Russian. Then, what he says is relevant not only for Russians but all countries and all people elsewhere where they are challenging their autocratic regimes: “Listen, I have got something very obvious to tell you. You are not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. We need to utilise this power not to give up, to remember that we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realise how strong we actually are. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing.”
Navalny’s fearlessness was super heroic. His selflessness shall inspire generations to come. That’s why his martyrdom should be talked about even if you have strong differences with his certain political perspectives.

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