In his Inaugural Addresse at the University of St. Andrews in February 1867, the English philosopher and Liberal Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill said, “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Mill’s words come to mind when thinking about the plight of lawyer, activist, and Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His courage to speak out against autocrat President Vladimir Putin, and put forward his candidacy for the presidency, led to his incarceration in January 2021, following a series of dramatic events.
In August 2020, Navalny was taken ill while travelling from Siberia to Moscow. Fortunately, he fell ill earlier than anticipated, forcing an emergency landing in Omsk, southwest Siberia. When transferred from the Siberian hospital to Berlin, Germany, doctors confirmed that he’d been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent, Novichok. It was the same nerve agent used in the 2018 assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian Officer and British Intelligence double agent, in Salisbury, England. An unlikely coincidence, suspicion immediately fell on the Kremlin and Putin.
In his award-winning Sundance documentary Nalvany director Daniel Roher documents the efforts of the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, led by Christo Grozev, the lead Russian investigator, and Maria Pevchikh, chief investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, to expose the men behind the attempted murder. On his return to Moscow in January 2021, Navalny was sentenced to serve two and a half years in Pokrov Penal Colony No. 2 for breach of his parole while in hospital. This is where the documentary ends. On 22 March 2022, international news outlets began reporting that judge Margarita Kotova had handed down a new nine-year sentence.
Off-camera, Roher begins by asking his subject the message he wants to leave behind for the Russian people. Navalny says it seems the film will make the case for his death. He asks the director for the film to be a boring memory. This memory of a short period in Nalvany’s life, however, is a compelling and important piece of filmmaking. The audience is left with the image of a man defiantly standing up to a corrupt system. In court, he uses hand gestures to tell his wife he loves her. It’s a symbolic image of personal sacrifice that engages with the conversation about the illusion of freedom.
Is any activist ‘free’, or are they prisoners of idealism? Mill’s words are noble and have formed the cliché that evil men succeed when good men do nothing. While watching Nalvany, like many in the audience, I imagine, I questioned whether I could show the same conviction and courage that I admire in this man.
Navalny’s decision to challenge the status quo and announce his candidacy for president was a choice that put him on a demanding and dangerous path. Free will faces pressure, forcing us to make certain choices. He describes living in an authoritarian country as either being for or against the authoritarian leader and discusses how it reduces politics to a primitive level, by dealing with subjects such as human rights and fair elections. For a man of conscience living in this political and cultural reality, having a choice is but an illusion – he submits personal self-preservation, of survival against a murderous regime, to champion the self-preservation of the ideals of a free and democratic Russia.
Mill’s words matter because the next sentence of his inaugural speech reads, “He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.” We witness the active participation of police officers and judges enabling the Kremlin and Putin. It’s a cyclical narrative where one person and their inner circle can manipulate the unwillingness of the majority to trouble themselves to apply their minds, to protest, or find a means to confront corrupt systems of power. At worst, they themselves become tarnished. It should remind those of us living in democracies of the responsibility to hold our elected leaders accountable through our electoral power.
Grozev says, “Traditional journalism implies you meet with a source and that source telling you a story. In today’s world of fake news, we don’t trust sources because we don’t trust humans – we trust data.” There has always been a need to scrutinise our sources of information, but the rapid evolution of technology and the dissemination of information has made it more necessary. Humans are receptors, capable of digesting and forming opinions unconsciously or subconsciously, and we’re vulnerable to being exploited.
It’s an issue not only for those living under autocratic regimes but across the world. In America and the UK, Trumpian politics and Brexit have relied on reducing information to a primitive form, playing on impulsive feelings of nationalist ideals, as well as fear and xenophobia. The dissemination of information, especially in the political sphere, is a game of power politics, and it’s easy to understand Grozev’s faith in data instead of people.
Rocher finds a way to transcend the personal and geographical, to broaden the relevance of the themes discussed. To his credit, the director confronts the concerns over his subject’s past. In one interview excerpt, Grozev reveals, “For the longest time I wasn’t sure what to make of Navalny. I’d always wondered how much of an independent figure he was, or was he one of the many fake opposition figures created by the Kremlin? […] He was known for having flirted with the extreme right in the early days of his career. He walked side-by-side with some pretty nasty nationalists and racists. Had he moved beyond that? Had he actually become a reversed dark knight?”
Addressing his attendance at Russian rallies alongside members of the extreme right, Navalny answers, “In the normal political system, of course, I would never be in the same political party as them, but we are creating a broader coalition to fight an authoritarian regime, to achieve a situation where everyone can participate in the election.” He goes on to briefly address the term nationalist, but what comes out of the moment is a commitment to the principles of an open and inclusive democracy. For some, this revelation will tarnish him, while others will see a man that understands the compromises needed to uphold democratic values that still challenge democratic societies.
A story of courage and modern-day heroism, Navalny is an emotional piece of filmmaking. Capturing a brief period in its subject’s life, it entertains us with at times a thrilling crime and detective story. Beyond that, for many of us watching news reports of the invasion of Ukraine from the sidelines, offering platitudes on social media, or condemning Putin in conversation, Roher’s film serves an important purpose. It creates a connection between passive and active protest. The film’s audience is passively protesting against the lies of an autocrat, seeking out the truth that he tries to deny through his control of independent media and information wars on foreign countries.
In the closing montage, interspersed with text, Roher references the 2021 documentary, A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe, a film secretly made by Navalny’s team while he recuperated, and released two days after his return to Russia. Viewed by over 100 million people in the first week, it inspired protests across Russia. Through Navalny, we each put our minds to a form of protest, supporting the active protests by his team, who now work in exile, in the hopes of a free and democratic Russia of the future.