I lived in Moscow the year after I graduated college, at a time when Russia felt about as stable as it ever has in the three decades since the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2007, as Vladimir Putin approached the end of his second presidential term, Russia had seemingly recovered from the traumatic 1990s, when the IMF-encouraged privatization of its economy impoverished millions and soured a whole generation on Western-style liberal democracy. Boris Yeltsin, the ailing alcoholic who had presided over that catastrophe, died from congestive heart failure in April 2007, and the line to see him lying in state in the reconstructed Church of Christ the Savior was not very long. Putin, Russia’s president since 2000, was widely understood as an authoritarian by the time of his predecessor’s death, but that didn’t stop Time from selecting him as its Person of the Year that December. “At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power,” wrote editor Richard Stengel.
The Russians I interacted with back then most often fit a certain profile. Typically, they were college-educated young urbanites, many of whom had migrated to the bustling capital from the provinces; they had been born in the late 1970s or early 1980s, had experienced food shortages in the Gorbachev years as children and chaos in the Yeltsin years as teens, and were finally enjoying something like middle-class stability under Putin. They were studying English, working cubicle jobs for foreign companies, and taking occasional trips abroad to London or the Turkish coast or Goa. They enjoyed American exports like South Park or Quentin Tarantino films, which captured a prevailing sensibility—a kind of world-weary, sardonic, gleefully politically incorrect end-of-history nihilism.
They were not communists, because they’d seen communism fail; they were not liberals, because they’d seen liberalism fail; and they were not fascists, even if they sometimes said abhorrent things about ethnic and sexual minorities that could easily read as fascist-curious. But most of them couldn’t be real fascists because that would have required them to be political at all, and Russia in 2007 was eerily lacking in politics. When I would ask my students or friends about their politics, as I often did, they would usually say that they weren’t particularly fans of Putin but that Russia could do a lot worse (and had) and that politics was a dirty business anyway. They weren’t interested in politics, they were interested in making more money and enjoying more personal freedom than their parents had. None of them were afraid to criticize Putin in crude terms over drinks or on LiveJournal, but none of them ever seemed to do anything bolder than that.
I thought about this cohort a lot four years later, when Putin, who had followed the letter of the Russian constitution and stepped down in 2008 after two consecutive four-year terms, announced in the fall of 2011 that he would be formally returning to the presidency, replacing the harmless-seeming placeholder Dmitri Medvedev. Following parliamentary elections marked by widespread fraud that December, tens of thousands of social media–empowered young urbanites marched in the streets of Moscow and other major cities, demanding an end to corruption and sham democracy in by far the largest demonstrations the Putin era had seen to that point. Even from the United States, I could tell that something had changed in Russia in the few years since I’d left; the tech-savvy, worldly, professional-class Muscovites of my generation had become politicized and were ready to demand some kind of better future, however vaguely imagined, as Putin threatened to trap them in a bleak and endless present. Putin had changed too, or his pitch had. Where once he had gestured toward friendliness with the West and at least superficial liberalization, now he presented himself as a more overtly reactionary and revisionist nationalist. The protests terrified him, and in hindsight many Russia analysts believe this was the turning point that set him on the path to a murderous invasion of Ukraine and a total crackdown on Russian civil society. He saw the opposition massing in the streets as a traitorous fifth column supported by the U.S., and he had nothing but contempt for the man who quickly emerged as its de facto leader—a handsome, charismatic, then 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger and lawyer named Alexei Navalny.
In the decade since, Navalny has gradually become world famous. While other Russian opposition figures have been murdered (Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov), have permanently fled the country (Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov), or pivoted to crypto and OnlyFans (Pussy Riot), Navalny is now universally recognized as the living Russian who most rattles the Kremlin. After years of antagonizing Putin and the so-called oligarchs surrounding him with demonstrations, tweets, viral videos, and damning reports, Navalny became mysteriously ill on a domestic commercial flight in August 2020. After the plane made an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk, Navalny’s allies managed to evacuate him from a state hospital to one in Germany, where he recovered from what turned out to have been poisoning by a rare nerve agent called Novichok, which has been used to kill several other Russian opposition figures.
During his convalescence in a snowy Black Forest town, Navalny was contacted by Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist working with the Dutch-based open-source intelligence organization Bellingcat. Through close study of flight manifests, Grozev had determined the likely identities of the men who poisoned Navalny. Working with Grozev, Navalny managed to trick one of those men, a chemical weapons expert named Konstantin Kudryavtsev, into confessing to the entire failed murder plot on a recorded telephone call, which Navalny then released online in December 2020. A month later, Navalny voluntarily returned to Russia and faced immediate arrest at the airport for violating the terms of his parole after an earlier politically motivated conviction. Ever since, he has been in prison, where in the last few months he has repeatedly condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s unclear whether he will ever know freedom again.
The events surrounding Navalny’s poisoning, his German exile, and his subsequent return to Russia are the subject of a riveting new documentary by Daniel Roher, titled simply Navalny. Shot with its titular figure’s cooperation as these events unfolded, it was originally scheduled to debut on CNN and on the streaming platforms CNN Plus and HBO Max, but was acquired by Warner Bros. in March for theatrical release, given the sudden surge of mainstream interest in Putin’s Russia as a result of the invasion of Ukraine in late February.
The film was made entirely before the invasion and hasn’t been updated to acknowledge it, but viewed at the present point, it serves not only as an international political thriller but as a kind of elegy to the era of Russian history that has just ended, during which it was possible to imagine that opposition politics might someday prevail against Putin without horrific bloodshed. As recently as a year ago, Navalny himself seems to have believed that; today, as casualties mount in Ukraine and thousands of young professional-class Russians flee their homeland in search of the decent lives they once hoped to build there, no one does.
The Navalny spotlighted in the documentary is consistent with the Navalny many of us have followed on social media for years now, a figure of uncommon courage who is also unpretentious, foulmouthed, and very funny. He, his wife, Yulia, and their college-age daughter, Dasha, all speak decently good English and are fully versed in the idioms of the digital age; not unlike Ukraine’s comedian turned president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, they are relaxed and funny on camera and treat their audience as generational and social peers, an approach in marked contrast to the icy and imperious tone set by Putin on state television. For a dissident, Navalny is remarkably self-effacing and down to earth. He watches Rick and Morty, plays Call of Duty, befriends some local donkeys during his rural German retreat, and finds it as shocking and comical as anyone else might that his would-be killers poisoned his underwear. His reaction to learning that he has survived an assassination attempt is to say he can’t believe Putin is that fucking stupid, and his successful effort to expose his poisoner (the most unbelievable sequence caught on film) is essentially a well-executed prank call. He may be heroic, but he is the furthest thing from messianic.
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Navalny’s human imperfections aren’t always endearing. In an infamous 2007 video, he jokes about using a handgun against “cockroaches,” a term used as an unsubtle metaphor for immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Resurfacing that video has become a mainstay of Putin’s propaganda campaign against Navalny (state media, we see, also variously accuses Navalny of drug use, homosexuality, and all manner of white-collar crime), but it’s still disappointing that Roher doesn’t feature it in the documentary, presumably because he understands that any Western liberal audience would find it repellant and inexcusable. He does ask Navalny why he has marched in the past alongside far-right and neo-Nazi demonstrators against Putin’s government, and Navalny’s answer isn’t very satisfying: While he acknowledges that the far right is unseemly, he also sees it as a valid strain of Russian public opinion and a potential part of a big tent coalition he wants to lead against the corrupt “thieves” in the Kremlin. This is an answer Navalny has given before in interviews, and it’s clear that many of his liberal allies and friends don’t love it. Watching the documentary or following any of Navalny’s recent activities, one doesn’t get the sense that the man is deeply engaged with the far right or shares its main goals and motivations, but Roher doesn’t push his subject hard enough to disavow the far right’s vile agenda, and I ended the film feeling as skeptical of this aspect of Navalny’s career as I had felt going in.
However one feels about Navalny’s personal ideology or that of the company he’s willing to keep, it’s impossible to deny his bravery. He didn’t have to return to Russia, and he did so with no reasonable expectation that he would face anything other than years of imprisonment. That selflessness—especially from someone who easily might have enjoyed a comfortable life in the West with adoring friends and family—could, one wants to believe, inspire a nation to transform itself politically. Certainly that’s the message Navalny wants to leave us with and the one Roher asked him to record for the film in the event of his death (and that he has chosen to share even though Navalny remains alive).
But the tragedy is that it’s not at all clear that Navalny will have that kind of impact. While public opinion polling has obvious limitations in a country like Russia, it has consistently shown that Putin is broadly popular in most of the country and Navalny is not. Even if Putin were to allow a free and fair election—which he never will—there’s little reason to think Navalny could defeat him. His exceptional sacrifices aside, Navalny is perfectly representative of that cohort I often encountered in my Moscow days. Like them, he’s young, educated, fit, worldly, and extremely online. Like them, he has little nostalgia for the Soviet past and is impatient for some kind of better future. And like many of them, he said some regrettable things about ethnic minorities in the years before he became radicalized against corruption and autocracy. But there are only so many people in that demographic, and right now they’re leaving Russia in droves, opting for the exile that was once available to Navalny too and that no one would have begrudged his taking. The more decent future that Navalny has sought to represent is leaving Russia with them.