A new documentary overlooks some of the campaigner's troubling history
Around halfway through Navalny, its star and subject is asked about his well-known history of attending far-Right rallies. Visibly irritated, Navalny suggests they consult his previous interviews on the subject, adding that the shouts of Sieg Heil at these rallies did not bother him; a broad coalition is needed to challenge Putin.
This is the one crack in the film’s framing of Alexei Navalny as a dashing campaigner-investigator extraordinaire. The film is a stylish piece of work, tightly structured around the activist’s courageous investigation into his poisoning with novichok where we see him hospitalised, fighting for his life and then resurrected. The final scenes show his return to Russia and subsequent imprisonment, serving as clear proof of Navalny’s personal bravery. But it also overlooks many of the details about his past that Western viewers may not want to know.
To be clear — Navalny has called for protests against the Ukraine war from his prison cell, and condemned ‘the pseudo-historical nonsense’ of Putin’s casus belli. He has shown immense bravery in uncovering the oligarchic corruption of Russia’s elite — most recently in the film Putin’s Palace — and standing up for free expression. But Navalny’s foreign policy record is simply not as different from Putin’s as we might like to believe.
He said he did not support the returning of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, and previously supported the invasion of Georgia, saying that cruise missiles should be used on these ‘rodents’— a common term of ethnic abuse for Georgian people. (In 2013 he disavowed his use of the word “rodents” but stood by the rest of his statement.) And in the early 2000s, when he used to attend far-Right rallies, Navalny made a series of xenophobic remarks, including comparing migrant workers to rotten teeth while dressed as a dentist. He has not disavowed most of these statements.
There is no mention of these comments in the film. No doubt the documentary-makers did not wish to tarnish Navalny’s squeaky clean image, and these nationalistic views won’t sit comfortably with Western viewers. What’s more, it remains unclear what Navalny’s political ideology is beyond unseating Putin. Towards the end of the film, still in Germany, he is asked how a President Navalny would differ from President Putin. He has only the vaguest answer, saying that in Russia, politics is still a question of securing fundamental human rights, like freedom of speech.
There is an ambiguity about this film, never confident in portraying Navalny as a fugitive or a revolutionary, an envoy for Western liberalism or a hero of everyday Russians. Perhaps he is none of these things. Though his resistance is worthy of celebration (and his imprisonment indefensible), his eventual political programme may not be what the West had in mind.