John Blair, “The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill” (2021)
Covering the incident in which Russian political / anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny collapsed in pain on a passenger jet while travelling from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020, was taken to hospital in Omsk and later whisked to the Charite Hospital in Berlin where he was declared to have been poisoned with Novichok, this supposed documentary makes much of the poisoning story without offering any actual first-hand evidence supporting it. Interviews with figures associated with Navalny – his wife Julia and Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza feature prominently – and speculation over the identities of the FSB spies who apparently have been following Navalny over past several years and who must have done the dastardly deed pad out a narrative about Navalny’s rise to popularity through social media, the threat his popularity poses to Russian President Vladimir Putin and how Putin has dealt with figures who oppose his government and leadership.
With producer Marcel Theroux also narrating the supposed plot against Navalny and its details off-screen, the documentary’s presentation is po-faced and fails to note Putin’s sarcasm when the politician observes publicly that if the FSB had really tried to kill Navalny, its agents would have finished the job properly. It seems also that the producers, the interviewees and other sources relied on, such as the notorious Bellingcat investigators, cannot see how idiotic the notion of poisoning Navalny’s underwear with Novichok is: how would the FSB agents have been able to come anywhere near Navalny’s wardrobe when the activist is surrounded by aides and how can the agents know that Navalny would be using the underpants without washing them first, given that Novichok degrades in water?
The documentary also makes much of Navalny’s career as a political and anti-corruption activist on social media over the past 15 years but omits more than it admits: his appeal to anti-immigration and other fascist elements in the Russian population; the charges of embezzlement against him for stealing timber from a state-owned company in Kirov Oblast and misusing money from Yves Rocher for which he was put under home detention; and the fact that his popularity among the Russian voting public, as measured by polls, has never been higher than 2%.
The film mentions Navalny’s attempt to accuse Putin of owning a lavish palace in the Black Sea region in a video after his arrest and imprisonment when the activist returned to Russia from Germany in earky 2021. The accusation fell apart when reporters visited the palace and discovered it was a five-star hotel owned by Russian energy billionaire Arkady Rotenberg: the hotel was undergoing renovations at the time.
Nowhere in the documentary are there any interviews with or reports from the doctors who treated Navalny in Omsk, the paramedics who took him to the hospital or the airline crew and passengers on the jet where Navalny fell ill. The police who might have investigated the incident initially are also absent. Mention of the water bottle that was supposed to have contained the Novichok initially is given short shrift.
Humourless as well as being completely immersed in a fantasy about an activist who is actually not popular with the voting public in Russia, let alone be an opposition politician, this film offers nothing that informs viewers about what actually happened to Navalny in August 2020, that they would not already know from reading mainstream news media.