A year after Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s January 17, 2021 return to Russia and subsequent imprisonment, supporters and former colleagues of the celebrity opposition leader appear to be betting on a CNN Films-HBO Max documentary, rather than court rulings, protests, or sanctions, to help secure his release from prison.
The film, which CNN announced on January 13, will take the “problem” of Navalny’s imprisonment “to a new, worldwide level,” predicted Ivan Zhdanov, the ex-director of Navalny’s shuttered Anti-Corruption Foundation, “because I hope that the maximum quantity of people will watch it.”
Called simply Navalny, the documentary, described by CNN as “a revealing fly-on-the-wall documentary thriller,” traces the anti-corruption activist's August 2020 nerve-agent poisoning on a Tomsk-Moscow flight, his subsequent recovery in Germany, and search for the culprits.
The story, directed by Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher, culminates with Navalny’s January 17, 2021 detention in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended 2014 fraud sentence.
Navalny was sentenced on February 2, 2021 to 2 years and 8 months in prison for this supposed violation; a term that sparked widespread protests in Russia and that the United States, European Union, and international human rights activists have condemned as unwarranted and politically motivated.
In October 2021, the European Parliament awarded him in absentia its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Together, the U.S. and E.U. have imposed sanctions on some 11 senior Russian officials and 14 Russian institutions for the attack on Navalny with the military nerve agent Novichok. The Russian government dismisses the Novichok accusations as “fantastic,” and a scenario thought up by Navalny’s “Euro-Atlantic allies.”
Yet, since his imprisonment, the Navalny movement essentially has been dismantled within Russia. The government and courts have labeled his Anti-Corruption Foundation and network of regional offices as “extremist,” and jailed supporters and former collaborators. Many of these former colleagues have left the country, while street protests in Navalny’s defense have faded away.
Social media, though, always a Navalny priority, has persisted: Navalny’s popular YouTube videoblog regularly attracts over 1 million views per episode. The December 2020 YouTube video in which Navalny talks with an apparent FSB officer who described the agency’s alleged role in the attack has received over 29.3 million views to date.
Conceivably, that media pull could strengthen still further with the CNN Films-HBO Max documentary.
Over 78 million households in the United States, where CNN will broadcast the film, have access to the influential news broadcaster. The network’s soon-to-be-launched streaming service CNN+ and HBO Max, part of the U.S. cable channel HBO, will handle streaming.
Together, HBO Max and HBO reported 73.8 million subscribers worldwide as of late 2021, The New York Times reported. HBO Max, launched in 2020, reaches 46 countries.
A date, however, has not been announced for the film’s release.
How easily Russia-based viewers will be able to watch the documentary is unclear.
Navalny himself urged viewers on Instagram to share with him their impressions of the film since, he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the library at Correctional Colony No. 2, his prison in Russia’s Vladimir region, does not subscribe to HBO Max.
Mainstream Russian news outlets do not appear to have widely covered the Navalny documentary, although several news sites, such as Kommersant, Lenta.ru, and Gazeta.ru have posted notices based on a January 13, 2022 article by The Hollywood Reporter or the CNN press release.
But, film or no film, Navalny defense attorney Olga Mikhailova sees no chance that her client will be released from prison in 2023, when his term expires.
“Everything is being done so that he’s kept for as long as possible in prison – maybe forever,” Mikhailova said.
A criminal case against Navalny for alleged money-laundering is scheduled for a hearing in late January or early February, she said. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Navalny also faces a separate money-laundering case and charges of alleged extremism that carry a potential prison term of up to 12 years.
“That is, if all these cases come to court, he’ll be in jail for a very, very long time,” said Mikhailova.
Navalny returned to Russia with the knowledge that prison would be his destination, Mikhailova and Zhdanov stressed.
“The fact that he already had been a pretty long time in Germany for rehabilitation disturbed him a lot more than returning, even more than the imprisonment that followed,” said Zhdanov.
The activist, who now lives in Lithuania, claims that Navalny’s associates have been no less active in releasing investigations, including for the 2021 parliamentary elections, since his imprisonment.
Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev, who cooperated with Navalny in tracing the Federal Security Service (FSB) employees allegedly involved in the 2020 poisoning attack, stated that that investigation is ongoing.
But he conceded that many channels of information about the FSB’s activities were placed “under supervision” or “closed” after the initial investigation’s release on YouTube.
Zhdanov believes, though, that, with time, those investigations could lead to protests. Navalny’s team also is pressing for additional personal sanctions against individuals allegedly involved in his 2020 poisoning.
“We’re trying to figure out the combination [of measures] that will open the lock on Aleksei Navalny’s cell,” he said.
Grozev maintains that President Putin has the ultimate control over that “lock.” Without elaboration, he claimed to have “concrete information” that President Putin “personally is overseeing this case” as well as “cases on the persecution of those who worked on the investigation itself, they’re also under his personal control.”
Two self-exiled former Navalny associates expressed no optimism about any relaxation of the government’s Navalny scrutiny.
Now living in Warsaw, Vitaly Kolesnikov, the director of Navalny’s January 2021 YouTube investigation into a Black Sea mansion allegedly owned by Putin, said he has come to realize that “my emigration is becoming permanent.”
Former Nizhny Novgorod coordinator Roman Tregubov, who faces criminal charges for alleged violations of sanitation norms at a protest, is seeking political asylum in The Netherlands and has given up his work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. He claims that Russian security officers put pressure on him to inform on Zhdanov and the head of Navalny’s regional network, Leonid Volkov.
Ex-St. Petersburg coordinator Irina Fatyanova, who moved to Tbilisi, Georgia in late 2021 after being fined the equivalent of $50,000 for unauthorized pro-Navalny rallies, maintains, though, that Navalny’s imprisonment was not in vain.
Maybe, she continued, the imprisonment “will open a large number of people’s eyes quickly to what is going on in our country.”
Zhdanov, however, does not seem inclined to wait and see.
“So long as Aleksei Navalny is in prison, that means that, for now, we’re not doing enough,” he said. “We need to do more.”