The Man Putin Couldn't Kill, review: a surprisingly jaunty account of Alexei Navalny's poisoning

·3 min read
Alexei Navalny - AFP
Alexei Navalny - AFP

"This whole poisoning story is cooler than a Hollywood movie," said Alexei Navalny in The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill (Channel 4). If it was a film, it would be a Bond adventure from the Sean Connery years: a handsome hero, Russian assassins, a megalomaniac villain and a dash of comedy.

Navalny built his profile as a leading opponent of Vladimir Putin through a series of satirical YouTube videos. This documentary from Jon Blair aimed for something of the same approach. The story at its heart was obviously terrible – Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent, survived against the odds, but is now in prison and reportedly in failing health – and yet it was told in a quirky style, broken up into chapters with headings like “Underpants at Dawn”.

Ah, the underpants. The most surreal episode here was when Navalny made a prank call to Konstantin Kudryavtsev, allegedly a member of the hit squad who had tried to kill him. Kudryavtsev, I hope I can say without becoming a Kremlin target myself, did not seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. He duly spilt the beans to Navalny, who was posing as an aide to the head of the FSB intelligence agency, on exactly how the Novichok was administered. “What clothing did you focus on?” demanded Navalny. “Well, the underpants.” “The underpants?” “Yes, the underpants.”

It was all pretty entertaining, which is an odd approach but in keeping with the man who hasn’t been killed (yet). I guess if you’re Navalny, you have to laugh because what’s the alternative? The list of Putin critics who have met unpleasant ends is long. The Kremlin says this is an unhappy coincidence (and claimed that Navalny’s collapse was due to low blood sugar).

“It’s a strange statistical model that people who happen to oppose the regime of Vladimir Putin happen to walk into these strange accidents and suffer from really bad health,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dissident who has survived two attempts on his life.

Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, popped up at one point; he and Navalny studied together at Yale. Rees spoke highly of his friend, as did everyone else on camera. This was certainly a flattering portrait. It touched briefly on Navalny’s past dalliances with anti-immigration rhetoric that referred to obliterating cockroaches, and Amnesty International’s decision at one point to suspend support for him. But all his supporters agreed that this was in the past, not in keeping with the man they know now, etc etc.

The last video that Navalny made before his detention revealed what he claimed was a secret palace belonging to Putin, complete with €700 toilet brushes. According to Navalny’s supporters, it succeeded in turning the Russian leader into a figure of fun. Is this true? And even if it is, does it matter? Navalny is locked up, so isn’t Putin the one who’s laughing now?