Note: "Navalny" was awarded Best Documentary at the 2023 Academy Awards after this essay was published.
On Sunday, as Hollywood’s elite pose for photographers on their way into the 95th Academy Awards ceremony, the star of one film will be conspicuously absent: Alexei Navalny, who will spend the evening not on the red carpet but in Penal Colony 2, just east of Moscow.
The dramatic story of Navalny’s path to a Russian prison is the subject of the CNN film “Navalny,” now in contention for Best Documentary Feature Film at Sunday’s Oscars. The documentary charts Navalny’s role as Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and the near fatal poisoning he suffered in an August 2020 assassination attempt as a result. In a film filled with dramatic moments, the most stunning revolve around his brazen decision to return to Russia five months later.
In an on-camera interview with filmmaker Daniel Roher, Navalny explains this choice, saying that he yearns to be a presence in Russia because he doesn’t “want [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to be czar … [Navalny wants] to go back and try to change” the cycle of authoritarianism that grips his homeland. With this pointed response, Navalny situates his decision to return to Putin’s malevolent grasp within a long, albeit tragic, tradition of political opposition and self-sacrificial activism in Russian history.
For centuries, the Russian government, whether it was led by czars, commissars or Putin, has relied upon repression and fear to maintain its authoritarian rule. In a society where free speech and habeas corpus have long held no practical standing, opposition figures and political radicals like Vera Figner, Sergei Kovalyov, Andrei Sakharov and Boris Nemtsov found that the only way to stand up to their government’s despotism was to denounce and defy fear.
In the 19th century, as young Russian activists went into the countryside to rouse the complacent masses to demand political reforms, basic freedoms and land redistribution, the state responded with mass arrests, political trials and long terms in Siberian exile. But instead of cowering, these young Russians responded defiantly. They openly admitted their actions in court and willingly accepted years and sometimes decades of incarceration and banishment. In doing so, they became political martyrs both at home and abroad, their suffering becoming a living indictment of the czarist regime.