The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Navalny will miss the Oscars red carpet, but his courage is on display

The Academy Award-nominated documentary “Navalny” situates his actions in a long tradition of self-sacrificial activism in Russian history

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in Moscow on March 27, 2018, to commemorate the victims of a fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
7 min

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.

Around the world, stories of suffering and the plight of Russian men and women described as “defenseless prisoners” gripped an international public who condemned the “cruelty,” “barbarism,” and “tyranny” of the czarist regime. These young Russian prisoners became radical celebrities with their images featured on commemorative trading cards, while publishers churned out dramatic accounts of the repression they suffered for “the good of Russia.” In response, tens of thousands took to the streets in cities like London to protest the incarceration of young Russians whom they identified as righteous freedom fighters while Americans, Britons and French citizens collected money for Russia exiles and censured their governments’ increasingly friendly relations with the Romanovs.

During the Soviet era, the communist government effectively suppressed news of most cases of dissent; still, whispered tales of moral courage and protest inspired anew. Just days after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, eight young Soviets engaged in a small yet poignant protest of their government’s actions in Czechoslovakia. For unveiling a simple banner that read “For your freedom and ours!” the activists found themselves sentenced to forced-labor camps and in one case, a psychiatric prison.

In the 1970s, Soviet dissidents led by Yuri Orlov formed the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor their government’s continued violations of human rights. Less than a year later, Orlov and his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to labor camps. Helsinki Watch formed in the United States in response, with the goal of advocating “for the freedom of imprisoned activists in the Soviet bloc countries.”

“Navalny” is the latest chapter in the historical saga of Russian political activists who have generated international publicity by crafting a narrative of political martyrdom that has served, once again, as a powerful foil to the autocratic repression and self-interested corruption of the Russian government.

At a time when Putin’s repression at home has metastasized into a violent attack on the Ukrainian people, such stories matter. Indeed, Putin’s silencing of civil society and opposition within Russia has enabled his imperialist aggression abroad. Without a counternarrative to rebut the Kremlin’s disinformation, Putin and state-controlled media outlets could easily frame opposition to Putin as an existential threat not to the Russian leader but to the stability and sovereignty of Russia.

There is also something uniquely powerful in the self-sacrifice of a single tragic hero, even one who, like Navalny, has cooperated with dubious allies at times. For those privy to the drama unfolding before their eyes, past sins of the political prisoner fade, as indignant outrage settles upon the persecutor. As one Russian political exile noted in 1890, “men’s hearts are so made that the sight of one voluntary victim of a noble idea stirs them more deeply than the sight of a crowd submitting to a dire fate they cannot escape.”

Long a virtuoso of navigating social media and garnering millions of clicks around the world, Navalny understands the power of such historical narratives of political martyrdom and grand gestures of self-sacrifice “for the greater good of the country.”

And so, he returned to his homeland and was promptly arrested. Serving what could be a decades-long prison term, Navalny uses his notoriety and amazingly continues to speak out against Putin and his disastrous war against Ukraine. Though transferred to solitary confinement in an attempt, in his view, “to keep [him] quiet,” Navalny refuses to capitulate, writing that “there are more important things in life than comfort.”

Navalny’s is but one voice. Countless others like his have been silenced by Russian and Soviet despots through the centuries. But as Navalny claims in this Oscar-nominated documentary, Putin’s fierce reaction against him demonstrates that the Russian government is afraid. Thus, in response to the filmmaker’s morbid question of what people should infer if he is killed, Navalny answers that people should realize that his murder would mean that the movement is strong.

The publicity Navalny’s cause has garnered through this film is well beyond what Russian activists opposing the Imperial and Soviet states could have dreamed of. Yet the similarities between these generations of opposition figures loom large. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the self-sacrifice of Russian activists highlighted the political repression they challenged. Today, Navalny’s selfless courage is counterposed to Putin’s efforts to rule Russia unencumbered and expand his authoritarian influence into former Soviet states.

No matter which film wins the best Oscar on Sunday, audiences moved by Navalny’s story can stay focused on the repression of human rights that defines Putin’s despotic rule. Though options for action are woefully few, the continued exposure of the violence Putin employs to maintain his power at home and of the aggression he has unleashed to bring Ukraine to its knees is essential. Despotism thrives in darkness. And as long as people like Navalny are willing to sacrifice everything to expose tyranny to the light, the least that we can do is to listen and not look away. For as Navalny reminds the audience at the end of the film, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”