The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: “Navalny”: A Conversation with Maria Pevchikh and Odessa Rae

MR. MILLER: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Greg Miller. I’m an investigative foreign correspondent for The Washington Post based in London.

Today I am joined by an executive producer as well as a producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Navalny,” Maria Pevchikh and Odessa Rae. Maria and Odessa, very nice to see you. How are you doing?

MS. RAE: Tired, I suppose, traveling a lot but very well. Thank you.

MR. MILLER: Thank you so much for joining us. I gather we're, all three of us, in London but at different locations, but it's really nice to see you, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. And congratulations on the Academy Award nomination for the film.

Maria, let’s just get right--started right away. Let me just introduce you to our audience in case they don’t know. You are--in addition to being an executive producer on this film, you have led the investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization that was founded by Navalny. You’ve worked alongside him for a decade. You were with him in Siberia when he was poisoned. Can you just start by telling us how he is doing emotionally and physically? And also perhaps tell us a bit about how you were doing emotionally and physically.

MS. PEVCHIKH: Well, let’s start from the most important bit, from what’s happening to Navalny at the moment. In terms of his physical conditions, it’s--well, I mean, it doesn’t really change much over time. He has been held in a solitary confinement, in a so-called “punishment cell,” for over three months, something close to four months in a little tiny cell, two by three meters big, a cell where you’re not meant to spend more than 10 or 14 days. But the Russian prison system and the president’s administration, I’m sure Putin himself, came up with this very sickening system of rolling punishment. As soon as he serves his 10- or 12-day sentence in solitary confinement, he gets out, and he gets resentenced to another 10 or 12 days in a solitary confinement. And this goes on and on and on forever without stopping.

His life in a solitary confinement means that for the entire day, he's locked up in this little concrete box. He is not allowed to do anything, really. He's only allowed to read a book but only one book per term, and for 30 minutes a day, he has been given a pen and paper, and this is when he can respond to some letters that he receives. And apart from that, there's nothing. He only has his book, his mug, and that's pretty much it.

And every time, every couple of days, they come up with new violations of prison rules that Alexei commits and that become reason for keeping him in this solitary confinement indefinitely, although the charges are very much obviously trumped up. They are--they have to do with the prison protocol. For example, the last charges were given to him for the fact that he washed his face at 20 minutes ahead of the schedule, not at 6:00 a.m. but rather like at 5:30 or something like that. We will understand that this is very much just a cover up for the real crime that he’s committing, which is speaking out loud about the war and being probably the loudest anti-war voice from inside Russia.

MR. MILLER: Odessa, I wanted to ask you a variation on this question, but if you'll permit me, I wanted to just read you a tiny bit from a story that we published on Navalny just about a week ago. It opens by saying that "Even from jail, Alexei Navalny...gets more done than most people. He has announced a new media platform with nearly 1.8 million YouTube subscribers, filed more than 10 lawsuits against Russian authorities, and is now the leading voice inside Russia against the war in Ukraine. But he is gaunt and painfully thin. His health is declining, amid what supporters allege is harassment and sleep deprivation. He has been sent to harsh punishment," which Maria was just telling us about, "...10 times for up to 15 days, and was even forced to take legal action to get winter boots."

Could you talk about his condition and also about the attention now on the documentary and how much attention--whether this attention is changing the political atmosphere and perhaps even changing the prospects for Navalny eventually to be released, whether it’s complicating those efforts or whether it’s helping them?

MS. RAE: I mean, first of all, to comment on his health, you know, I spent many months in the Black Forest with Alexei and Maria as he was recovering from the poisoning and watched him get strong and healthy, and to have the memory of this incredibly strong person and see the photos that are surfacing in the media, it’s heartbreaking, to be honest, because he has the strongest spirit of anyone I have ever known, I think, just someone who looks at life with utter--like glass half full, and he makes the best of every situation. And they are obviously torturing him, and they will never break his spirit because he is literally one of the strongest people I know. But it is very, very disturbing.

And I, of course, do hope and one of the purposes of the film and one of the reasons why we as a team work so hard to have the film seen is because we do believe that it does keep him safer. We do believe that keeping his name in the public's sphere helps to keep him alive. So that is something that we work very hard to do with the film.

MR. MILLER: Thank you.

Maria, I have seen your work and Navalny’s work for many years now as a national security reporter and now as a foreign reporter doing investigations for The Washington Post, especially one who’s been covering Russia for quite some time. And you’ve had a huge audience in Russia across Europe and a lot--and a sizable one in the United States. Can you talk about the documentary, the release of this documentary, and how that has changed the size of the audience for your work, for the foundation’s work, and for the causes that Navalny champions?

MS. PEVCHIKH: I’m sure we’re yet to see how much the documentary will change our audience. It is very much a new audience that might be coming to us. It’s obviously an English-speaking audience. A foreign audience that previously might have not paid attention to the Russian politics, understandably, but it’s 2023, and it’s not quite possible today not to pay attention to what’s happening in this part of the world. And “Navalny,” the documentary “Navalny,” plays very much like critical to what’s happening right now, and it explains quite well who Vladimir Putin is, what he’s capable of, and also who the people that are brave and strong enough to oppose them. And it sends a very important message that Russia is not Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Putin is not Russia, that you shouldn’t equate the government with the people who live in the country.

And in terms of the effect apart from the audience, Odessa has phrased it very well. We do, well, believe that this documentary is a mechanism to keep Navalny alive, that this is some sort of life insurance, and the attention that is associated with ceremonies like the Academy Awards or BAFTA, this sort of spotlight is something that we constantly need to keep on Navalny.

And for us--I’m talking not as a producer now but as a person who works at the Anti-Corruption Foundation. For us, of course, the main task while Navalny is in prison is to make sure that he survives this sentence, and if we need to climb on the highest mountain and scream and shout “Navalny, Navalny, Navalny,” we will be doing that.

And of course, the main stage, the main film stage in the world, which is the Oscars stage, is a very good platform for us to just keep repeating that message, to keep asking people not to forget about Navalny, and to keep their focus on him, because we are convinced that not only he is very important as an anti-war voice, but he also represents the potential future of Russia, a very different Russia to what it is now.

MR. MILLER: Maria, can I just follow up very briefly on what you--something you--a phrase you used there, that this functions as a “life insurance” policy in some way? Can you tell me what you mean by that?

MS. PEVCHIKH: I mean that we live in a very difficult situation where Navalny is currently in the possession of the very same people who already tried to kill him, and Vladimir Putin, as we proved in our investigation together with Bellingcat, Vladimir Putin and Russian Secret Services have already gone for an operation to poison Navalny and to kill him.

So our main task now is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, that they don’t--that they wouldn’t dare to repeat this attempt, and we are doing it by increasing--by increasing the cost of doing something awful to Navalny. Obviously, the first attempt to kill him with Novichok ended up in a huge embarrassment for Vladimir Putin personally, for the Secret Services of the Russian Federation. Putin had to personally justify himself and lie and say that he--that no one really tried to poison. Whereas the whole world watched how Navalny’s poisoner confessed to Navalny over what they have done over the over--he confessed over the phone.

And of course, public attention and attention of the world’s leaders, celebrities, film people, all sorts of people is something that increases the cost of making--of attempting to kill him again. And we would like to send this message to Vladimir Putin in every possible way that killing Navalny is not an option, and that the cost of this decision will be tremendously high for his regime. And he will not get away with it.

MR. MILLER: I imagine that many of those who are watching our broadcast today have probably seen the documentary. If you haven’t, it’s really stunning. It not only has footage of the moment when Navalny breaks down under--after having been poisoned while he’s on a plane and his rescue and his recovery, but then it goes on to capture what Maria was just referring to in a fascinating, almost unprecedented investigation in which his killers, his would-be assassins are identified. And he calls them one by one and confronts them by phone and actually tricks one of them into startling admissions right on camera. It’s an amazing thing to watch unfold. Odessa, can I come back to you and ask--so I would like for you to help me--help us understand the political dynamic around the movement and around the war in Russia, if you can. So, on the one hand, you have lots of efforts, diplomatic efforts to secure Navalny’s release. There are petitions signed by hundreds of doctors and other professionals in Russia demanding his release and some protests.

At the same time, the protests in Russia are only--that we learn about or see from here are only a fraction of the size that we saw Navalny organize before his imprisonment. What accounts for that, and what will shape whether those numbers change going forward?

MS. RAE: Well, this is something that I actually ask myself quite often, because for the last eight months, I’ve also been in and out of Ukraine quite a bit working on another documentary. So I have been spending a lot of time on the front lines of the war, and I ask myself, please why, why are they not rising up the way that they did in the days after Alexei’s return? And really the reason is because the--if you watch the protests that happened after Alexei returned, you saw thousands and thousands of people being arrested. The punishment was so harsh. We even lost one of our cameramen in that protest. He went to the protest with the camera, and he was missing.

And Christo and I were searching for him through the--through an NGO for a couple of days before he surfaced again. And the crackdown, I just remember, was so terrible that I think they sent the fear of God into the people and continued to make punishments incredibly harsh. I mean, as you know now, there is a 10--I think between 10- and 12-year sentence for even calling the war a “war.” So how do you--for protesting, again harsh sentencing. So how do you rise up in a country where the efforts to crack down are becoming so harsh? You have to ask yourself, I think, as a human being, you know, if living in London, if you were facing those same challenges by going out and protest, would you go out and protest in this time? And I think that that is a very, very challenging choice.

So I do--I do understand what’s happening, but of course, we ask ourselves and we hope and we wonder what will bring down this regime that is causing so much pain in the world, not only in Ukraine, Ukraine in firstly and foremost, of course, but it is spreading throughout the globe.

MR. MILLER: So we've been talking about some of the scenes in the documentary itself. We want to play a short clip from the documentary now.

[Video plays]

MR. MILLER: Maria, you figure prominently in some of the most compelling scenes in this documentary. Can you talk, though, about what you hope the audience takes away in terms of a message, in terms of inspiration?

MS. PEVCHIKH: I think I touched upon it briefly. I would like the audience to see a very, very different version of Russia that is very possible at the same time. I don’t like--I don’t like the audience, I don’t like your viewers to see Russia as a doomed place where people enjoy dictatorship, where people enjoy being--living under oppressive regime. This is not that. This is not what’s happening.

And Navalny in this 98-minute documentary paints--Navalny paints a very different picture. This picture is realistic. He explains what he would do once he--if he becomes the president, how Russia will work, and how it will differ from what it is now. He talks about everything, from the war to division of, you know, powers between the regions and Moscow.

And on top of it, I just really hope that the viewers would be able to simply meet Navalny because we--those people who follow Russian politics--and obviously us, we’ve known him for a long time now. He has been a public figure and a very outspoken, well-known opposition leader for a decade, I would say.

I was initially very excited about the fact that now the foreign audience, those people who haven’t heard about him, will get to meet him, will get to meet the guy who inspires millions of Russians, who raised this incredible support base of people who are willing to not only support our work at the Anti-Corruption Foundation but also protest in the streets, these very brave young people of Russia. So that’s, I believe, is a very important takeaway of that--of that documentary, and I recommend it to which it once, twice, and more times. And I guarantee you what you see, the way you see Navalny in this film is incredibly close to what he is in real life. So I encourage everybody to watch it and hopefully enjoy and be closer to--you know, to actually imagining a beautiful Russia of the future that Navalny talks about.

MR. MILLER: I think that his personality comes across beautifully in the documentary. You really get a sense. It's such an amazing contrast in some ways between, you know, his political adversary, Vladimir Putin, and Alexei Navalny. In the documentary, Navalny is joking. He's using social media. He's very hip. You see him in images with his own family walking around and very, very human, very, very funny, and very moving in some places. And it's a site that's quite compelling.

Odessa, can I just ask--so we mentioned that, obviously, we’re doing this now because of the--in part, at least because of the Academy Award nomination. What does that mean to you as producer, or what does it mean to the audience for this film and for the movement?

MS. RAE: Well, actually, that what it means is, just to add on to what Maria was saying, that I believe the mission of this film and the message of this film is really what Navalny says at the end of the film. He says don't give up. He says don't give up and don't be afraid. And I think that these are very, very important messages, no matter where you are. They're universal messages, not only to fight authoritarianism in whatever form is in front of you but also in your smaller stories in your life. You know, every small challenge, do not be afraid. Do not give up. He had a very, very powerful message, and he stood for that. And that's the reason he went back to Russia. How can he tell a population, don't be afraid, and then does not go back and stays in comfort? So I think comfort is something that is dangerous, and we should not be afraid, and we should not give up, no matter what story is facing us.

MR. MILLER: Odessa just touched on, just sort of captured where I was headed next, Maria. We asked our audience to submit questions, and many of them were a variation of this next one which is, why wouldn't Navalny have been more effective as an opposition figure outside of Russia rather than in prison? Surely, he knew what would happen when he returned after the attempted assassination, and especially, obviously, he was in prison before the invasion of Ukraine. Now the repression inside Russia is even greater. Could he have been more valuable outside the country mobilizing opposition to the war, mobilizing opposition to Vladimir Putin?

MS. PEVCHIKH: This is completely and entirely a hypothetical situation, which could have never happened. So we can spend many hours now trying to, you know, draw different scenarios, discuss them, and discuss the different ifs and buts and what-ifs, et cetera. There was never a choice. There was never--there was never really any sort of debate about whether Navalny will go back or won’t go back.

As soon as he was able to formulate a sentence to say out, to say a sentence out loud after recovering from coma, he said that he will be going home, and it was completely unthinkable and completely unimaginable to--back in the day to see Navalny staying abroad permanently and doing his work from there. It’s not--it’s not how we operated. That’s not how--what the philosophy of our organization was, and obviously, this is--that was completely--it wouldn’t be Navalny if he did that.

So he practices what he preaches, and if he says things about courage, about bravery, about standing up to his words, he's going to do that. So the question of him staying in Europe was never there.

And maybe a small clarification, just when--just to make the situation a little bit more clear, it wasn’t as obvious that he would be imprisoned indefinitely back then, and it’s very easy now to say it in hindsight that, yes, of course, he would be. But again, this was pre-war Russia. This was--there were different options, scenarios, and possibilities of what can happen to him when return, and of course, we had hope that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t dare to embarrass himself yet another time and arrest and imprison Navalny upon his arrival.

There were very many options. We prepared for every scenario, including the one that has happened. We are running our organization without Navalny. We’re running it successfully. We are--we have moved our operation from Russia soon after Navalny was imprisoned because the Anti-Corruption Foundation was designated the status of a terrorist organization. So we had--we had to do that.

So I think that there is not much point in exploring those hypothetical scenarios of what if Navalny was now free in Europe, what if there was war and there wasn’t a war. It is what it is. He’s currently--he’s currently in a Russian prison, and all we need to focus on is to--how to get him out as quickly as possible.

MR. MILLER: Thank you.

Odessa, we're down to our last minute or two here. I want to ask one other question from our audience which is, where would you say Navalny gets his strength from? You followed him around for two years for this film. How would you answer that question?

MS. RAE: Well, I actually only followed with him from the period of him coming out of the coma until January 17th when he boarded the plane back to Russia. So it was about four months, give or take.

And I have to say, as I said in--I think the first thing I said was that his strength is something that comes from within. Navalny is someone who is filled with optimism, almost. He’s filled with hope, and I think it’s hope really that keeps him alive and keeps him going, hope for a better future, hope and action together that he believes in.

And he said to me once before he went back, because I as well was asking him, you know, why are you going back? We were all concerned, of course, and he was like, "I'm a Russian politician. I belong in Russia." At that point, the precedent had been set that he becomes irrelevant outside of Russia. The war had not started yet, and he was filled with hope and purpose, and I think those are two very, very, very important things to be filled with that strength by hope and purpose.

MR. MILLER: Unfortunately, we're out of time. Maria and Odessa, thank you so much for joining me today. This was terrific. I really appreciate it.

MS. PEVCHIKH: Thank you.

MS. RAE: Thank you. Yes.

MR. MILLER: And thanks to all of you for watching. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please head to to register and find out more information about our upcoming programs.

I'm Greg Miller. Thanks again for joining us.

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