Using the 2022 documentary Navalny as a backdrop, a panel at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum discussed the power of investigative journalism to uncover political crimes and thwart media disinformation in Russia. Moderating the panel was Ann Cooper, the first Moscow bureau chief for NPR and a 2020 Shorenstein Fellow. Joining her were the film’s producer Shane Boris and lead investigator Christo Grozev. Also joining the discussion was Julia Minson, associate professor of public policy at HKS, a decision scientist who explores how people engage with people whose opinions differ from their own.
The full-length documentary tells the story of Alexei Navalny, a rising political oppositional candidate to Vladimir Putin. It chronicles his 2020 attempted assassination by poison, his 2021 return to Russia, and subsequent arrest and incarceration in Russian penal colony. Navalny is currently serving an 11-plus year sentence, and has spent the past 250 days in solitary confinement, a length of time that Grosev says violates the Russian constitution .
The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2023, was a detour for the filmmakers. Boris said they were making a completely different film when they received a lead on who may have poisoned Navalny, pushing them toward the idea of the documentary. “We need to make that movie,” he said.
“I think in the beginning, there was probably just an instinct that this story was important and needed to be told, but there wasn't a full comprehension of what the story would be,” he recalled. “But I think quite quickly it became clear that this was instrumental as a historical record and as a life insurance policy for Alexei."
It was also an important way to break through the Russian media’s disinformation about Navalny and to offer an impactful counter-narrative.
“I think a big part of our motivation was creative, artistic,” Boris said. “It was to make a movie that resonates, that can tell a compelling story, but fundamentally will provide an opportunity for this type of articulation of the world we live in to reach an audience and hopefully resonate with them.”
Cooper wondered if the film would be able to reach Russian audiences, given strict censorship.
Minson, who was born in Russian and spent summers with her mother’s family in Ukraine, noted Russians have a long history of subverting state censorship.
“In a sense, the invasion of Ukraine has had the opposite effect on the media infrastructure in that Russians have downloaded VPNs by the hundreds of thousands in the last year,” she said.
“Many of us who follow Russia, who follow Eastern Europe, know that is what Russian prisons and Russian penal colonies are like. Yet, I felt physically ill hearing the description of Navalny’s detainment. I think that's the power of storytelling.”
She predicted the film will have a resounding effect on citizens. “The people in Russia know that this is what their country is like, and yet when you hear it and when you see it, it gives you that extra almost physical jolt of, ‘Oh yeah, this is what's actually going on, and I can't turn away from it, or I can't not think about it, because tonight I'm going to be thinking about it when I go to sleep.’”
Grozev, who is featured in the film and interviewed Navalny, agreed. “Somebody came to see me after the film premiered at Sundance, a Russian former officer,” he recalled. “He spoke to me about the emotional power of the film, versus the investigation, which was just in print before that. He wanted to alert me that the Kremlin is angry at me now because of the film, much more than about the investigation. I wondered why. He said, ‘My wife watched the film and she said, “I'm going to vote for this guy if he runs for president.”’ That's the power of documentary storytelling, I think, different than pure journalism.”
While investigating the story, the filmmakers had their concerns about whether Navalny and his story were true or were more Russian propaganda. Navalny and his team harbored the same concerns with the filmmakers, wondering whether they were operatives with the CIA. Eventually, Grozev noted, they came to trust one another.
Mistrust is something Minson knows well from her research.
“The normal behavior is, ‘I don't trust you, I don't believe you, therefore, I want to have nothing to do with you.’ You never have that opportunity to spend a lot of time together and ask many questions. If we all spent more time doing that, we might live in a very different world right now.”
Grozev said this is most obvious now as people in Ukraine and the Russians who despise Putin can’t even talk to each other.
“Early during the invasion, I started working with a group of political scientists who had relationships at the Kyiv School of Economics,” said Minson. “The problem we were trying to solve is that Ukrainians have 14 million relatives in Russia, and a lot of these relationships have been severely damaged, severed as people just can't talk to each other.
“We were planning a field experiment to help people better engage with their own families,” she explained. “While we were working out the details, a couple months went by and then our contacts at the Kyiv School said, ‘Look, you know what? Ukrainians don't want to talk to Russians right now, just, no.’”
“So, we are waiting,” she said.
Boris hopes the film encourages others to stand up for what is right. “I think we all have to ask ourselves: ‘What can I do to help influence or make a difference in this situation?'” he said. "It is a process of asking ourselves what we have to give and then giving it."
Navalny himself underscores this in the very last interview of the film.
“You are not allowed to give up,” he said, addressing his fellow Russians. “If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. So don’t be inactive.”
The complete panel discussion is available online.
Photographs by Martha Stewart and AP Photo/Chris Pizzello