Captured on camera: The poisonous plot to murder Alexei Navalny

It was news around the world when outspoken Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was taken off a flight to Moscow – moaning in pain – after an emergency landing almost two years ago.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s was still in a coma in a Berlin hospital, toxicology tests revealed that he had been poisoned by the Soviet-style nerve agent Novichok.

Now a gripping new documentary chronicles the remarkable scenes as Navalny – not long out of hospital – confronts the Russian agents who tried to murder him.

Navalny remains , initially sentenced to two-and-a-half-years for a parole violation then, in March this year, that he rejects as politically motivated.

Canadian director Daniel Roher made Navalny, which won an audience award at Sundance Film Festival and is screening at both the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival, after meeting Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev. He had been struggling to develop a different documentary at the time.

Christo walked in and said ‘what about this Navalny guy? I think I have a lead into who tried to poison him’. That was one of these lightbulb moments, Roher says from Los Angeles

Grozev, who works for the Netherlands-based investigative journalism organisation Bellingcat, identified the Russian FSB security service agents who travelled to Siberia to poison Navalny. Grozev ingeniously cross-referenced phone records, car registration databases, passport files and flight manifests that he bought on the Russian black market.

While Roher filmed, Navalny starts phoning the agents one by one to ask why they wanted to kill him. They hang up immediately so he decides to pass himself off as an investigating official asking why the operation failed.

Another agent, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, falls for the ruse and spends more than 45 minutes discussing the murder plot.

We did it just as planned, he says. The way we rehearsed it many times.

Kudryavtsev reveals the . He thought the operation failed because the emergency landing allowed Russian medics to treat him quickly with an antidote.

If the flight was a bit longer, I think things would have gone the other way, he says.

For Roher, filming Navalny’s calls was an extraordinary experience.

These are men who were part of a clandestine murder operation . . . and they think that they operate with impunity, he says. It’s brave investigative journalists like Christo Grozev and his colleagues in and out of Russia who hold these people to account.

After Navalny revealed the phone conversation on social media, Kudryavtsev disappeared and is presumed dead. While he feels for Kudryavtsev’s family, Roher has no sympathy for the agent.

We have this idea that the Russians are the best at trade craft and that they have a fabulous spy network, but the reality is quite different, he says. Kudryavtsev made his bed and he’s got to lie in it, even if it’s six feet under the ground.

While he found Navalny to be very much a politician, Roher says he was charismatic, funny and engaging, with that quality often attributed to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama of making whoever they meet feel like the most important person in the room.

I was immediately impressed, he says. Within 15 minutes, you’re like ‘OK, this guy could be the president one day’.

The documentary follows Navalny’s dramatic last year, surrounded by journalists and knowing he would be immediately arrested. Roher was not surprised he returned to Russia.

I was a bit surprised he did it so soon, he says. But he wants to be the president one day. And for him, that means having to go home.

This week, Navalny said Russian authorities were considering further trumped-up charges that could keep him jailed for another 15 years.

Roher doubts he will be released while Putin remains in power.

I think it’s a life sentence, he says. It’s just a question of whose life – his or Putin’s.

Putin is an older guy, we don’t think he’s in very good health. The walls seem to be closing in [with each setback in the invasion of Ukraine] but who knows what’s going to happen? Change in Russia happens very quickly or it doesn’t.

Roher would like to see Navalny freed so he can run for Russian president one day.

I hope that he survives, he says. I hope that he has a chance to bring his message to the Russian people and let them choose.

Navalny is screening at Sydney Film Festival, which runs until June 19; Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs from August 4 to 21; then streams on DocPlay in September.

Email the writer at and follow him on Twitter at .

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *