Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Updates trickle in from Alexei Navalny's prison, where the Russian opposition leader has been confined since January of 2021.
CNN Today, Navalny's lawyer says he's being moved to an even harsher solitary confinement facility for a maximum period of six months.
CNN This is a 7 to 8 feet concrete cell. 11 times in a row he's been sent there. And you're not allowed to lay down during the daytime because your bed is fastened onto the wall.
Dasha Navalny Vladimir Putin and the federal penalty service and are slowly torturing and killing my father.
Brooke Gladstone In August of 2020, Navalny fell violently sick on a flight between Siberia and Moscow.
CBS A flight forced to make an emergency landing. Groaning can be heard in this unconfirmed cell phone video.
BBC Mr. Navalny is in a coma after a suspected poisoning. He was flown to Germany.
Brooke Gladstone After initially being treated at a Siberian hospital. His supporters and his wife say he was intentionally poisoned, but Russian doctors said no suspicious substance was found.
NBC Alexei Navalny survived thin and gaunt in a German hospital bed. This picture taken soon after he came round from a coma.
Al Jazeera Germany and France have announced plans to sanction those they blame for the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The country's foreign ministers say Moscow has failed to provide answers about the attempted murder.
Brooke Gladstone In the months following Navalny's poisoning. Christo Grozev, lead Russian investigator at Bellingcat, was stuck in Vienna with filmmaker Daniel Roher. The two had just been booted from Ukraine, where they'd been trying to film an investigation. So now Grozev have had a lot of time on his hands, a laptop and a fresh stack of data from the Russian black market. So naturally.
Daniel Roher Christo walked into a meeting we were having one day and said very quietly, as if he was divulging a state secret, that he thinks he has a lead in who tried to poison Navalny.
Brooke Gladstone Daniel Roher directed the documentary Navalny, which portrays the story of the close collaboration between Navalny, his team and the grows up in the hunt for the dissident’s would-be killers. The film has since been nominated for an Oscar.
Christo Grozev I decided to take this approach, which was Let's look for a bottleneck in the Russian system of state assassinations, somebody that they have to go through. Who would that be in every assassination? Because we had previous data from previous overseas attempts to poison people.
Brooke Gladstone And that's the sort of assassination you mean. Poisoning. Not an Anna Politkovskaya type assassination?
Christo Grozev No, No. Poisoning is something that Putin loves. We knew that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok.
Brooke Gladstone Novichok is..?
Christo Grozev Is a nerve agent, and-
Brooke Gladstone This is his preferred method. In previous investigations, the Russian double agent, what would you call, Skripal?
Christo Grozev Sergei Skripal.
Brooke Gladstone Right.
Christo Grozev He was a double spy because he worked for Russia's military intelligence, but he was working also for the Brits.
Brooke Gladstone Skripal went to London to live and was pursued, as you determined, by Russian thugs that used Putin's favorite poison to do him in.
Christo Grozev That is true.
Brooke Gladstone And others.
Christo Grozev So that became kind of an interesting data point for us, because we knew the scientists who had manufactured and given the Novichok nerve agent to those thugs who went to the UK. So when we were looking at the Navalny poisoning, we thought --- well, they must have used the same scientist. They can't have like hundreds of scientists who do this. This has to be kept top secret. This people have to take the risk to manufacture this toxin. So I started looking at the phone records of these scientists, and we bought them on the Russian markets where you can buy absolutely any kind of data. We started looking at whether these scientists did something strange in their communication around the days in which Navalny was poisoned. Then, lo and behold, we did find something strange. They were talking to this cluster of Secret Service officers from the FSB, from Russia's domestic service, in the ten days before the poisoning. And then at the night of his poisoning, there was a peak of communication.
Brooke Gladstone Is that when you went to Daniel?
Christo Grozev That is exactly when I went to Daniel, because only a couple of days later we found the second smoking gun, which was that these FSB thugs that had communicated with the scientists had actually traveled for four years, always in the vicinity of where Navalny was going. So then we knew that we have the proof.
Daniel Roher I said to Kristen, who's making that movie? And he says, I don't know. Should I ask them?
Brooke Gladstone Ask Navalny.
Daniel Roher As we say in the film, Christo just sent him a direct message on Twitter.
Brooke Gladstone He DM’d him.
Daniel Roher He slid into the DM’s...
Brooke Gladstone It’s so prosaic!
Daniel Roher …of the Russian opposition. That's right.
Brooke Gladstone And I know that your DM’s were met, Christo, with something less than enthusiasm by Navalny's people.
Christo Grozev Well, Navalny himself was enthusiastic. We understand in the background that his advisors and especially Maria, who we've grown to love, but at the time, she was very, very hard to work with.
Brooke Gladstone Maria?
Christo Grozev Pevchikh. Yes. She had been advising Navalny that, well, you have to be careful. I mean, who knows, maybe Christo works for the CIA, maybe he works for MI6. [unintelligible 20:20] But anyway, it worked out. I had the call. At the end of that call, I said, Hey, can I bring a couple of guys? And this young director, we want to make a film while we are doing this investigation together.
Daniel Roher My focus in that first meeting was to present Navalny and his team with a very low risk, high reward proposition. And that was the following: this investigation is unfolding in real time. You will never have another chance to capture it, to document it. Let's just start shooting. We don't have to sign any paperwork. We don't have to make a deal. Let's just start shooting. And if you like the work we do, then we'll continue working together. And if you don't, you can take the footage and we'll walk away. And you can do whatever you want with it. And so for them, it was like, okay, you're right. Let's start shooting. And we did the next day.
Brooke Gladstone One very successful conceit of the film is the sort of moment out of time that he has periodically in the bar with you on the other side of the camera and him staring directly into it. It's got incredible intimacy. At the same time, it's like he's outside his own life for a moment.
Daniel Roher We shot that interview three days preceding his eventual return to Moscow. And so it had this sense of, all right, what do you have to get off your chest because you're not going to be able to speak to the world again for a long while. We shot probably 15 hours of interview over three days. I had no idea in that moment how this interview would be weaved into the film. I had an instinct that it wouldn't even make it into the movie. I thought that this film wanted to be a propulsive, in-the-room, verité political thriller, and it's only when we started editing the film that months elapsed from the last time I had seen Navalny, you know, six or seven months since the world had seen him or heard from him that I understood the historic value of this interview.
Brooke Gladstone Mm hmm.
Daniel Roher This is the guy's last appearance. This was the last person he spoke to.
Brooke Gladstone I think you made the right decision. I understand you're not wanting to mess with the forward motion of the film, but the stakes get higher. The closer we feel to the protagonist. I mean, it's a nature of drama. And you really did that. You also played with time in a lot of ways. You flashback to the Navalny before the poisoning --- this young, promising charismatic lawyer with his flamboyant social media presence and huge following on YouTube and TikTok and had a knack for riling up the crowds against Putin.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) If I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I have to do something practical about it. Well, I have to kind of organize people.
Navalny Clip Well, not see just because you want to the right sort of.
Brooke Gladstone Navalny knew he was becoming notable in the eyes of the Kremlin as he was banned from newspapers and rallies and so forth. And yet with all that, Navalny seemed to become more confident that he wouldn't be targeted?
Daniel Roher He thought that his profile and his fame and his notoriety would protect him in a way.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) I was totally sure that my life became safer and safer because I am a kind of famous guy and it will be problematic for them just to kill me.
Interviewer (Navalny) And boy, where you wrong.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) Yes, I was very wrong.
Brooke Gladstone Then the Kremlin struck. He was poisoned on a flight between Tomsk in Siberia and Moscow, and was saved only by an emergency landing. The documentary shows harrowing footage of his wife, Yulia, arriving at a crappy apartment building where Navalny was sent…
Yulie Navalny (Navalny) I knew those people would go to Russia.
Brooke Gladstone …Filled with agents and police rather than doctors approaching them.
Brooke Gladstone Eventually a charity German flight sent Navalny to Vienna, where he steadily got better. So, Christo, you are knee deep in investigation into the poisoning, and you convinced Navalny that you would be able to identify the men.
Christo Grozev So they provided the data of how Navalny had traveled to what locations. I matched it to the known travel data of the poisoners and spies. We saw this pattern of essentially a group of 6 to 8 FSB poisoners had been tailing him for more than four years to a total of 66 different towns and cities during his presidential campaign and later after that, during his anti-corruption work. It was interesting because he brought his wife, Yulia, and when I was presenting this and he said, look at these guys that Christo has found. Haven't you seen this guy? Yeah, I think this was the guy in Kaliningrad where we were just two weeks before the poisoning poisonings on and so forth.
Brooke Gladstone And then there's the jaw dropping moment in the film where Navalny essentially prank calls the would-be murderers and the chemists involved in formulating the Novichok.
Christo Grozev: Yeah, it was early in the morning when we did the sequence of calls.
Christo Grozev Alexei Navalny calling his would-be killers and asking them one by one, why do you try to kill me? What have I done to you? That was kind of a sarcastic plot that he had. It was boring. Everybody was hanging up. So then at one point, he decided to change gear and to prank one of them. And he turned to me and said, Who do you think will be the dumbest of these people that I can prank? And he was like pointing to this suspect chart on the wall. And I said, I don't know about dummies, but somebody who may not be trained in avoiding such pranks, maybe one of the scientists and this one looks both dumb and a scientist. So why didn't you call him? That was Kudryavtsev. And he called him, and it worked.
Brooke Gladstone Navalny poses as an aide to a former FSB chief, and he talks about having received the number of the chemist from the head of the FSB Special Technology Center, and then he gets all urgent. “How did the mission go awry?” he asks Konstantin. He asks exactly how the poisoning was carried out, and that's when the infamous blue underwear comes into the conversation. We get to see your jaws eventually dropping on the table. Not the least, Navalny's aide, Maria's jaw hitting the table. I mean, you guys, it's just electric. How did that feel?
Christo Grozev 10 minutes into the call, we started getting new names and new circumstances beyond what we had discovered ourselves. And then I knew, okay, this is for real. This guy is actually spilling the beans. And then over the next 50 minutes, it was a gamut of emotions that went through the surprise, then went through the feeling that we actually may have just caused the demise and the death of this spy because he's going to be punished. He can't be allowed to go unpunished. And then one of the feelings that both I and Maria shared that we experienced towards the end of the call was a feeling of doom, that we've kind of peaked in our journalistic career because we'll never get to see anything like this again.
Brooke Gladstone And so what was the view behind the camera?
Daniel Roher I don't speak a word of Russian. But when we were shooting that scene, I had very little expectations that anything meaningful would happen. We were up at five in the morning. We were shooting for probably an hour and a half before he got Kudryavtsev on the phone, and I was nearly falling asleep behind my camera. And that's when I saw one of the conversations was progressing longer than the other phone calls had. And then I saw Maria's jaw unhinge and hit the floor. And this is a woman whose emotional range towards me, up until this point, had been mildly annoyed to very annoyed. So to see her experiencing this shock and I could just see she was floored. And I just kept rolling.
Brooke Gladstone The other challenge was how to portray Navalny not just as a political hero, but as a human being with flaws. I knew about his background and his associations with the far right and some anti-Semites, and I was waiting for that moment to push back. And you provided it when you questioned him about marching with Nazis earlier in his career.
Daniel Roher (Navalny) Because a lot of politicians would be uncomfortable that even associating or being in the same photograph with one of these guys. Are you comfortable with that?
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) I'm okay with that. And I consider it as my political superpower. I can talk to everyone. Anyway, well, they are citizens of Russian Federation. And if I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I cannot just ignore the huge part of it.
Daniel Roher Essentially, what he's saying is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and his singular focus is unseating this regime, relegating Vladimir Putin to the dustbins of history and installing a democratic tradition in Russia.
Christo Grozev I've historically challenged Navalny over his foreplay with the extreme right. He says, I did it because I thought at that point in time, this is the best for Russian democracy. And you have to understand, we are now fighting against a single party system. And when we get rid of it, we will then have a meaningful discussion on the subject, on the content of the platforms of different parties, and then is the right time or the right place to challenge these Nazis or these extreme rights on their platforms. But it's not now, we first need to get rid of the one party system.
Brooke Gladstone As you've observed, he's a master politician. He's unbelievably charismatic. He really understands social media. But I think the thing that struck me the most, he has a certain messianic quality, a sense of destiny. I think that's why he went back to Russia after having nearly been killed. Did you get a sense of the messianic, either of you, from him?
Speaker 8 Let me start. I did, it's clear, it has to be put in the context of the messianic proclivity of the Russian soul. A lot of my friends who are journalists in Russia, they have that messianic quality to themselves and they're doing a job that essentially puts their lives, their families’ lives at risk at any given moment. I spoke with him and I spoke with his family at length about this plan to go back to Russia. And I alerted them, I thought for the first time, to the risks of them were going back. And they all said, we are aware of the risks. We know that Alexei will be jailed and not for a week, not for a month, but for years. And I said, And you're fine with this? And the answer was yes, because that's the only way for him to earn the trust of the Russian people for a time when he can actually go and run for president again. So, it is messianic, no question about it. But I think societies are changed by a minority of the people that have messianic tendencies.
Daniel Roher And what I often think about is whether or not Navalny would have been so keen to go back so quickly had this war in Ukraine already been launched. He went back about a year before the war started.
Brooke Gladstone His family was Ukrainian. They had to decamp from where he grew up after Chernobyl.
Daniel Roher That's right. And of course, now he is the single loudest anti-war advocate in Russia, which is why he is in a little solitary confinement cell removed from the general prison population in what amounts to torturous conditions. He has no regard for his own longevity. His only, it seems, mission and ambition is to end this war, even as the regime is ratcheting up their torture towards him, which includes weaponizing other prisoners as biological weapons, sending in men with tuberculosis and a fever and COVID to try and get him sick. And then when he gets sick, they treat him with prison doctors, and he's not informed of what his treatment is and he doesn't know what they're injecting him with. In the last, I think, two and a half weeks, he's lost about 15 pounds. And it's quite clear that the regime is trying to murder him in slow motion.
Brooke Gladstone It's interesting that he's still able to communicate with the world that the Russians are letting him continue to communicate with the world. It seems like the Russians are doing the maximum to look bad. We get to watch him die, even as he exhorts us. What is the calculation, do you think?
Christo Grozev Navalny is very good at playing the foibles, the weaknesses of Putin, and he knows that Putin wants to indict him for more and more crimes, and each new indictment --- and we've seen four since he was incarcerated --- now, the latest one is he's accused of running an extremist organization from inside jail, the extremist organization being the anti-corruption fund that has been banned by Russia. But each of these new indictments brings the constitutional requirement for Alexei to meet with his lawyers. And each new meeting with the lawyers brings him the opportunity to send a message in the form of a handwritten note that is posted on Instagram and Twitter. So it becomes a vicious circle because each new message brings a new indictment and it brings back the lawyers. So that's how he's playing the system.
Brooke Gladstone We got the news in December, Christo, you are the first foreign national to be placed on Putin's most wanted list. You are Bulgarian. You have been in Vienna. Not a very safe place to be. England isn't such a safe place to be. Where are you going to go?
Christo Grozev Fortunately, I have the excuse of needing to stay in the United States for a while because we're waiting for the Oscars, and I'm taking that opportunity to also teach a little bit here --- investigative journalism. But you're right, I'm on the wanted list. And furthermore, I know that I'm on the kill list in addition to the wanted list. And therefore, I'll have to reconsider where my family lives, where I live. And I can't claim that I'm as messianic as a Russian, but I still see that this is also a recognition of the effect of our investigations. And I see the positive side of that too.
Brooke Gladstone Have you done any of your own research to look into your own case?
Christo Grozev That is literally what I'm working on at the moment, looking for my would-be killers. It's one of the most surreal experiences to do that. It's almost like a doctor trying to cure themselves.
Brooke Gladstone Wow. How do you begin? They haven't left a trail like they did for Navalny years in advance.
Christo Grozev I'm looking for people--- I shouldn't be telling you because they will know what I'm doing. Yeah, let's talk about it after I catch them.
Brooke Gladstone Oh, boy. Christo Grozev, lead Russian investigator at Bellingcat features in the film Navalny, directed by Daniel Roher. Thank you both very much.
Daniel Roher Thank you for having us.
Christo Grozev Thank you for having us.
Brooke Gladstone Coming up, reading Dostoyevsky while war rages in Ukraine becomes a very different experience. This is On the Media.
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