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The Man Behind 2023’s Academy Award Winning Documentary

Alexei Navalny in Daniel Roher's Navalny documentary

Every year, the winners of the Big Four at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress) get the most hype. However, often, the most significant film contributions of the year end up in the two categories that don’t get talked about enough: Best Documentary and Best Short Documentary. This year, the war in Ukraine, Afghan refugees, Nan Golden, baby elephants, and Alexei Navalny were just a few of the topics tackled across the two documentary categories.

One of the short documentaries nominated, Stranger at the Gate, was so significant it even drew Malala Yousafzai to the awards show. Another prominent figure in attendance was Yulia Navalnaya, who had the opportunity to speak on stage when Navalny nabbed the award for Best Documentary. Yulia joined Navalny director Daniel Roher in accepting the award and delivering a particularly emotional acceptance speech. Roher sent a message to Alexei, promising him that the world hadn’t forgotten him and urging people around the world to oppose dictators and authoritarianism. Yulia also had a message for Alexei and the world:

My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy. Alexei, I am dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong my love. Thank you.

The moving speech, filled with passionate pleas and messages of hope and freedom, left many wondering just who Alexei is and where he is now.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Navalny primarily focuses on the story of how Alexei survived being poisoned in 2020 and the allegations that Vladimir Putin was involved in the incident. The poisoning and the events that followed brought Alexei into the international spotlight, but his work in the Russian opposition goes back many years. Alexei was born on June 4, 1976, and is of Russian and Ukrainian descent. He started his career in 1998 as a Russian lawyer. However, it was likely this background in law that led him to begin investigating Russian corruption.

By 2011, he had a blog, YouTube channel, and Anti-Corruption Foundation that blew the whistle on alleged corruption taking place in the Russian government. He often used leaked confidential documents showing how fraud and embezzlement allowed state-run oil and gas companies and government officials to attain their wealth. In addition to these videos and blogs, he also physically partook in anti-government protests and joined in protests against Putin’s bid for a third term as President. He was arrested twice, once in December 2011 and once in March 2012, for opposing Putin’s election and alleging voter fraud.

Beginning in 2011, Alexei was also in and out of court and jail as numerous fraud and embezzlement charges were raised against him. He has denied the charges and arrests as being politically motivated, but the convictions were enough to bar him from running for President of Russia. The more prominent he became, the more dangerous his work became as he was jailed for protests and, in 2017, suffered damage to one eye after being splashed with antiseptic green dye in an attack.

What happened to Alexei?

On August 20, 2020, Alexei was on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, Russia, when he fell severely ill. Witnesses on the plane recounted how he was “moaning and screaming” as the plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. Alexei was rushed to the hospital in Omsk but later transferred to Berlin for treatment and was placed in a medically induced coma. By September 7, Alexei had been woken from his coma and German doctors had conducted toxicology tests that showed Alexei had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, which was developed during the Soviet Union era.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and labs in Sweden and France also backed up the German doctors’ conclusion of Novichok poisoning, but the hospital in Omsk denied that Novichok was present in toxicology reports. A UN rights expert also launched an investigation into the incident and concluded that Alexei had been deliberately poisoned by Russian officials to send a clear warning to any critics and opponents of the Russian government. Putin vehemently denied any involvement in the incident and Alexei was released from the hospital on September 22, 2020.

Where is Alexei today?

As viewers were likely able to decipher from Yulia’s and Roher’s speeches, Alexei is currently imprisoned in Russia. He returned to Russia from Germany on January 18, 2021, and was immediately detained upon his arrival. At the time of the poisoning, Alexei was on probation after receiving a suspended sentence for one of the aforementioned fraud and embezzlement charges against him. As a result, it was claimed that he had broken the terms of his probation by leaving Russia for the hospital in Germany and had to remain in Russian custody until a court hearing. Upon a court hearing in February 2021, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.

While in prison, he was tried for more charges of fraud and received an additional nine years in prison for that conviction. In October 2022, it was reported that Russian authorities may be seeking to add another 30 years to his sentence on charges of extremism and terrorism. As a result, Alexei remains imprisoned in Russia today, with some referring to him as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience (POC). However, despite being in prison, he has managed to retain access to Facebook and Instagram, where he continues leading the opposition against Putin. He has recently set his sights on opposing Putin’s war in Ukraine from prison, though it has allegedly jeopardized his safety while in custody.

Alexei has been monumental in inspiring Russians and oppressed individuals across the world to oppose corrupt governments. Many hail him as the only man that Putin fears and cannot kill. However, some are also skeptical of Alexei due to his past heavy ties to Russian nationalism. He was actually once kicked out of the Russian United Democratic Party for his nationalistic ideology. Alexei has never renounced his nationalistic past and xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiments, and they were significant enough to strip him of his POC designation in 2021. While Alexei is not the perfect revolutionary figure, Navalny effectively raises awareness of the corruption in Russia and the existence of POCs around the world.

(featured image: Warner Bros.)

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Rachel Ulatowski is a Freelance Writer, blogger, and aspiring author. As a Freelancer Writer she hopes to give readers the same comfort and enjoyment that she finds in all things nerdy and noteworthy, as a blogger she enjoys snarking on YouTubers and reality stars, and as a future novelist she hopes to raise awareness for child abuse through literature.