Oscar for Navalny? The World Still Doesn’t Understand What’s Wrong With Russia
The Oscar for best documentary went to the portrait of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, considered Vladimir Putin’s top domestic rival. If it was meant as a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, Hollywood has badly missed the mark.
The Oscar awarded Sunday to “Navalny,” the documentary about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was not much of a surprise. As a storyline, it follows all the laws of Hollywood: a courageous hero, an absolute villain, a love story, oppressed peoples — and a sequel. It also, of course, allows the movie industry to collectively and very publicly declare its strong stance against Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.
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But if Hollywood thought this Oscar would be well-received in Ukraine, they got hold of the wrong script.
Assigning this highest honor of Western culture to Navalny is instead a reminder of how much is still misunderstood about Russia — and what must be done about its invasion of Ukraine.
Sure, Putin’s No. 1 domestic rival plays his role perfectly: Navalny is a caring father, a loving husband, a brave man, an honest politician. The film evokes all the right emotions: sympathy and admiration for the protagonist and regret for the country's plight and its citizens, who, like Navalny, have become figurative and literal prisoners of a regime.
And so the Kremlin’s victim par excellence receives an Oscar against the backdrop of a bloody war that Putin launched in Ukraine over a year ago. Yet Hollywood has, as it is prone to do, not gone beyond the surface — has not done its research.
In 2014, Navalny supported the annexation of Crimea and regularly endorsed the idea that Russians and Ukrainians were one nation. When Ukraine created a national Orthodox church free of Russian control in 2018, Navalny was outraged that Putin had allowed the Moscow Patriarchate to lose control over the Ukrainian church.
Support for pro-Russian separatists
Navalny's troubling foreign policy statements are not limited to Ukraine. He declared his support for the independence of separatist regions throughout the former Soviet Union and welcomed Russia's war with Georgia in 2008. He has also previously used inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric that would place him on the far-right side of the political spectrum in North America or Western Europe.
Navalny is undoubtedly one of the key political actors in today's Russia, and his plight rotting away in a modern-day gulag is a very plain sign of the evil of the Kremlin regime. He and his team have conducted important investigations into the Russian oligarchs, the life and finances of Vladimir Putin, and the actions of the FSB secret service in Russia and beyond.
Alexei Navalny on a march in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov in 2020.
A holy fear
Navalny remains the leading symbol of the struggle against Putin, and this fact alone attracts foreign audiences to his side. The message of Navalny's image for the world is that the only problem in Russia is its president. And by reinforcing the idea, the world again misses the truth: the multi-ethnic state formation of the Russian Federation is saturated through and through, down to its most remote villages, with a holy fear of the modern concept of universal rights and freedoms that are the cornerstone of democratic countries.
The film's final shots, where a worn-out Navalny is behind bars, are replaced by footage of his interview in Germany before his 2021 arrest, where he says: "If they kill me, if they arrest me, fight! Because for evil to triumph, good people need to do nothing. "
Navalny's Oscar is an endorsement of those Russian liberals who have found the strength within themselves to act. But if Ukraine and other countries in the region hope to have a secure future, the world must also start asking what these “good Russians” think.