Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Polonium Friday

“Who lost Russia?” That is a question that will soon be asked with increasing regularity. The appointment of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister in 1999 essentially ended Russia’s experiment with democracy, which he soon replaced with a Stalinist personality cult. The assassination of dissident Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, via a radioactive Polonium-210 mickey slipped into his tea, served as a wake-up call to many of the nature of the Putin regime and would inspire Andrei Nekrasov’s damning documentary Poisoned By Polonium (French trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

Initially an interview subject, Litvinenko became Nekrasov’s friend. Both had something in common: conflict with Russian/Soviet intelligence services. As a student, Kekrasov had been persecuted and expelled for not informing on classmates to the KGB. Litvinenko was the dissident whistleblower who had publicly accused the succeeding FSB of widespread corruption. (In fact, the film explains the Soviet KGB simply morphed into the Russian FSB, with no distinction made in the history of the two on its official website.)

Much of Nekrasov’s footage of Litvinenko is intimate, to the point of eeriness. Early in Polonium, the dissident looks into the camera and says: “If anything should happen to me, I beg you to show this tape to the world.” While there was independent television in Russia, Litvinenko did appear on air to accuse the FSB of committing extortion and assassinations with the foreknowledge and consent of Putin. Using his late friend’s information as a starting point, Nekrasov connects the dots between Putin and SPAG, a shady German conglomerate with ties to the Russian mob, the Stasi, and the Columbian drug cartels. He also shines a light on the French government’s collaboration with the Putin regime—not exactly a shocker there.

However, the Russian war on Chechnya looms largest in Polonium’s catalogue of Kremlin crimes. We hear the former FSB Colonel and other critics, like journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was conveniently executed in her apartment elevator mere weeks before the Polonium incident), pointedly accuse the government of complicity in the 1999 apartment bombing and the Nord-Ost Moscow Theater hostage crisis, which were used as provocations for military action against the breakaway republic.

In truth, one of the more awkward sequences of Polonium is an attempt to explain his deathbed conversion to Islam as a sort of ecumenical spiritual impulse, with Nekrasov taking great pains to distinguish Caucasus Islam from more virulent Middle Eastern variants. While we can never really know Litvinenko’s motivations during those excruciatingly painful final honors, it seems more plausible that his conversion was simply his final expression of solidarity with the Chechen people he had come to make common cause with.

If the occasion of Polonium were not so tragic—the death of a friend—one would argue Nekrasov was remarkably fortunate in the scenes he was able to document. After an interview, one of Litvinenko’s killers actually offers the filmmaker a cup of tea (thanks, but no thanks). Again, maybe not so fortunate but certainly effective, we see Nekrasov discover his home has been mysteriously ransacked after he starts Polonium.

Nekrasov seems to represent the left wing of Putin’s opposition, so he deserves credit for including a wide spectrum of criticism of the current regime. Particularly notable is some refreshingly insightful commentary from philosopher André Glucksmann, who cautions critics of Putin’s crony capitalism to give proper credit to the Russian capitalists also struggling for free expression and democracy.

Polonium is by necessity a mixed bag of footage, but Nekrasov cuts it together remarkably effectively. At times the film is flat-out chilling, as when Putin cold-bloodedly tells reporters: “Mr. Litvinenko is unfortunately not Lazarus.” Altogether it is a cold, hard, slap-in-the-face warning about the Putin’s neo-Soviet regime, yet highly watchable throughout. In his footage, Nekrasov shows an interesting visual sense and captures some extraordinarily telling moments on film. This is an important documentary, well worth seeking out. It opens Friday in New York at the Quad, hopefully rolling out to more cities soon thereafter.

(Thanks to La Russophobe for sharing this review with their readers.)