Alexei Navalny and His (Real Life) Hollywood Thriller (The Borscht Report #5)

 

Alexei Navalny knows who tried to kill him and he wants you to be entertained. 

On the face of it, this seems quite odd. Since his poisoning in August, Navalny has become undisputedly the most prominent figure in the Russian opposition and has used his already well developed social and alternative media presence to keep supporters, foreign observers, and enemies well appraised of his progress and actions. Like fellow anti-Putinist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Navalny is an expert in using social media platforms, especially YouTube, to spread his message in a way that is friendly and accessible to young people and supporters, even those residing abroad. (A not insignificant thing, just considering the size of the Russian diaspora in places like London and New York, not to mention the many non-Russians who take an interest in seeing Putin thrown from power). And now, only months from what many suspected would be his deathbed, Navalny has returned to tell his tale and that of his would-be murderers. 

The actual tale of Navalny’s (somewhat) botched poisoning makes a fascinating story in itself, which is why I would encourage you to watch at least part of the video he released on his YouTube channel a week ago. What I want to talk about here is the less-discussed aspect of this new twist: the optics. 

If you’ve never seen one of Khodorkovsky’s videos, they are pretty cut and dry. 5-10 minute videos of him discussing various aspects of the Russian news, politics, and his own opposition activities. Lately, there has been a little fancy editing thrown in, but the vast majority of his content, generally released about every 3 days, sticks to that basic format. This is not to say that he isn’t doing well. The videos tend to garner between 100K and 900K views, with a few outliers at either end of that spectrum, and a majority without English subtitles available. Another version of his channel, with custom English subtitles, also exists, but typically doesn’t catch more than 100 to 1000 views per video. 

Navalny, on the other hand, has two channels: Навальный LIVE, a news-based channel on which he appears but which also has multiple other anchors, and Алексей Навальный, the content of which is almost always solo videos of Navalny, although short documentaries appear on occasion. On both channels, videos regularly have between 2 and 20 million views. 

Of course, part of the view disparity between Khodorkovsky and Navalny is in their relative domestic and international profiles, as well as the fickleness of the platform’s algorithm, but I think that the design of Navalny’s videos also plays a large part. Not only are Navalny’s tactics helpful in getting more attention on his anti-Putin crusade, but they may be a view for the Russian opposition at large into how they can catch more grassroots attention, and more foreign eyes, helpful in pushing legislature, like the Magnitsky Act, which can assist in their goals. 

Let’s take Navalny’s expose as a test case. Naturally, any talk of the attempt on his life attracts a lot of attention, especially considering the use of the agent in question, because it has popped up in so many other cases, and the generally short life span of Putin’s opponents. Just taking those factors into consideration, the whole thing could have been rather a somber production. Likewise, he could have taken the Khodorkovsky approach and presented a very straightforward report of the facts and figures in question, throwing a few pictures up on-screen and going through the timeline he and the journalists who broke most of the story have constructed. 

Instead, Navanly treats his experience as a Hollywood thriller. There are cuts to clips of James Bond movies, and little animations poke fun at the transparent falsehoods of Putin and his allies in the wake of the news about the FSB’s involvement breaking. He even invites his audience to “grab a pipe, or at least a cup of tea” and settle in for the experience of watching the 51-minute video. Throughout, the viewers are introduced to the players in question, and shown documents, interviews, recordings, maps, and all manner of other evidence, skillfully woven into the video with humorous edits and touching clips of Navalny interacting with his family, which was also under threat.

On its own, this doesn’t seem like a huge innovation. So the guy hires good editors and can spin a yarn, what’s the big deal? The big deal, as I see it, is engagement. Vladimir Putin is not in a good place right now, and Russia is full of disaffected young people, migrants (who also tend younger), and educated professionals, among others, who consume a lot of their daily news on the platforms that Navalny is targeting. The fancy editing and engaging tone encourage those people, who might otherwise ignore domestic politics as a lost cause or fall into Putin’s support because of the strength and relentless nature of the propaganda used there, to take another view of their country and opposition politics. Navalny came back from a murder attempt, a poisoning, and can joke about it. There is a risk inherent in going against Putin, but it is not an inevitable death sentence, and Russian politics are not set in stone. For the apolitical, it is a way to get drawn into the fray, because the content is so close in some ways to what they might watch for entertainment, and see the importance of picking a side. Foreign view, meanwhile, can be much bigger because of the expertly done English translation, and the appeal of such an interesting, well-presented story. 

An intriguing YouTube video or two (or two hundred) won’t end Vladimir Putin’s regime. But an opposition that understands the importance of wide media engagement, especially on platforms that it is harder for the government to police, and how to appeal to young people and sympathetic foreigners, is a more powerful force, especially when Putin’s own propaganda has become only become more transparent and (unintentionally) ridiculous as his reign drags on. 

So, if you’ve got 51 minutes to spare, grab your pipe and enjoy a tale that could come from the pen le Carré himself.

(The video has English subtitles. Just tick the little “CC” button on the right side of your screen. If that doesn’t come up, click the gearwheel, CC, and the English).

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding.  Thank you, KW.

    ‘Muricans might want to pay attention.  Learn how to get the word out in a Harris administration.  Just sayin’.

    • #1
  2. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    This post will be a big hit among Ricochet’s Russian speakers. Of which I’m not one, unfortunately. Got any links to Navalny videos with subtitles?

    • #2
  3. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    A bowl of borscht sounds good right now – all those standing up for the truth these days are in good company – just don’t accept any cups of tea – brave brave souls – all of them!

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Barfly (View Comment):

    This post will be a big hit among Ricochet’s Russian speakers. Of which I’m not one, unfortunately. Got any links to Navalny videos with subtitles?

    That one has English subtitles. You may have to turn them on, though, using the little gearwheel button. 

    • #4
  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    This post will be a big hit among Ricochet’s Russian speakers. Of which I’m not one, unfortunately. Got any links to Navalny videos with subtitles?

    That one has English subtitles. You may have to turn them on, though, using the little gearwheel button.

    Yep, the Reticulator is right. Just tick the little “CC” button on the right side of your screen. If that doesn’t come up, click the gearwheel, CC, and the English.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I’ve watched the first 31 minutes and will get back to the rest in a minute. But it occurs to me that we should have had Navalny and his team come and investigate our elections.   I suppose he was busy with other things, though. 

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    It takes a lot of guts for him to taunt Putin like that. It’s a high stakes operation.

    • #7
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    It takes a lot of guts for him to taunt Putin like that. It’s a high stakes operation.

    It does, but I suppose at this point he knows the costs even better than most, and he’s determined to keep at it. Hopefully, it will be to some result one day.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Now I see that Navalny has another video out today. In between that one and this, Putin held a press conference on the subject.

    I haven’t finished watching it yet, but did a LOL when Putin’s press secretary was asked why, if his FSB agents were following Navalny from city to city to look after him, they didn’t keep him from getting poisoned.

    OK, laugh break is done. Now back to the video.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Outstanding. Thank you, KW.

    ‘Muricans might want to pay attention. Learn how to get the word out in a Harris administration. Just sayin’.

    Big Tech is not in it for Putin, but they are for Harris.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Now I see that Navalny has another video out today. In between that one and this, Putin held a press conference on the subject.

    I haven’t finished watching it yet, but did a LOL when Putin’s press secretary was asked why, if his FSB agents were following Navalny from city to city to look after him, they didn’t keep him from getting poisoned.

    OK, laugh break is done. Now back to the video.

    Another laugher at 20:20.  And his assistants were stiffling their laughs before that.

    I’ll have to give Navalny credit for being a great actor on the phone.

    This is better than any TV detective show; better than the scene in День выборов where the fake FSB agent intercepts the governor’s phone calls.  

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I imagine two guys won’t be getting big promotions anytime soon.  Alexandrov, for sneaking in a couple of phone calls on his personal phone, and this Kurdryavtsev:  “Is it OK for us to be talking about this on a regular phone line?” 

    • #12
  13. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I imagine two guys won’t be getting big promotions anytime soon. Alexandrov, for sneaking in a couple of phone calls on his personal phone, and this Kurdryavtsev: “Is it OK for us to be talking about this on a regular phone line?”

    Between these geniuses and the Salisbury Novichok guys, Putin really is not operating with a brain trust for killers.

    • #13
  14. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Good teaser for this with much details.  Filed for later.

    But as always, a great post.

    • #14
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Good teaser for this with much details. Filed for later.

    But as always, a great post.

    Thank you. Normally with something like this I would try to give a run down of the whole incident, but since the actual victim was giving a (very watchable) explanation of such a complex topic, and in English, I thought the actual details were best left to him. And that the long term implications for opposition communication, which no one in media sources I read seems to have considered yet, should be explored.

    • #15
  16. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Good teaser for this with much details. Filed for later.

    But as always, a great post.

    Thank you. Normally with something like this I would try to give a run down of the whole incident, but since the actual victim was giving a (very watchable) explanation of such a complex topic, and in English, I thought the actual details were best left to him. And that the long term implications for opposition communication, which no one in media sources I read seems to have considered yet, should be explored.

    “Opposition communication.”

    We need to be thinking that way given the behavior of our “professional” media.  And they aren’t even getting defenestrated.  They are doing it of their own will, like a herd.

    • #16
  17. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    The key to taking down Putin is to have a counter-narrative of Russian pride and national spirit .    Putin right now can rally people as the defender of Mother Russia.   You need to take that away using a narrative that not only mocks Putin but makes the case for being a better champion.

    There is nothing wrong with Russians being patriotic and devoted to their motherland.-  The expression of that pride in dead dissidents and invasions of the neighborhood is the problem.

    • #17
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Between these geniuses and the Salisbury Novichok guys, Putin really is not operating with a brain trust for killers.

    Generally speaking, there ain’t no brain trusts for killers. The sort of people who do that sort of work tend to be a bit damaged. These are not military professionals who just happen to be protecting their country. These guys are more like mob killers. Not many of them are going to be joining Mensa or the Triple Nines.

    • #18
  19. Cat III, Pussy Superstar Member
    Cat III, Pussy Superstar
    @CatIII

    Awesome article. With all the Russiagate nonsense, I tended to forget how bad Putin is and I fear I’m not the only one. Fortunately that narrative is an American one, though now that I say that, I wonder if there’s any significant proportion of Russians that believe Putin interfered with the 2016 election and if so, what effect that has on their view of the regime.

    Either way, I hope Navalny’s influence continues to grow.

    • #19
  20. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cat III, Pussy Superstar (View Comment):

     I wonder if there’s any significant proportion of Russians that believe Putin interfered with the 2016 election and if so, what effect that has on their view of the regime.

    I’ve been thinking about all the Russians I listen to on the internet, mostly through YouTube channels, and it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s a question of enough importance for any of them to even have an opinion about it. (Now that I’m retired I have hardly any contact with students or researchers from Russia.) I would imagine they treat having an opinion on the issue as one of those weird things Americans do, like smiling at perfect strangers when there isn’t even anything to smile about. 

    Well, there is Crazy Russian Dad, a Jewish Russian expatriate living in Boston with family.  He is aware that Americans talk about it, and has done a few skits with his teenage son to make fun of it. (I expect he was a Trump voter, btw, though he hasn’t said so.) The son plays the Russian agent in America who is having trouble throwing the election, and calls his handler in the Lubyanka (his father) for advice. And Crazy Russian Dad did a brief loner-skit in which he showed how to use a secret hacker page on the internet to throw an election. It was the html page for one of the election reporting sites–the page you get to by clicking on “inspect element.” He went in and added enough votes for Biden to throw the election. Or was it for Trump? I forget which. 

    The question of whether it was good for Russia to invade Crimea, on the other hand, is of great importance to Russians. The issue of Putin’s policies of economic support for families is of importance to one of his fangirls who runs one of the Russian-language-for-English-speakers sites that I follow. The relationship of Trump to NATO is important. The issue of economic sanctions is important. You can tell, even when they don’t say so and try to steer clear of those topics.  I do find it interesting, though, that in the past few months some of these sites that heretofore stayed scrupulously clear of political topics have been getting a little more political, and one of the young presenters who has a traditional, systematic approach to learning Russian is not even subtle about it.  It seemed to me she was very nervous in the episode where she revealed her pro-Putin stance, but maybe she has gotten a little more relaxed about it having seen that she wasn’t struck by lightning for it.

    But interfering in our election? Everybody interferes with everybody’s elections. If Americans are obsessed with that question, well, Americans are self-centered and are sometimes a bit different from normal people.

    That’s my interpretation, anyway. I’m doing a lot of reading and writing between the lines in saying that, because that’s not what these YouTube channels are for.

    • #20
  21. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    The key to taking down Putin is to have a counter-narrative of Russian pride and national spirit . Putin right now can rally people as the defender of Mother Russia. You need to take that away using a narrative that not only mocks Putin but makes the case for being a better champion.

    There is nothing wrong with Russians being patriotic and devoted to their motherland.- The expression of that pride in dead dissidents and invasions of the neighborhood is the problem.

    I think what America needs to learn, in assessing and (considering) giving support to these dissidents, is the difference between Russian patriots and Russian imperialists/pan-Slavists. Pan-Slavism is an ideology on ever shakier ground than pan-Arabism as far as historical antecedents, and it has basically always been ‘all Slavs are equal, but the Russian Slavs are the most equal.’ There are still some anti-Putinists that like his foreign policy, and want to see not just a strong Russia, but a Russia that includes Ukraine and dominates the whole of Eastern Europe. That’s not in the interests of the US or her allies in the region, never mind Europe as a whole. Nemstov was kind of the ideal as far as the West could want on this, and Navalny is pretty far from it, though by no means the most extreme, so I’m guessing that the best that can be hoped for is that the opposition leader who actually takes Putin’s place, when/if that happens (and its not a military or oligarch led coup), is somewhere in between the two.

    • #21
  22. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Cat III, Pussy Superstar (View Comment):

    Awesome article. With all the Russiagate nonsense, I tended to forget how bad Putin is and I fear I’m not the only one. Fortunately that narrative is an American one, though now that I say that, I wonder if there’s any significant proportion of Russians that believe Putin interfered with the 2016 election and if so, what effect that has on their view of the regime.

    Either way, I hope Navalny’s influence continues to grow.

    As the Reticulator said, I don’t think it’s a priority for most Russians, but the ones that want to or do buy into the ‘unbeatable, strong Mother Russia’ vs. ‘decadent, weak, too Western United States’ like it for being further proof of Russia’s superiority and the Federation’s ability to damage and humiliate America. 

    But I do see too many Putin apologists, especially on the right, in the West. My guess is that part of it comes from that New York Times Op Ed he wrote in 2013 criticizing Obama, and the perception that he was a strong leader who loves his country while Obama wasn’t. He’s firmly in the path of the type of nationalists that Anglo-American conservatives, who come from a classical liberal tradition, don’t want to follow. The de Maistre blood, soil, and king stuff that propped up tyrannies, encouraged violence against minorities, and tried to limit people seeing the world beyond borders or race/nationality. And his love of country is built on domination and personal power. There’s very little to admire in him, and his policies, and a lot to despise. 

    • #22
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    This video, where Navalny impersonates one of the bad guys and does a phone interview with one of the team that attempted to kill him, which I first linked to in #9, came out yesterday (the 21st) and had 10,000,000 views when I watched it very late last night. Now, ten hours later, it has 14,000,000 views. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. (Navalny’s channel, which is where this appears, has 4.6 million subscribers. I don’t know if such a ratio of views to subscribers is common.) 

    By the way, I usually wouldn’t touch anything that CNN also touched, but CNN had a Russian-speaking journalist who was also in on the scheme to contact all eight of the assassin team simultaneously.  A couple of other non-US news agencies were also involved. The CNN journalist didn’t get very far–she had an apartment door slammed in her face–but if the plan was to keep all eight of the team busy at once I suppose her mission was partly accomplished.

     

    • #23
  24. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Arahant (View Comment):
    little “CC” button on the right side of your screen. If that doesn’t come up, click the

    And, for this type of op, faithful reliability and OPSEC take priority over actual tradecraft and capability.  So his goons were probably pulled from the HQ, as opposed to being field guys with solid tradecraft.

    BTW, how does one say “Crossfire Hurricane” in Russian?

    • #24
  25. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    little “CC” button on the right side of your screen. If that doesn’t come up, click the

    And, for this type of op, faithful reliability and OPSEC take priority over actual tradecraft and capability. So his goons were probably pulled from the HQ, as opposed to being field guys with solid tradecraft.

    BTW, how does one say “Crossfire Hurricane” in Russian?

    I haven’t quite finished Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin but from what I’ve read of more recent vintage, it seems like he can’t always manage to overcome his KGB worldview and enter the world of modern ops. And all of his blithering about the CIA does make that OPSEC observation very prescient. 

    As far as “how does one say “Crossfire Hurricane” in Russian?” 

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

    • #25
  26. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Well I know now that I’ll be checking my fresh underpants for nerve agent.

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I’m 30 minutes into this video from early October in which Navalny and his wife are interviewed separately about the poisoning episode and his recovery. The interviewer is a young guy who does a good job of asking questions but not getting in the way of the answers. And the answers are not superficial.  I find it fascinating.

     

     

    • #27
  28. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Well I know now that I’ll be checking my fresh underpants for nerve agent.

    See, as an aged commando, all I can say are there are definite reasons for “going commando.”

    • #28
  29. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’m 30 minutes into this video from early October in which Navalny and his wife are interviewed separately about the poisoning episode and his recovery. The interviewer is a young guy who does a good job of asking questions but not getting in the way of the answers. And the answers are not superficial. I find it fascinating.

    вДудь is a great channel in general. They do a lot of long form interviews prominent Russians in different fields, and almost always include subtitles. Vladimir Pozner, Basta, Khodorkovsky, and Sergei Guriev have all been on.

    • #29
  30. SkipSul Member
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Any mention of the Rolling Stones has me wanting to pull this out:

     

    • #30