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From the vainglorious title to the graphics sequences resembling the opening credits of a Bond movie, there’s something inappropriately jaunty about this account of the poisoning of political activist Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s nemesis, on board a flight to Moscow in August 2020. Or, as the chapter title has it, “Murder at 30,000 feet”. In Siberia to support two anti-Putin election candidates, Navalny leaves for the airport where he poses for a selfie with a fan. “He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s been poisoned,” chirps the voiceover. Grasping a rare moment of light relief, on board Navalny starts watching favourite cartoon Rick and Morty, before falling ill and finally collapsing in the kitchen area, from where his agonised groans fill the plane.
Jaunty, however, is the mode in which Navalny rose to fame, speaking directly to Russian youth via Twitter and Facebook. He hit his stride with YouTube, making hundreds of mocking yet astute videos that appealed to the younger demographic, like a Russian Randy Rainbow without the show tunes. Charismatic, politically nimble, social-media savvy, he made Putin look like a grey dinosaur and provided a witty alternative to clunking state-sponsored TV news. Navalny wasn’t always so slick, though; his early support of gun ownership and anti-immigration policies begrime the progressive image.
Unlike James Bond and his ever-changing women, this story has a permanent love interest in the form of Yulia Navalnaya. Her husband’s staunch supporter of two decades, she’s used to staging impromptu press conferences and glamorous interventions. Navalnaya immediately boards a flight to Omsk, where the quick-thinking pilot diverted in order to get her husband the fastest medical assistance. He is alive but convulsing: “It was like the film Alien,” she reports, while the doctors are coming up with “absurd lies, weird answers”, as they wriggle around the use of a nerve agent.
The tale of Navalny’s eventual medevac to Germany, his recovery and bounce back to full Putin-baiting mode is well told, including the scene where he manages to chat incognito for 45 minutes on the phone to one of his would-be assassins, who guilelessly lays bare the whole plot. Navalny’s Siberian hotel room had been raided and the poison placed on an intimate item only he would touch. “I became the only person in history whose underpants were discussed at the Security Council of Russia!” fumes Navalny. Blue boxers immediately become the flag of the opposition and the resulting flurry of panty memes makes Putin look ridiculous. I take it back; when a mocking chuckle is almost indistinguishable from a death rattle, black humour is the only way to go.
On Channel 4 from September 15 at 10pm
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