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Panelists Discuss ‘Navalny’ Documentary, Russian Opposition Leader’s Health at Harvard IOP Forum

Journalist Christo Grozev, "Navalny" film producer Shane Boris, and Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia A. Minson '99 discussed the deteriorating health of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a Tuesday Institute of Politics forum.
Journalist Christo Grozev, "Navalny" film producer Shane Boris, and Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia A. Minson '99 discussed the deteriorating health of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a Tuesday Institute of Politics forum. By Sofia Chavez Pacheco
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

The health of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is continuing to deteriorate in prison, Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev said during a Tuesday Harvard Institute of Politics forum about the Oscar-winning documentary film “Navalny.”

Grozev, who spoke alongside “Navalny” film producer Shane Boris and Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia A. Minson ’99, said during the forum that prison guards are sending sick inmates into Navalny’s cell, putting him at risk of catching their illnesses. Grozev called efforts to move infected inmates into Navalny’s cell “something that can only be qualified as biological weapons tested on him.”

“They keep sending infected contagious cellmates to him — people with either Covid or tuberculosis in one case — and essentially they hope that he gets infected as well,” Grozev said at the forum, which was moderated by Ann Cooper — a journalist who served as NPR’s first Moscow bureau chief.

Navalny’s allies have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about his health after he lost more than 17 pounds in a short span of time and has complained of acute stomach pains.

While Navalny receives visits from prison doctors, Grozev said that they are not telling him anything about his condition. Independent doctors are not allowed to treat him.

“They just make faces and leave,” he said.

Navalny, 46, rose to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger and has become the face of the Russian opposition movement despite never holding public office. He ran for president in 2018, challenging incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Navalny was barred from running over his past criminal record.

While campaigning for candidates running in Russia’s 2020 regional elections, Navalny was poisoned with the chemical nerve agent Novichok and became ill onboard a flight. The U.S. State Department has blamed the Russian government for the attack, describing it as an assassination attempt.

Navalny was initially placed on a ventilator and in a medically-induced coma before being transported to Berlin for additional treatment. The film “Navalny” follows his recovery in Germany and the efforts to uncover the Russian agents who poisoned Navalny.

Despite facing threats of arrest, Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 and was detained by police upon arrival at the airport in Moscow. Shortly after his arrest, Navalny was sentenced to more than two years in jail for repeatedly violating parole by not reporting to authorities in person. He was sentenced to an additional nine years in jail on charges of fraud in March 2022.

During the panel discussion, Grozev and Boris discussed a key scene from the documentary in which Navalny decides to personally call several of the people who were allegedly involved in his attempted assassination.

After two phone calls in which Navalny identifies himself to his alleged attackers and says he is calling to ask “why you wanted to kill me,” the film shows how Navalny changes tactics and pretends to be a top Russian intelligence officer compiling a report about the attempted assassination.

After one person hung up upon recognizing Navalny’s voice, the next person Navalny called, a scientist, eventually revealed that the poisoning went “just as planned” and that they had “applied extra” poison to Navalny’s clothing to ensure it would be effective.

Cooper asked Grozev and Boris during the forum about the journalistic ethical considerations behind Navalny’s decision to lie about his identity.

Grozev said that while he would not misidentify himself to a source as a journalist, he believed that the situation was different since Navalny himself was making the phone calls.

“He was entitled to get some justice,” Grozev said. “As the victim, he had the right to do that.”

“What were the chances, from my point of view, that that would work?” Grozev added. “It was crazy.”

At the forum, Grozev also discussed the decision of a Moscow court to order his arrest in absentia on Friday. RIA news agency reported that Grozev is being charged with facilitating the escape of a Russian journalist who fled the country.

Grozev said his arrest “means absolutely nothing.”

“It is absurd. It’s something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984,’” he added.

Grozev, who is currently living in North America, has been unable to return to his home in Vienna after Austrian authorities informed him that Russian operatives are allegedly plotting an assassination attempt against him.

The Austrian government expelled four Russian diplomats in February, but Grozev said in an interview with The Crimson after the forum that those expulsions were not related to the plot against him.

“The fallout from the investigation into the assassination attempt on me is still to be seen,” Grozev said. “I understand that there will be expulsions and maybe arrests in the next few months.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.

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