• Alexei Navalny is ‘The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill’. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The truth about Vladimir Putin’s attempted assassination of activist Alexei Navalny is stranger (and funnier) than any spy fiction.
Anthony Morris

2 Nov 2021 - 9:39 AM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2021 - 9:15 AM

Novichok and underpants don’t mix. The deadly substance is a favourite tool of Russian assassins; it first came to the public’s attention when it was used to poison a Russian double agent and his daughter in the UK in 2018. (The Salisbury Poisonings, a dramatised series about those events in the UK, is now streaming at SBS On Demand.)

A nerve agent first created by the Soviet Union in the 70s, Novichok is meant to be the deadliest substance known to humankind. So what was it doing all over Alexei Navalny’s blue boxer shorts? Let’s just say that The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill isn’t exactly playing its cards close to its chest with a title like that.

To be fair, Putin denies it was his FSB henchmen who soaked Navalny’s underwear in the toxic element. As the Russian leader pointed out at the time in his uniquely charming style, if he really wanted Navalny dead, then he’d be dead.

Denials aside, this English-language documentary makes it clear that Putin wasn’t short of reasons for wanting Navalny out of the picture. The activist’s politically charged, comedically driven YouTube videos were a huge hit in Russia, providing a popular alternative to the tame mainstream media that meekly toed the Putin line. Agile and modern in his use of social media, Navalny rapidly became the focus for the always simmering anti-authority feeling in Russia, using wit and comedy to poke fun at a man who, it often appears, has very little sense of humour about his position in the world.

In the court of public opinion, Navalny’s sense of humour and progressive politics gave him the edge. Not that he was always so progressive, as this documentary makes clear. Early in his online career he flirted with promoting gun ownership and railed against immigrants. At first his taking on Putin seems to have been as much about getting attention as deeply held convictions.

Whatever his motivation, by August 2020 he was a major thorn in Putin’s side. That month he was in Siberia supporting two anti-Putin candidates in an upcoming election; by the time he boarded a plane to return to his home in Moscow, he’d already been poisoned (as the voice-over ominously yet somehow cheerfully points out).

When Navalny collapsed in the plane’s kitchen, the pilot diverted the plane to land at Omsk to get him immediate medical attention. Enter Navalny’s wife of 20 years, Yulia Navalnaya, who promptly flew to meet him there, only to find him convulsing in a hospital bed while the local doctors did everything they could to avoid coming out and saying he’d been poisoned.

Aside from its lethality, this seems like one of the big advantages of using Novichok. When someone turns up at your hospital poisoned by it, everyone knows who did it – and if you don’t want to suffer the same fate, maybe it’s best (for you) to let things run their course. Fortunately, Navalnaya – who comes off as the real hero of this story – was there to arrange a flight to Berlin.

Once he landed, Navalny was admitted to the Charité teaching hospital, one of Europe’s top medical establishments and home to a range of specialist departments focusing on unusual cases. There the doctors publicly identified what everyone already knew… well, everyone who didn’t believe the Russian media, which was saying he collapsed due to dehydration and too much alcohol.

Nalavny posted this photo of himself weeks after waking up from 18 days in an induced coma in the German hospital.

The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill isn’t exactly a comedy, but there are times (a lot of times) where the black humour running throughout this story comes to the fore. The lies being told are so broad and bare-faced, it’s hard to do anything but laugh. And they just keep on going: by the Russian media’s logic, the German medical team’s announcement proved Navalny hadn’t been poisoned by the Russians. If the Russian doctors hadn’t diagnosed it earlier, then obviously he wasn’t poisoned until he arrived in Germany.

One of the high points of this documentary – aside from the Bond movie-style soundtrack – is an interview with the creator of Novichok. He’s able to confirm that Navalny’s symptoms on the plane were that of someone who’d been poisoned by it, and more importantly, that the exposure was by contact through the skin rather than it being ingested. And that’s where the underpants of death come in.

And in case Navalny’s toxic boxers weren’t enough to seal the case against Putin’s henchmen, once he was out of intensive care Navalny himself called up one of the FSB agents he suspected had tried to kill him. There he pretended to be the agent’s boss, unhappy that the target had survived, and over a 45-minute chat his would-be assassin readily explained what went wrong with the murder mission (basically, if the plane had continued on to Moscow, he would have arrived dead).

The grimmest joke of all is that exposing the crime didn’t make any difference. After all, the whole point of using Novichok is for Putin and his henchmen to sign their names to the murders they commit. As far as they were concerned, they had nothing to hide.

On his eventual return to Russia, Navalny was arrested for violating his parole on earlier charges – it turned out he hadn’t reported fortnightly in person to the Russian Federal Prison Service while he was fighting for his life in a Berlin hospital. Today he’s in a labour camp, considered a terrorist by the Russian prison commission. Putin remains the ruler of Russia.

The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill is streaming at SBS On Demand. 

Follow the author @morrbeat

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