Russia gets slammed something fierce in Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File, a documentary about the November 2006 murder of secret forces whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko that expands into a stinging indictment of contemporary Russia’s political establishment and national character. Director Andrei Nekrasov claims at the outset that his film is an attempt to redress his own (to his mind unsatisfactory) statements to Scotland Yard officers after the death of his friend Litvinenko, and the case it lays out is thus cast as a biased, though nonetheless levelheaded, journalistic investigation.
The documentarian wields archival footage with accusatory aplomb, yet it’s the words of Litvinenko—both in 1999 claims that his employer the FSB (the post-communism KGB) was responsible for the terrorist bombings of Moscow civilians, as well as his one-on-one chat with the director before being fatally poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210 in London by former colleagues—that proves most damning. In great detail, Litvinenko and others contend that the FSB is not only corrupt but, in fact, an abominable killing unit whose sole purpose is to use every means necessary to stifle dissent and keep the current “caste of corrupt Russian officials,” many of them FSB alumni, in office.
According to the film, accomplishing these ends entails the blackmail, imprisonment, and assassination of journalists, intellectuals, and turncoats such as Litvinenko, as well as carrying out terror acts on one’s own citizens and then fingering the Chechens as culpable in order to provoke a war that can be used as a pretext for further consolidation of power. Such arguments would seem like the stuff of conspiracy theorist nuts if not for the damning evidence Nekrasov compiles against the government and, particularly, Putin, whose ruthless profiteering and efforts to abolish democratic freedoms is depicted as simply another dismal example of the country’s long line of merciless autocracies.
Its structure a bit ramshackle and its final argument—that Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam indicated a saintly desire to unite his Christian and Muslim countrymen—somewhat dubious, Poisoned by Polonium nonetheless ultimately pieces together a convincingly critical portrait of treachery perpetrated against individuals and the nation as a whole, blaming Russia’s return to faux-capitalist tyranny not only on Putin and his homicidal pals, but also on Western countries that legitimize them (hello, France) and, ultimately, on a population far too comfortable with being ruled by despots.