Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

Documentary Review: Poisoned by Polonium

Documentary Review: Poisoned by Polonium- The Litvinenko File
Sajed Bhandari

Walking into a pharmacy a few years ago, I came across the Daily News or the Times, which had a haunting image of a man dying on a hospital bed.  He stared hopefully into the camera; his eyes had set deeply into his face and the hair on his head and eyebrows had disappeared.  The picture was clearly of a man suffering from some sort of radiation exposure.  I do not remember the headlines at the moment, but the man in the picture turned out to be Alexander Litvinenko.  He left his former life as a KGB, and successor FSB, officer in order to become a whistleblower against the Russian secret service.  His rebellion against the FSB eventually cost him his life as he was poisoned with Polonium 210 in London in April of 2007.  Before his death, Alexander Litvinenko embraced Islam both as a symbol of his solidarity with the Chechen people as well as because of his personal convictions.  Throughout the following weeks and months I read about this man and his story, but soon forgot about him, as happens to consumers of modern media.  Every now and then however, I would come across that same picture, in a magazine, on television or on the Internet.
I went to my local library the other day to return a set of DVD’s and walked over to the documentary section.  I am currently reading a biography on President Kennedy and had hoped to find a supplement to the book.  However, as I searched through the shelves I came across this DVD.  The name of the documentary was Poisoned by Polonium- The Litvinenko File by Andrei Nekrasov.  What follows is a brief summary of the documentary, highlighted issues dealt with in the documentary and what impressions I took away.
The documentary begins with Litvinenko’s voice stating that the tape should be released in the event of his death.  It becomes immediately clear that the filmmaker, Nekrasov is a close friend of Litvinenko and that the documentary by no means is meant to be an objective study of an assassination.  Rather, the rest of the documentary is an intimate tribute to Litvinenko’s life, mission and death.  The film initially talks about the 1999 terrorist attacks on the Moscow apartment buildings.  The terrorist attack, as understood by Litvinenko and 60% of the Russian citizenry according to the documentary, was a false flag operation executed by the FSB, the Russian secret service.  It was Litvinenko’s assertion that this war allowed Russia’s FSB to seize control of power in post-Soviet Russia.  He argues that many in the KGB/FSB saw their actions (torture, imprisonment and etc.) as legitimate in an illegitimate state.  However, Russia’s transition into a democracy allowed it to become a legitimate state, therefore making the actions of the FSB illegitimate.  According to Litvinenko, in order for the FSB to continue on with its actions, it had to create a situation wherein the state would again become illegitimate—in this case via the political trap of war with Chechnya.
The documentary goes onto explain some of the evidences for the false flag operation, the relationship between Russians and Chechens and the nature of the FSB’s revenue streams.  Nekrasov does not dwell on the false flag operation; rather he spends much of the documentary building Litvinenko’s character through his bosses, associates and agents.  Litvinenko believes that the main reason why the FSB is targeting him is because he exposed their methods of making money.  Under threat against his life and the life of his family, Litvinenko escapes to England.  However, on April 2007, Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated.  The documentary ends with Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam.  I had heard about his conversion, however, thought it to be a rumor.  Nekrasov interviews Litvinenko’s wife and father about his conversion as well as filming a powerful funeral scene to be discussed later.
Andrei Nekrasov’s film addresses certain themes beyond an exposition of Litvinenko’s life and death.  One of the primary themes throughout the documentary is the struggle between justice and arbitrary power.  Nekrasov says that the failure of Litvinenko’s rebellion led him to question whether society is governed by justice or governed by arbitrary, brute power.  Much of the documentary showcases the corruption rampant through Russia’s supposedly democratic system and secret services.  Litvinenko became disillusioned with the secret service as he noticed the types of individuals who were promoted through the ranks.  Idealism and dedication had nothing to do with it, according to Litvinenko.  Rather, corruption and cronyism provided the means by which individuals advanced their careers.  A soldier who fought in the 1999 offensive against the Chechens offers one of the most striking aspects of arbitrary power triumphing justice in the documentary.  The soldier recounts the story of his commanding officers selling ammunition to the Chechens for vodka and drugs.  Along with selling ammunition to their enemy, the Russian Army and secret service sold units and individual Russian soldiers to the Chechens for cash, leading to their deaths.
Another theme addressed by Nekrasov is racism.  Nekrasov argues that it is Russian racism that prevents them from calling the 1999 war with the Chechens a civil war.  The leaders instead referred to the offensive as anti-terrorist operations and did not see the Chechens as fellow Russians, rather as outsiders.  This is juxtaposed with a speech of a Russian woman lamenting the once close ties between Russians and Chechens.  She says that they were brothers and not foes.  In another example, Nekrasov shows a previous documentary of his to a group of Russians.  The documentary showcased the plight of Chechens after the war.  Images of young children, some with their feet blown off, some with cuts across their torso were shown to a Russian audience.  The first audience member comments that the documentary is one-sided and that these children would grow up to be future terrorists.  Essentially, that killing them is not morally reprehensible.
The final theme that I found important was that of Liberalism.  The documentary deals with market reform in post-Soviet Russia as well as political liberalization of its legislative branch and media.  One of the oligarchs interviewed discusses the Russian political culture and its relation to liberalism.  He argues that Russian slave mentality led to the waves of totalitarian systems that governed its citizens for centuries.  Because Russian citizens lacked internal limitations on their freedoms, external limitations had to be imposed by whatever regime that was in power at the time.  This however, the oligarch argues, is inefficient.  He claims that eco-political liberalism can only exist in a society wherein most of the populace understands the inner limitations that must be imposed on their freedoms.  He asks then why is he advocating liberalism in Russia if its citizens have such a slave mentality?  The oligarch argues when the communist regime fell, droves of entrepreneurs, independent politicians and journalists rose up to create a proper civic society and republic.
The film left me with powerful impressions and a desire to learn more about Russia in general, and Alexander Litvinenko’s legacy in particular.  I am interested in learning more about Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism as well as its citizens’ attitudes towards individual rights and liberties.  One of the most powerful impressions however was the final section on Litvinenko’s conversion.  His father stated that along with exposing Putin and the FSB, Litvinenko’s mission on this earth was to reconcile Christians and Muslims.  He believed that his conversion and death would be a catalyst to such reconciliation.  I suppose it was best illustrated at Litvinenko’s funeral.  The scene begins with a group of his family members dressed in all black and wearing crosses walking (the traditional color of mourning amongst Muslims is white).  The Quran can then be heard being recited.  As the family gathers around the gravesite, an Imam in traditional South Asian garb continues to recite as Litvinenko’s Christian family members throw dirt into his resting place.  The Imam slightly bows in respect as a family member illustrates the sign of the trinity across her chest in mourning.  Beyond the conversion and the optimism with which Litvinenko’s family members seemed to have approached it, I took away a respect for both the desperation and courage that must have been required by Litvinenko and his comrades in his rebellion.
I have watched the documentary twice now and have been moved greatly by it.  The film itself is almost two hours and filled with historical, political and personal analyses of Litvinenko’s life, mission and death.  I had to severely truncate the summary as the review ended up being much longer than I expected.  I would recommend watching this documentary as it highlights the life of a hero and the plight of a people living underneath a façade of liberty.

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Written by sajedbhandari

September 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm

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