In December 2015, the Russian antigraft activist Alexey Navalny released a documentary in which he exposed the corrupt business dealings of the children of Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general—the top law enforcement official in the country. In the film, Navalny accuses Chaika’s son Artem of “continuously exploit[ing] the protection that his father, the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, gives him to extort from and steal other people’s companies.” Artem owns a five-star hotel in Greece with his father’s deputy’s ex-wife, who, according to Navalny, maintains close business ties with the wives of violent gang members in southern Russia. The film includes scenes from the inauguration of the hotel, a grand celebration attended by Russian politicians, businessmen, and pop stars. The documentary also details Artem’s involvement in a predatory takeover of a Siberian shipping company in 2002; after speaking out against Artem, the company’s former manager was found hanged.
The film has garnered more than 4.6 million views online. In a survey conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling and research organization, some 80 percent of those who had watched the film or heard about it said they thought Navalny’s allegations “appeared true” or were “fully credible.” Shortly after the film’s release, the Russian documentary film festival ArtDocFest awarded it a special prize, and Dmitry Gudkov, a federal lawmaker, filed a request with the Russian Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, asking for an investigation into Navalny’s allegations.
The characters in this story—a whistleblower, an independent film festival, and an antiestablishment lawmaker—seem to contradict the West’s image of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as unforgiving and authoritarian. Yet this is only part of the tale.
The rest is that the Kremlin has persecuted Navalny for years. He has been repeatedly prosecuted on what have appeared to be trumped-up embezzlement charges. He has spent months under house arrest, and although he is not currently imprisoned, he remains