Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case

Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It is nearly two years since Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital as a result of poisoning by the radioactive element polonium-210, but his murder continues to exert an eerie fascination.

As the diplomatic wrangles over the extradition of suspects continues, keeping the case high-profile, it seems to speak to many modern fears: the power of the state, the extent to which espionage is practised between supposedly friendly nations and (most crucially) how far a government is prepared to go to stifle dissent.

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The clear opinion of Nekrasov’s powerful documentary is: in Russia’s case, as far as it likes. Skilfully blending archive footage, interviews and hidden camera work, he paints a depressing picture of a country that embraced one aspect of the freedom that came with the collapse of Soviet communism – the freedom to make money and acquire power - while suppressing an even more vital element; the freedom to openly question and protest against your government’s actions when you believe them to be wrong.

Those expecting a forensic investigation of the murder will be disappointed. Though there is harrowing footage of Litvinenko in his hospital bed – transformed from a young, handsome man to a hairless, skeletal husk – the context of the meeting at which he was allegedly poisoned and his more recent allegations against the Russian government are barely mentioned.

What the film is more concerned with is the chain of events that led to Litvinenko’s flight from Russia. Originally a rising star in the KGB (and its post-Soviet successor, the FSB) he became increasingly disillusioned with the tactics his colleagues employed and the political ends they were serving. Eventually, he went public at a press conference in 1998, accusing his superiors of attempting to organise the assassination of Boris Berezovsky, one of the first oligarchs in the new Russia.

Arrested several times, he took advantage of a period of freedom after one acquittal to flee to the UK and seek political asylum in 2000, where he wrote several books and articles blaming the Russian security services for staging numerous incidents blamed on Chechen terrorists, most notably the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999, which killed more than 300 people.

His belief – shared by Nekrasov, a TV and theatre director who has long been a prominent member of the Russian dissident community – is that the FSB was willing to do anything to justify the continuing war against Chechnya and ensure that ‘their man’, Vladimir Putin (the former FSB head who succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000) remained in power. Both were equally certain that the FSB would use any means necessary to stamp out dissent, both internal and external.

The film is impassioned polemic rather than dispassionate journalism. There is no ‘smoking gun’ evidence disclosed proving a concrete link between the FSB and the bombings. Litvinenko’s more wide-ranging (and less credible) claims are not mentioned, nor are his close links with Berezovsky, who also sought asylum in Britain. Nekrasov was a personal friend of ‘Sasha’ and is visibly grief-stricken and angry at his death. He clearly feels that nothing in Litvinenko’s life warranted such a brutal and untimely ending of it; a stance with which anyone who believes in the importance of exposing injustice and corruption (even when the whistleblower may be less than snow-white) must surely agree.

And there’s no doubt that Nekrasov assembles an array of damning footage to support his case, showing FSB operatives cheerily admitting that they consider assassination (as well as extortion and violent intimidation) to be legitimate tools of their trade. There’s a depressing array of frightened and disgusted interviewees as well, all testifying to the appalling abuses of state power they have witnessed.

But perhaps the most poignant footage is of the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in her apartment block less than a month before Litvinenko was taken ill. Untainted by any association with the authorities, and determined to remain in Russia to carry on her work, she emerges as a truly heroic figure and the rage Nekrasov feels at anyone who could consider taking her life to be a justifiable ‘means to an end’ is palpable.

The picture he paints of an espionage class making a smooth transition from communism to capitalism and continuing to be its rulers’ right arm with power and ruthlessness undiminished is indeed a depressing one. But the film’s very existence shows that another Russian tradition – of fearless defiance of authority and passionate advocacy of the right to protest, the ‘Rebellion’ of the title – is still alive and well. Let’s hope it remains so.

Reviewed on: 19 Jul 2008
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Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case packshot
Documentary charting the exile of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by polonium in 2006.
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Director: Andrey Nekrasov

Writer: Olga Konskaya, Andrei Nekrasov

Starring: Alexander Litvinenko, Andrey Nekrasov, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Putin

Year: 2007

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Russia


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