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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Poisoned By Polonium: The Litvinenko File

Illustration for article titled Poisoned By Polonium: The Litvinenko File

The story of 21st-century Russia is the story of hope and idealism squashed by pettiness, greed, and generations of subterranean criminality. The downfall of the former Soviet Union seemed like an answered prayer at the time, but apparently the totalitarian impulses of the Russian government didn't collapse along with communism. The strong-arm forces of the KGB were replaced by the FSB, an equally close-knit organization accused of having ties to the mafia. The FSB has proven so committed to suppressing internal dissent—in spite of its leaders' claims that Russia is more "open" than ever—that in 2006 it allegedly ordered the assassination of former-agent-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London after someone slipped radioactive material into his tea.

Andre Nekrasov's documentary Poisoned By Polonium: The Litvinenko File isn't exclusively about Litvinenko. (In fact, the film's original title, Rebellion, probably suits it better.) It's more about the long run of conflict-resolution-conflict that's dominated Russian history, and how it led to self-proclaimed reformer Vladimir Putin leading a regime which warns its people that they'll have to "learn to accept limitations of free will" in order to maintain stability. But while Nekrasov has access to an astonishing store of news footage and interviews—including long sessions with Litvinenko, shot shortly before he was poisoned—he doesn't organize the material with an eye toward clarity. He jumps around in the story, and sometimes seems to forget that he's telling a story.


Poisoned By Polonium tries to encompass a thousand tiny details of Russia's decline into mob rule, when it would've been more effective for Nekrasov to narrow his focus to Litvinenko, Putin, and one or two average citizens, in order to show what all this corruption has wrought on people sick of suffering the same setbacks over and over. Instead, Nekrasov comes off like a scatterbrained foreign correspondent, reading off his notes to the bureau chief. The result is a film that does an injustice to the whole chaotic situation in Eastern Europe by making it seem not just impossible, but impenetrable.

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