Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Poisoned by Polonium: the Litvinenko File" is a scathing indictment of modern Russia's government, and it really matters now

In “Poisoned by Polonium: the Litvinenko File” (2007, “Bunt, Delo Litvinenko”) Andrei Nekrasov presents the culture of Russian leadership as it transitions our of Soviet communism into a kind of totalitarian statist capitalism, rather like that of a crime family.  The ideology of communism has been replaced by the beliefs of criminality and the mob.  Rich people can have nice cars and houses but cannot express themselves or speak out.

This is more a film about the latest history of Russia, almost like a return to the tsarist state, than it is just about the ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko (called Sasha), who achieved political asylum in Britain after having to flee when he criticized the practices of the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service), the successor of the KGB.

The film starts with the filmmaker looking at a ransacking and burglary of his own home, with nothing taken.  Those in power don’t want people to know.  He interviews Litvinenko numerous times.  Sasha’s appearance is inconsistent, especially in shadows, so sometimes it is hard to distinguish if it is him. Sasha says he wanted to believe in justice, that his life served a moral purpose, and if it could not, it could be over for him. 

The film covers what happened to a lot of dissidents, including a theater student expelled for not submitting to the new ideology.  One person was exiled for having a copy of a poem by a particular female dissident in his room.  The Russian need for a police state increased after 1999, with a theater attack in Moscow from Chechyan rebels which was like a 9/11.  But the ideology became even more jaded, one of right-wing prejudice where you do what you have to, or else what you got will be taken away from you by force. 

The poisoning doesn’t get covered until the last twenty minutes of the (104 minute) film.  It is explained that polonium-210 emits slow-moving alpha particles, which don’t penetrate the skin.  But if ingested (as it was apparently put in his tea) it can penetrated the porous GI tract.  So it can be carried around as a murder weapon.  The Alfred Hitcock thriller “Notorious” got into this a bit (Dec. 20, 2009). 

There are a few scenes where Sasha lies in bed, having gone completely bald (even eyebrows and body hair) from the radiation.  This even happened pretty quickly.  Not only was this a “mob hit”, it set up a humiliating, excruciating death.  It was an act of personal terrorism. He was not safe or beyond reach in a western country. 

Vladimir Putin appears often in the film, speaking with the same doubletalk that he has shown recently with respect to Russia’s controversial “anti-gay propaganda” law.  He looks younger, and I chuckle at those outdoor pictures of him with an absolutely hairless chest (and that's natural).  The film does not seem like comforting viewing for the Russians right before the Sochi Winter Olympics. 


The film, from Dreamscanner, was distributed by Kino and is available on Netflix instant play. Wikipedia picture of poloniums here. Note the curious purplish-silvery appearance.  Picture may have an enforceable copyright (not usual on Wikipedia), might not be fair use in a commercial reproduction. There's a similar concern with an explicit still of Litvinenko in the hospital bed showing the effects of the radiation. 

By the way, read what Wikipedia says about astatine, a most curious halogen.
Picture, mine, is from Philadelphia. 

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