The Magnitsky Act-Behind the Scenes

Originally published in NEWSNET March 2019. Additional notes can be found in the original version. The website for the movie can be found here.

From studio shoot in Kiev . © Piraya Film AS. Photo: Anna Marchuk

The Magnitsky Act - Behind the Scenes

An interview with the film director, Andrei Nekrasov


        In 2016, Andrei Lvovich Nekrasov, a well-known Russian film-maker, playwright, theater director, and actor, released a docudrama entitled, The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes.  Although the film won many artistic accolades, including a special commendation from the Prix Europa Award for a Television Documentary, public screenings were abruptly canceled in both Europe and the United States. Political pressure from various constituents and the threat of lawsuits from William Browder, the American-British billionaire and human-rights activist, ensured the limitation of the film to a single website. To the knowledge of this author, there has been only one public screening of The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes in the United States. In June 2016, Seymour Hersch, a renowned investigative journalist, presided over a showing of the film at the Newseum in Washington, DC, that generated much controversy. The American press has not been kind to either the film or the director, Andrei Nekrasov. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast all seem to agree that the film is an overt work of Russian propaganda that aims to introduce confusion about the circumstances leading to the death of tax accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, in the minds of the viewers. The Putin administration, which has been the prime target of both the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Accountability Act and the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, has good reason to promote a film that questions the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s untimely death in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison in 2009.

        Despite a flood of persuasive articles and editorials by well-known journalists suggesting that this inconvenient film deserves no more than a quick burial, I was drawn to reconsider both the film and the political controversy that it continues to create for two main reasons. First, as the collapse of the Soviet Union and our own recent presidential campaigns show, we can never entirely prohibit the intrusion of propaganda or politically slanted content into the public sphere. Instead, as a historian and faculty member who serves at a public university, I believe that it is my job to teach our students how to diagnose an issue, and how to consider the many sides that a story necessarily involves. As an intellectual process this has immense value both in and of itself. Source criticism is a time tested and reliable means through which we can make sense of an event or a phenomenon. Our students need to learn both the mechanics and the intellectual value of analyzing a source and should be able to evaluate the nature of political content whether it is embedded in a Facebook post, a scholarly article, or a documentary.

        The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes can serve as an important vehicle to introduce the contested nature of historical truth, and as a prism, it allows us to view the multiple modes through which various versions of the truth are disseminated in the twenty-first century. Taught in tandem with William Browder’s book Red Notice, this film can provide students with a real-life experience in the practice of critical thinking. The film also allows us to revive a discussion of Hayden White’s penetrating analysis of the ways in which the structure of the form necessarily influences the content of any artistic or historical narrative. The vehicle of the docudrama that Nekrasov uses in his film, and the competing narratives about the circumstances leading to Magnitsky’s death, merit literary and intellectual analysis, along with geopolitical commentary.

        Second, I am concerned by the fact that both critics and supporters have turned the debate about the film into a referendum on William Browder, his business dealings as well as his global human rights activism, and the Putin administration. In this interview with Andrei Nekrasov, I turn the spotlight back on the film-maker, his motivations for making the film, and on his political experiences since the release of the film. It is important to remember that in the past Nekrasov has made several politically charged films including Disbelief (2004), and Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File (2007)—films that are extremely critical of the Putin administration. Nekrasov, a student of philosophy and literature, is in the unique position of having experienced censorship in the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, and in the democratic countries of Western Europe and the United States.

Interview conducted by Barbara Walker and Choi Chatterjee with Andrei Nekrasov by email during January and February 2019.

Director Andrei Nekrasov. From studio shoot in Kiev. © Piraya Film AS. Photo: Anna Marchuk

1) Why did you want to make a film about the Magnitsky Act? What drew you to this project? 

Andrei Nekrasov: I felt that the story of Magnitsky, in its accepted version, was very powerful and important.  I thought that Sergei Magnitsky was a hero, and I wanted to tell the story of the modern hero, my compatriot. His case seemed very special because Magnitsky, a tax lawyer (in reality, an accountant) had come from the world of capitalism, to symbolize all that is good and moral in modern Russia. I believed that Magnitsky did not surrender under torture and sacrificed his life fighting corruption. 

2) Who has funded the making of this film and what motivated them to invest in this production? 

AN: The film was produced by Piraya Film, a Norwegian company. There is a long list of funders, and none are from Russia. (Please visit for further information). And they are all very “mainstream.” I believe in the United States and Russia it is easier to construe the specific reasons that motivate funders, who are mostly private, to support a project. In Europe, where more public money is available for the arts, the state is more or less obliged to fund the cultural process. So I submit an idea to a producer, and if they like it, they introduce it into a complex system of funding that is supposed to be politically neutral. Only quality matters, in theory. In practice “quality” has political aspects, and its interpretation is open to prejudices. 

        But it would be a simplification to say the film was funded because I had set out to tell Browder’s version of the Magnitsky case. Those funders who were (through their commissioning editors) monitoring the editing process, ZDF/ARTE, for example, became aware of the inconsistencies in Browder’s version and supported my investigation into the truth. What they did not realize was who, and what, we were all dealing with. They did not realize that Browder was supported by the entire political system of North America and Western Europe. They realized that only when they were told by politicians to stop the film. And they obeyed, contrary to what I thought was their principles. 

3) How has the role of censorship, both in Russia and the West, affected your artistic career? 

AN: Censorship has had a very strong and damaging impact on my career. But while censorship in Russia had never been something surprising to me, the way that the film The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes was treated by western politicians was totally unanticipated and shocking. Yet, intellectually, the experience was very illuminating. The pro-Western intelligentsia of Russia, a class to which I have belonged, idolizes the West and believes that the freedom of expression is an essential and even intrinsic part of Western culture. The notion that the interests of economically powerful groups can set a geopolitical agenda and that easily overrides democratic freedom of expression is considered to be a remnant of Soviet era thinking. So I had to have a direct and personal experience of Western censorship to realize that that notion is rooted in reality. 

        The issue of censorship in Russia is, on the other hand, often misunderstood in the West. There is no direct political censorship of the kind that existed in the Soviet Union, and that possibly exists in countries like China today. Many popular Russian news outlets are critical of the government, and of Putin personally as evidenced by the content in media outlets such as Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd TV, New Times, Vedomosti, Colta. ru, and others. The internet is full of mockery of Putin, his ministers and of his party’s representatives. There is neither a system nor the kind of wellresourced deep state structures that control the flow of information. Many Russian media outlets, for example, repeat Browder’s story of Magnitsky killed by the corrupt police with the state covering it up. All that is perfectly “allowed” while Putin angrily condemns Browder as a criminal and Browder calls himself Putin’s number one enemy. In reality, it is not allowed but simply happens because of the lack of consistent political censorship.

        However, you will hardly ever hear a proper analysis and criticism in the Russian media of the big corporations, and of the oligarchs that make up the state. It is also true that such acute crises as military operations, such as Russian-Georgian war of 2008 produce intolerance to the voices of the opposition. My film Russian Lessons (2008) about the suffering of the Georgians during that short war and its aftermath wasbanned in Russia. But nationalism is not only a government policy. It’s the prevailing mood. The supposedly democratic leader of the opposition, that the West seems to praise and support, Alexei Navalny, was on the record insulting Georgians in jingo-nationalistic posts during the war.  The film industry is, of course, easier to steer in the “right direction” as films, unlike articles and essays, are very expensive to produce. But Russia is a complex society, deeply troubled, but also misunderstood by the West. If my films, such as Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File, and Russian Lessons (2010) were attacked by pro-government media, then some of my articles were censored by the independent, “opposition” outlets, such as Ekho Moskvy

4) Did you actually begin filming the movie with an outcome of supporting Browder’s story in mind, as you represent in the film, or did you plan from the start of the filming process to end the film as it now stands? 

AN: I started filming the story. I totally believed in the story that Browder had told me, and all the mainstream media repeated after him. 

5) You know that there are many more “disappeared” journalists and others listed in the formal US Congress Magnitsky Act who have suffered from the effects of corrupt power in Russia. Why did you not address the fates of some of those others as well in your film? 

AN: I may be misunderstanding this question, but I do not see how addressing the fates of “disappeared” journalists and others’ would be relevant to the topic of my film in its final version. I obviously condemn the “disappearance” of journalists and others. In Russia journalists disappear usually by being “simply” shot (not in “sophisticated” Saudi ways), and as far as I remember only one is referred to in The Magnitsky Act, Paul Khlebnikov. He was the editor of Forbes, Russia, and was shot in 2004 when Bill Browder was a great fan of Vladimir Putin and continued to be for some time. I have not seen any evidence or even claim, that Putin may have been behind that murder. I was a friend of Anna Politkovskaya, perhaps the most famous of all Russian journalists who was assassinated in the recent past. She is featured in my film, Poisoned by Polonium.

        The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes is about the ways in which the notion of human rights is sometimes used as a fake alibi for white-collar crimes. Though I explore just one case, I think that I have managed to show that those ways are exceptionally sophisticated and efficient, and enlist all the major media, civil society, NGOs, governments, parliaments, and major international organizations.

6) Does William Browder’s role in the formulation of the Magnitsky Act invalidate its value and that of the Global Magnitsky Act, in seeking to provide protection for those suffering from the effects of deadly and corrupt power such as the recently deceased Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi? 

AN: Let me, for the argument’s sake, pose myself what would seem like a version of your question:  “Would Browder’s role in creating a weapon that could protect someone like Khashoggi from deadly and corrupt power invalidate that weapon?” My answer would be, no, it would not invalidate that weapon. However, we are dealing with a fallacy here, in my humble opinion. The Magnitsky Act, in my view, is not a weapon that can protect people. The Magnitsky Act was designed to punish those deemed murderers and torturers of Magnitsky. Well, if my film demonstrates that Magnitsky was not murdered (by the people Browder claims he was murdered by), nor was he tortured, the Magnitsky Act is nonsensical. You cannot punish someone for something that did not happen. Can you then say, never mind, human rights violations happen, and it’s good to have a mechanism to punish violators even if there’s no evidence that people named as violators are guilty? I don’t think one can say “never mind”. Neither legally, nor, morally. 

        There is no evidence whatsoever that the government of the United States conducted independent investigations of the policemen and the judges who were supposedly involved in the death of Magnitsky. And no one seems to be concerned of course about the rights of those on the Magnitsky list, who can’t even reply to the accusations, let alone have the accusations verified by an independent investigator or judge.  Instead of protecting people, the Magnitsky case helps the “bad guys” to demonstrate to their Russian compatriots that the West is rotten to the core, its policies are created by compliant stooges (lying thieves and useful idiots), and more rockets should be built to confront America’s injustice towards Russia and others. A lie can never really protect anyone, in my humble opinion. But the problem is worse. It turns human rights into a hypocritical ideology to protect the interests of the powers that be, a bit like the slogans about brotherhood and justice in the Soviet Union.

Choi Chatterjee is a Professor of History at California State University, Los Angeles. Chatterjee, along with Steven Marks, Mary Neuberger, and Steve Sabol, edited The Wider Arc of Revolution in three volumes (Slavica Publishers).