When George W. Bush looked deep into the cyborg eyes of Vladimir Putin, he claims he saw a man he could trust. But Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File, a muckraking documentary of vast shuddery intrigue, makes a disquieting case that Russia, under Putin, hasn’t just slipped back to its old oligarchic ways — but that, in fact, it’s a more repressive, corroded place than it was in the age of the Soviet Union. The director, Andrei Nekrasov, is an expatriate Russian journalist and filmmaker who was friends with Alexander Litvinenko, a whistle-blowing government agent who died in London of radiation poisoning after a meeting with two of his former comrades from the FSB — the secret-service heir to the KGB.
The film uses his murder to frame a much darker conspiracy: the 1999 terrorist bombings of Moscow apartments that killed hundreds and were officially decreed to be the work of Chechen rebels. As the film shows, many in Russia believe that the bombings were plotted by Putin as part of his rise to power. Nekrasov can’t prove it, but alleges with piles of evidence that the FSB, under Putin, became a cult of thuggish profiteers who looted the country and will halt, with extreme prejudice, anyone who calls them on it. There’s no smoking gun, but plenty of smoke: tapes of secret FSB meetings, accusations of homicide, the testimony of Litvinenko himself — a spy who went out into the cold and never came back. B+