When the Trump family has tried to explain away Donald Trump Jr.’s most suspicious meetings with Russian officials, or the president’s with Vladimir Putin himself, they said they were just talking about orphans. But in the annals of Washington’s deeply troubled relations with Putin, that’s code: They were discussing sanctions.
In 2012, the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration imposed financial and travel restrictions on some of Putin’s closest allies because of mistreatment—or worse—that lead to the death of a whistleblowing tax lawyer in a Russian prison. The lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, had exposed a massive $230 million fraud committed by officials.
The Magnitsky Act, as the law is known, bars dozens of Russian officials from entering the U.S. or using its banking system because of their alleged involvement in Magnitsky’s death and other human rights violations.
Putin retaliated against the U.S. by blocking American adoption of Russian children, many of whom were physically or mentally impaired.
Since then, the Russian campaign to discredit the narrative of Magnitsky’s death, and get the sanctions overturned, has been one of Putin’s obsessions. What could be better than a report by a critic of his regime who suddenly saw the light and changed his views entirely?
This is the story of Andrei Nekrasov, a man who previously made documentaries saying that Putin’s rise to power was cemented by government-orchestrated bombings of apartment buildings in the dead of the night.
Now, Nekrasov appears on Russian TV saying that he investigated Magnitsky and saw the light, that the Magnitsky affair is one big hoax.
Nekrasov is central to the story of the Magnitsky sanctions because it is his film that was used to try to recruit Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to the Russian cause. And Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. to talk adoptions, paid for and attended a screening of Nekrasov’s movie in D.C. just days later.
In Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes, Nekrasov tells the story of how he was planning to put together an exposé about the whistleblower’s death at the hands of Russian authorities. Instead, he says he uncovered a massive lie by Magnitsky’s employer, American-born businessman Bill Browder, who became a leading proponent of sanctioning Russian officials after Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison in 2009. Nekrasov questions not only the narrative of Magnitsky’s death by beating, but that of a Russian tax theft more broadly.
It’s not clear when Nekrasov filmed key parts of Magnitsky Act, but he absolves the Russian government of any responsibility for Magnitsky’s death. The film follows Nekrasov as he supposedly figures out the truth that has eluded everyone else.
Browder told The Daily Beast that most of the interview footage of him used in the movie was filmed in 2010 after a talk in Finland, when Nekrasov’s then-girlfriend, a Finnish member of the European Parliament named Heidi Hautala, asked Browder to sit down with the filmmaker.
“Because he was validated by such an important politician, I had no concerns about his intentions,” Browder said.
Years went by before Browder said he heard from Nekrasov again. Browder said he chalked up the silence to thinking Nekrasov was “a disorganized artist guy who couldn’t get his project done if he wanted to.”
Nekrasov was by this point an award-winning filmmaker.
They ran into each other again in 2015 at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Nekrasov told Browder he had big funding for the movie and asked him to collaborate, Browder says.
“There was something a bit odd about it, I didn’t feel right about it,” Browder says of the meeting, which appears in the film.
Nekrasov appeared again at a book party for Browder, and got the financier to agree to a final interview. Browder said his suspicions weren’t allayed.
“I said to him, on tape, it sounds like you’re part of the FSB,” Browder recalled. “Those are FSB questions.”
In the tense scene from the film, Browder gets up to leave and advises Nekrasov that his questions sound like the FSB party line, akin to the claim that there are no Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
Nekrasov also interviewed Magnitsky’s mother, Natalya Magnitskaya, while still presenting himself as exposing the men responsible for her son’s death.
Nekrasov sent The Daily Beast a five-page memo responding to questions for this article, and accusing the media of bias against him simply because of his Russian background. He reiterated that the film had begun as a laudatory documentary about Magnitsky, but that his views changed, in particular after he interviewed the author of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe report on Magnitsky’s death, Andreas Gross.
“Mr. Gross told me that Magnitsky had not been murdered, but that he died because the jailers did not look well enough after him,” Nekrasov said.
But Gross disavowed Nekrasov’s final product, and called some of Nekrasov’s claims “demonstrably false.” In particular, the men disagree over whether Magnitsky implicated police officers in his June 2008 testimony.
“This is NOT true,” Nekrasov responded.
“Once again Katie, do you trust someone, who himself confesses to having no Russian, and not me?” Nekrasov wrote. “Do you seriously think I would spend years making this internationally produced film and misrepresent these key documents for anyone to look at?”
Nekrasov railed against Browder as a man who used the political climate of instability to become “a rich guy (who made all his money in the corrupt Russia).”
In one of the film’s eureka moments, Nekrasov points to testimony given by Magnitsky in October 2008 as proof that the theft was actually reported not by him but by a pensioner who accused Browder’s companies for wrongdoing.
But Browder’s employees had filed another document with police five months before the pensioner’s supposed statements, saying they feared the documents seized in a search of their office were used to perpetrate the fraud.
“Who is the person who reported the crime first?” Nekrasov asks rhetorically in the film.
Browder says he didn’t find out about the movie until promotions started in 2016. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was invited to an exclusive screening at the Newseum, funded by Veselnitskaya’s group. Browder and his team worked up a response to the nearly three-hour film, which claims to capture Nekrasov’s realization that Browder’s claims of Magnitsky’s death at the hands of Russian authorities were all lies.
The movie is so flattering to the Russian narrative that Pavel Karpov—one of the police officers accused of being responsible for Magnitsky’s death—plays himself.
The Daily Beast asked Nekrasov about how he got Karpov to agree to participate in an in-line question in the lengthy statement he sent responding to initial questions. He first declined to open the attachment for fear of hacking.
“When I at last got hold of [Karpov’s] number and rang him up, he set no preconditions for being interviewed. He did listen carefully, though, to my long speech on the phone, about wanting to give his version of the story a fair chance,” Nekrasov later wrote. “As for my own state of mind at that point in time, I was mainly after the scoop production value of having the guy in my show. I also wanted, ideally, to get some strong reaction from my actor on camera. Someone playing a villain, meeting the real thing.”
Browder says Europe’s strong anti-defamation laws, which often apply to both living and dead people, helped stop the screening in Brussels after his legal team pointed out the factual flaws. But Nekrasov and his allies claim that the billionaire Browder bullied their little film into near-obscurity.
Except not quite. The film was still shown in Norway—and in D.C. at the Newseum in the screening was introduced by veteran journalist Sy Hersh.
But Browder says he doesn’t think Nekrasov is an agent of the Russian state.
“In my view, he has no political views whatsoever,” Browder told The Daily Beast.
Nekrasov says he remains independent.
“I am a consistent critic of oligarchic capitalist system that has robbed the Russian people and have introduced a ‘culture’ of neo-slavery in the country,” Nekrasov said. “Bill Browder is, or at least, most certainly was, a part of that oligarchic-capitalist system.”
Before Nekrasov began working on the Magnitsky film, he agreed to work on a documentary about the fall of the Soviet Union with American journalist David Satter. It was supposed to be based on Satter’s book, Age of Delirium. Satter had no filmmaking experience, so he reached out to Nekrasov for help.
They’d gotten to know one another when Nekrasov based his documentary about 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow heavily around a recorded interview with Satter. In the documentary, Nekrasov advances the idea that the bombings, which killed 293 people and were blamed on Chechen extremists, were actually orchestrated by Russian security services to cement Putin’s grip on power. (Nekrasov told The Daily Beast he stands by those films.)
“Why is it important [to the FSB] that he made a movie about the bombings?” Satter asked. “Because they can later use him later for other purposes, and he'll have high believability.”
Satter says they were connected for that taping by Alexander Goldfarb, a Russian opposition figure close to oligarch Boris Berezovsky. (Attempts to reach Goldfarb for comment were unsuccessful.)
Goldfarb asked if a German film crew could tape Satter at a book talk, Satter told The Daily Beast. Nekrasov holds German citizenship, according to Satter.
The story of Berezovsky and Nekrasov is a tale of post-Soviet intrigue.
Berezovsky rode the wave of post-Soviet privatization to wealth and power. He was even a booster of Putin in his rise to power, and won a seat in the Duma, or Russian parliament, on a pro-Putin platform in 2000. But the men had a falling out shortly after Putin became president.
Berezovsky was soon living in the U.K. in exile, hurling accusations at Putin, including the claim that the 1999 bombings were orchestrated to help Putin cement his grip on power. Berezovsky got asylum in the U.K. in 2003.
Berezovsky was also linked to another of Nekrasov’s projects: a film on the poisoning of ex-FSB lieutenant colonel Alexander Litvinenko.
Like Berezovsky, Litvinenko was a man of the system who’d fallen out with it. In 1998, Litvinenko claimed to have uncovered a plot within the FSB to kill Berezovsky. Litvinenko subsequently fled to Britain, where he joined Berezovsky in allegations that the 1999 Moscow apartment building bombings were a government plot, and wrote other books criticizing Putin and the FSB.
In 2006, Litvinenko was killed by Russian assassins in London with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium in his tea.
Nekrasov began to work on a film about Litvinenko’s murder. The movie, which like much of Nekrasov’s work, features the filmmaker as a main character, starts with an apparent threat to Nekrasov’s life because of his work on Litvinenko’s death.
Satter entered into an agreement with two of Nekrasov’s production companies in 2005 to produce the film based on his book, according to an arbitration statement filed as part of a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court. The Hudson Institute, where Satter works, contributed $300,000 for the project and Nekrasov agreed to contribute €76,500, according to the statement. Satter hoped to put out the film in 2011, for the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR.
But five years later, Satter said he still hadn’t even gotten a draft from Nekrasov. The lawsuit accuses Nekrasov of faked illnesses, broken promises, and evasive statements, after which Satter was left to finish the film on his own.
“He dragged out the process of making the film for years, constantly finding other things to do, spending the film’s money, and finally disappeared,” Satter told The Daily Beast. “And went to work on another film of the same subject.”
The suit adds that Nekrasov would not account for the $300,000 in funding that had gone into the project. And it claims that the grant which Nekrasov said his portion would come from “did not exist.”
A New York judge confirmed the arbitration finding in July 2013, ordering Nekrasov’s companies to pay Satter $94,340. Satter says he hasn’t seen a penny of it. He also says he connected Nekrasov with dissidents only to later see their interviews in a film that spoke positively of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Nekrasov said he disputed many of Satter’s claims, and said he often worked for free on the underfunded project. He also said he was unaware of the suit and any other legal action against him.
When provided with a copy of the ruling in the case, Nekrasov said he didn’t feel comfortable opening documents sent via email attachment.
“They are NOT my companies! Absolutely not,” Nekrasov wrote. “So I was right, the law suite involved companies, not myself. That is why they can’t enforce that ruling, I suppose.”
The website for one of the companies, Dreamscanner, loads to a page for Nekrasov’s late wife.
Berezovsky, the key figure behind at least two of Nekrasov’s films, died in 2013. He was found hanging in his Berkshire home.