Poison(s) – Episode Two: The Return of the Cold War

2008. The new owners of William Browder’s company demanded and obtained 120 million euros in tax returns from the tax authorities. His Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, denounces the biggest fraud ever made to the detriment of Russian finances. He was arrested and sent to prison. In 2008, he dies under torture. William Browder decides to avenge him and to hit Putin in the heart: his wallet. He imagines the Magnitsky Act, a law that deprives all those responsible for the murder of his lawyer, Serge Magnitsky, of visas and access to their property and assets. He found allies in Boris Nemtsov, the main opponent of Vladimir Putin, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who pleaded with the U.S. Senate to extend these sanctions to all those responsible for human rights violations in Russia: oligarchs, civil servants, military personnel, and businessmen who surround Putin and serve as his nominees in order to amass an unjustly acquired fortune with complete impunity 

In Russia, in the early 2000s, another man experienced disillusionment with the arrival in power of Vladimir Putin. Serguei Skripal confided at length about his story to Mark Urban, a British journalist. He tells that he was working for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence. At that time, his salary decreased and his benefits disappeared. Russia was in the midst of an economic slump. Even the civil servants of the intelligence are not paid any more. He decides to betray for money and gives the British secret services the official organization chart of the GRU. But very quickly, the Russians discover that he is a mole. They arrest him and send him to prison. He doesn’t think he’ll get out until one day in July 2010 when he learns that Russian spies have been arrested on American soil. 

For ten years, the FBI has been tracking these highly experienced spies. They were 10 Russians who had blended into American society with one mission: to succeed in integrating government agencies and even the White House. The FBI has declassified videos of the exchange of documents and money between the spies and members sent by the Russian embassy. We are using them. Operation Ghost Stories was the largest exchange of spies between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Leon Panetta was then head of the CIA. In his telephone conversations with the Russian intelligence chief at the time, one name stood out: Vladimir Putin. It was he alone who validated the exchange of spies. The one who saw Sergei Skripal return to British territory. Vladimir Putin had granted him a pardon. Officially. 

At the same time, in the U.S. Congress, Kyle Parker, Chief of Staff, is working to have the Magnitsky Act voted by the U.S. Parliament against the advice of the Obama administration, which is advocating a “reset” in Russian-American relations. This law, which affects his circle and his money, will trigger the ire of Vladimir Putin. It became his obsession. Like those who are at the origin of it. On February 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov was killed by 4 bullets in the head on a bridge opposite the Kremlin. A few months later, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned. He miraculously comes out of it. 18 months of rehabilitation. He returned to Moscow and was poisoned a second time in 2017. He does not give up and continues to advocate around the world for the adoption of the Magnitsky Act. After the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain adopt this law. The hardest part is yet to come: convincing the European Union. 

In Russia, Putin does not change. For him, a traitor remains a traitor. In 2018, Mark Urban learns that Sergei Skripal has just been found lifeless on a bench in the town of Salisbury where he had settled. He had not seen him for several months. The former GRU agent was poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent manufactured by Russia. This is the first chemical attack on European territory since the Second World War. Skripal escaped, but not a Salisbury resident, a collateral victim. Theresa May, now Prime Minister, raises her voice in the House of Commons and points directly at Russia. A waltz of Russian diplomats followed. John Bolton was then an advisor to Donald Trump. He advocated firmness. But when the United States and Great Britain expel a hundred of them, Germany sends back 4. Once again, European dissensions are revealed and with it, the weakness of the West in front of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President continues his fight against the Magnitsky Act by trying to have William Browder arrested several times by Interpol. Then by demanding his head and that of Kyle Parker to Donald Trump in July 2018 in exchange for the possibility for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller to conduct in Moscow his investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016. The U.S. Senate votes against it, thwarting the Kremlin’s plans. Momentarily. 


  • Year: 2023
  • Duration: 55 mins
  • Production: Little Big Story & Calach Films
  • Director: Jennifer Deschamps
  • Available Versions: ENG, FRA
  • Country of production: France & Luxembourg


  • Hot Docs 2023 (CANADA)

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