The strange case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia, who rocketed to prosperity and prominence in the 1990s, served a decade in prison, and became an u... Read allThe strange case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia, who rocketed to prosperity and prominence in the 1990s, served a decade in prison, and became an unlikely martyr for the anti-Putin movement.The strange case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia, who rocketed to prosperity and prominence in the 1990s, served a decade in prison, and became an unlikely martyr for the anti-Putin movement.
Directed by prolific Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, Citizen K uses Khodorkovsky's history to tell the chaotic story of post-Soviet Russia and Putin's rise to power, a rise made possible by Khodorkovsky himself. Born in Moscow in 1963, as Boris Yeltsin was commencing his first term as the inaugural president of Russian in 1991, Khodorkovsky was opening one of Russia's first privately owned commercial banks, MENATEP. In the confusion of a country transitioning to a capitalist system it didn't fully understand, Khodorkovsky made millions from buying privatisation vouchers - free vouchers distributed to Russian citizens entitling them to shares in formerly state-owned assets. This period resulted in seven bankers (collectively known as the Semibankirschina) controlling between 50%-70% of the country's entire economy. In 1995, in need of funds for his re-election campaign, Yeltsin introduced a "loans-for-shares" scheme, whereby some of the largest state-owned assets were leased through auctions for money lent by the commercial banks. However, because the auctions were rigged and controlled by insiders with political connections, neither the loans nor the assets were to be returned. In this sense, the scheme was really a clandestine method of privatisation, but at exceptionally low prices. In 1996, for example, MENATEP acquired a 78% share ownership of Yukos, the country's main oil and gas company, for $310 million despite the company being valued at over $5 billion. By 2003, Khodorkovsky had become the richest man in Russia, and in 2004, he was listed by Forbes as the 16th wealthiest person in the world, with an estimated personal fortune of $16 billion.
Meanwhile, Putin, a former low-level KGB officer, was rising through the ranks of Yeltsin's government. Believing him to be a democratic capitalist in the same mould as Yeltsin, the oligarchs championed his rise to power, but upon becoming president in 2000, it quickly became apparent that he allowed them to operate only so long as they stayed out of politics. In February 2003, at a televised conference on corruption, Khodorkovsky challenged Putin, accusing the government of accepting bribes. In October, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In 2004-2005, in a blatant show-trial, Khodorkovsky was found guilty and sentenced to nine years. In 2010, while still incarcerated, he was charged with stealing 350 million tons of his own oil and his sentence was extended to 2017. He was unexpectedly pardoned by Putin in 2013, possibly because of international pressure, and he moved to Switzerland. By now, his personal wealth had dropped to $100-250 million. In 2014, he launched Open Russia, an advocacy group championing democracy and human rights, and calling for reforms to Russian civil society. In 2015, a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant, charging Khodorkovsky with ordering the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, who had clashed with Khodorkovsky over local taxation issues. He currently lives in London, and will be arrested if he returns to Russia.
One of the main themes of the film is something which should be very familiar to anyone who has followed US politics over the last few years - the belief that Putin, despite all his power, is essentially a thin-skinned, classless bully who can't brook any kind of criticism and who throws his toys out of the pram when crossed. Sound familiar? The parallels with a certain American man-child president are never explicitly stated, but they're unmissable nonetheless - much like Trump, Putin didn't rise to power via traditional political channels; much like Trump, Putin proved especially adept at harnessing the power of television to rally his base; and much like Trump, Putin was able to appeal to a specific section of society, working his way into a position where he can seemingly do pretty much anything and his followers will blindly excuse/protect him. After being installed by Yeltsin as "acting president", Putin (like Trump) projected an image of strength and nationalist pride, before later clamping down on any dissidence within the TV networks that helped bring him to power (again, the parallels are clear - how much would Trump love to do the same to CNN and MSNBC). And once Putin controlled the networks, he controlled the national discourse, then turning his attention to the oligarchs who he and a lot of working-class Russian people felt had become too powerful.
Of course, none of this is to absolve the oligarchs for their own questionable behaviour, and one of the most bizarre moments in the film details a scheme that sounds like it was lifted from Wag the Dog (1997). In 1996, Yeltsin was too sick to go on the road during his presidential campaign, and with rumours of his ill-health spreading across the country, he was in real danger of losing the election to Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, something which the oligarchs wanted to avoid. And so they concocted a ploy to hide the real state of Yeltsin's health by using set dressing to make it appear that he was taking interviews in various locations, when he was barely travelling at all.
The film is less critical, however, when it comes to Khodorkovsky's more personal failings. Take the murder of Petukhov as an example, which takes up all of two minutes of screen time. To be fair, Khodorkovsky has always denied involvement, and there is no real evidence to say he ordered the hit. Nevertheless, this is a major part of his story and the main reason he can't return to Russia, so for Gibney and editor Michael J. Palmer to skim by as quickly as they do is more than a little disappointing. And whilst they do feature some material on the (a)morality of the loans-for-shares scheme, with one interviewee calling it a "Faustian deal", there is virtually nothing on how Khodorkovsky essentially scammed poor people into selling their privatisation vouchers, exploiting their ignorance of capitalism to line his own pockets. Unfortunately, Gibney is far more focused on proving Putin's nefariousness than examining Khodorkovsky's imperfections, focusing on his latter-day dissident activities rather than his early capitalistic ruthlessness.
As this might suggest, one of the most significant problems is that Gibney is unable to strike a balance between championing Khodorkovsky the symbol of anti-Putin resistance and interrogating Khodorkovsky the man. In reaching for a grand political sweep and focusing on decades-spanning geopolitics, Gibney misses the opportunity to make a more intimate documentary about a fascinatingly contradictory individual. He does say some interesting things about the nature of power, but at every turn, it seems like there's a better, simpler film struggling to get out from under the massive weight Gibney has bestowed upon the material. Indeed, had he given more time over to the mistakes of Khodorkovsky's past, it would have made for a considerably more compelling narrative, investing his later attempts to right some of the wrongs he has done to the country with considerably more gravitas and pathos.
Ultimately, Citizen K is an average documentary that provides an admittedly accessible overview of post-Soviet Russian politics, but which is unsatisfying as a portrait of its ostensible subject, failing to capitalise on how compelling Khodorkovsky's story is. This is an unscrupulous billionaire who mistakenly believed himself untouchable, who only learned humility in his nine years of incarceration in a Siberian labour camp (complete with multiple hunger strikes and the championing of prisoner rights); the one-time richest man in Russia who became one of the most outspoken critics of the president he helped to install. There's inherently great drama there, with an inbuilt character arc that any screenwriter would kill to come up with. Unfortunately, that's not Gibney's focus, and ultimately, his Khodorkovsky is an abstract symbol of an ideal, one that is far less interesting than a flesh and blood man with ideals.
- Jan 2, 2020