What’s it about?
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.
This documentary gives a general history of Russia from 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union, through the turbulent 1990’s and the rise of the oligarchs, to 2018, after a couple of decades of Vladimir Putin progressively asserting an iron grip over the country. Citizen K is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of those oligarchs and a man who came in to direct conflict with Putin when he began looking into politics and espousing democratic ideals. He was shipped off to a remote prison for a decade as a result, and speaks from London where he went after being released. While the documentary skates along and doesn’t go incredibly deep, it communicates the events and the dynamic between the two men and those around them reasonably well. Its use of archival footage and interviews is solid, though offset by a soundtrack that’s overly dramatic and annoying.
Khodorkovsky was a predatory capitalist and while he ironically became a better person in prison, I think director Alex Gibney should have asked him point blank about his possible involvement in the murder of a local politician in 1998, as well as pointed questions about his vast wealth. For example, Khodorkovsky points out a time when he “had” to force workers to take a 30% pay cut, and another time when he let tens of thousands of them go. The question is not put to him, gee Mikhail, at the time you were worth over $1B and along with six other guys had half of Russia’s wealth; if you cared for these people why didn’t you take these losses out of your massive profits? Too often we see him get away with smirking through his statements and painting himself in a positive light, even if I am happy that he now leads the Open Russia movement and is a staunch critic of Putin. In the film’s defense, the fact that Russia was torn between oligarchs like him and the monster that is Putin, men who combined corruption and violence to preserve wealth and power, does comes through. The dynamics are suitably depressing, particularly when you see the parallels to other countries in the behavior of the ultra-wealthy, or political strongmen who stir up nationalism as one of their methods of attaining power.
Citizen K, a documentary about Russian oligarch/dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is far more concerned with painting Vladimir Putin as the big bad than it is with critiquing Khodorkovsky himself, who emerges as the default hero – if your villain is villainous enough, anyone who goes up against them, regardless of their own moral fibre, is going to look pretty good. Partly in service of this reading of history, although the film is undeniably informative in a factual sense, it suffers from an absence of any kind of psychological deep dive and gives Khodorkovsky more of a pass than seems appropriate.
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.
As a history lesson on Russia after Communism, Alex Gibney’s new documentary is spot on. The story is told, however, through the eyes of a tarnished hero-Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the seven oligarchs during the post-Communist period, once dubbed the “richest man in Russia,” prior to his fall from grace.
Khodorkovsky sat for days of detailed interviews in London, where he now lives in exile. His rags-to-riches story is marked by quite a bit of candor, especially when he recounts his rise to the top as a young entrepreneur. It’s probably best to describe Khodorkovsky as an opportunist, way smarter than his rivals, who viewed acquiring money strictly as a “game.”
Khodorkovsky was the first to establish a private bank in Russia and soon accumulated a great deal of wealth by buying up vouchers given to private citizens by the Yeltsin government, to encourage private industry. Khodorkovsky paid cash for these vouchers at bargain basement prices and eventually had enough money to purchase Yukos, which he turned into Russia’s number one energy company.
Khodorkovsky was able to purchase Yukos (again at bargain basement prices) after the Yeltsin government was forced to sell off various state enterprises to the oligarchs, as they had run out of cash.
Things begin to get a bit murky at this point as Gibney makes clear that Khodorkovsky was forced to cut employee wages by 30%, with a promise he would pay them back with profits the next year. It appears that the company bounced back but not without incidents of violence in between (Khodorkovsky is still accused of murdering the mayor of the town adjacent to his oil company).
After Vladimir Putin took over from Yeltsin on New Year’s Day 2000, Gibney, through excellent use of archival footage (old Russian TV programs and news reports), chronicles how he rose to power and in effect became the country’s top oligarch, eventually replacing all the old ones.
In 2003 Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of tax evasion, convicted and sent to Siberia. This change coincides with the “dark moment” in any second act drama. Through self-discipline, Khodorkovsky maintained his sanity in prison and even had to face a second trial eight years later, in which he was sentenced to an additional ten years imprisonment (all along Putin and his government were conducting an extended disinformation campaign against Khodorkovsky).
Putin eventually pardoned Khodorkovsky as he was trying to curry favor with Western Nations, so they would attend the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in Sochi.
The last third of the film (which goes on a little too long), chronicles Khodorkovsky’s effort to lead the anti-Putin, Russian democracy movement, based in London. Khodorkovsky still has millions left, which he ferreted away in western banks prior to his arrest.
The movement’s focus appears fragmented, with conflicting actors attempting to push various agendas in and outside Russia. Meanwhile Khodorkovsky appears to be a changed man-no longer motivated solely by materialism but by the love of country and the idea of freedom. While walking freely in London, he faces the threat of being murdered at any time by Russian operatives in that city-Citizen K makes it clear that there have already been a series of high-scale assassinations of Russian dissidents for which none of the perpetrators have been apprehended.
Gibney hits the mark particularly in his exploration of the rise of “gangster capitalism” during the Yeltsin period and the subsequent push back into the authoritarian ways of old by Putin. While there is a good measure of redemption for Khodorkovsky, his subsequent activities as an activist in the film prove to be a bit long-winded and anti-climactic.
One still is left feeling a bit uncomfortable in the thought that Khodorkovsky is still walking around with his millions which he obtained through dubious means. Nonetheless, his determination in exposing Putin’s “old wine in a shiny new bottle,” gives one hope that even a former rogue can now earn stripes, working for good.
Gibney is not interested in understanding Khodorkovsky’s character and motives behind his economic crimes, nor how painful Russia’s past, that people like Khodorkovsky made twice as miserable, is still shaping present-day Russian politics. Khodorkovsky and history are merely scenography in this film. Gibney is only interested in modern Russia and its leader. It’s clear from the start that his opinion about Russia and the Russian president were made up years before he even met Khodorkovsky who serves as a vehicle for Gibney to drive his point back home. His point is, of course, that Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian leader.
Unfortunately, neither Gibney nor his subject has an ounce of credibility and/or objectivity and their opinions carry little weight. Gibney is a political activist of liberal ilk, self-righteous crusader against abuses of power that he even sees in exposing of governmental abuses and crimes like in yet another activist piece, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013). It’s worth mentioning that it was his government not the Russian or Chinese that was exposed in “unjournalistic manner” which was offensive to Gibney’s “high professional standards”. This all coming from a documentarian that publicly states he doesn’t believe in journalistic objectivity. On the other hand, his subject is a criminal that plundered billions from impoverished Russian citizens plunging them into even greater poverty and indignity.
In Gibney’s story, a criminal is the romantic hero, martyr and a champion of democracy and the man who delivered Russian people from abysmal poverty (that was at least doubled by the theft perpetrated by Khodorkovsky and his comrades) is the villain. Gibney couldn’t be less interested if Russian citizens agree with his outsider perception of Russian politics and public figures. Russian perception of Russian reality is irrelevant to him. The intricacies of Khodorkovsky’s crimes that reveal his true nature are also irrelevant and or just glanced over so that Gibney can avoid accusations of creating outright political propaganda. But make no mistake; this is propaganda, all right.
Gibney seems intellectually dishonest because he refuses to accept that the oligarchs he glorifies almost single-handedly created a socio-economic system so corrupt, so immoral and contemptible that it crushed any hopes the Russians had about social and economic liberalization. Semibankirschina didn’t just support Putin’s campaign in 1999; their boundless corruption convinced the whole country that there is no other way but Putin. Russians keep voting for his party because they shiver when they remember the 90s and the likes of Khodorkovsky who took away their pensions so they couldn’t buy food and medications. Not to mention their daughters being trafficked abroad to be prostitutes so they could send some money home for the younger siblings after oligarchs fired everyone from the illegally obtained state companies even though they made assurance that they will keep the workforce.