So far, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s life has been the stuff of a Russian epic. He went from being the archetypal oligarch to the archetypal prisoner of conscience. Naturally, Putin’s propaganda machine continues to do its best to slander him, so it is good to have a timely and up-to-date chronicle of his life and struggles thus far. Prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney never refrains from airing criticism of his subject, especially during his early 90’s “Wild West” years, but that strengthens his credibility when he turns his focus on the lawless and oppressive behavior of Russian President-for-life Vladimir Putin in Citizen K, which opens this Wednesday in New York.
Khodorkovsky admittedly pushed the envelop when he assumed control of the Russian oil company Yukos during the dodgy privatization process, but if he hadn’t taken over the state enterprise, another oligarch would have, resulting in even greater concentration of economic power. At least former state employees started getting paid again. In fact, it was the responsibility Khodorkovsky started feeling toward his employees that led to the awakening of his social conscience. First, he became a philanthropist and then he started campaigning for democracy and transparency, at which point he came into fateful conflict with Putin.
The trumped-up case against Khodorkovsky was well documented in Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky and Cathryn Collins’ Vlast (Power), but Gibney retells in compellingly, filling in some gaps and bringing it up to date. He asks some tough questions that Khodorkovsky answers quite forthrightly. Unlike, Aung San Suu Kyi, Khodorkovsky has maintained his claim to the moral high ground during the years after his release. Indeed, the Western media was shockingly negligent in its lack of coverage of Khodorkovsky’s trip to the Ukraine in support of the democracy movement in the days following the Kremlin-backed government’s siege of Maidan Square (but that was during the Obama administration, when they didn’t care about Russia).
Gibney’s regular doc audiences will probably be most interested in Russia in relation to its campaigns of disinformation and electoral interference. There are sequences in Citizen K that address such issues, but he always maintains a direct connection to his subject. Frankly, it is frightening to hear how many provincial Russians have bought Putin’s big lies (particularly Khodorkovsky’s alleged role in supposedly ordering the assassination of a Siberian mayor long assumed to be the work of Chechen gangsters, until Putin’s state media changed its story, on command).
Indeed, the most pressing take-away from Citizen K could very well be the implications of what the term “state media” means in practical applications. It is frightening how easily people can be deceived (of course, if you do not follow a few outlets that do not share your politics, you are essentially brainwashing yourself—Trump-lovers and Trump-haters alike).
Regardless, the magnitude of what happened to Khodorkovsky makes his story especially scary. 8 billion dollars were not sufficient to keep him safe from the Putin machine, so what chance would a poor, honest activist or journalist stand? That domestic impunity has given Putin a free hand to terrorize the world, most notably the sovereign nation of Ukraine.
It is unclear what Khodorkovsky’s third act will be, but Gibney clearly establishes the truth of what transpired so far and the reality the danger he continues to face. The film unfolds with the suspense of a le Carré thriller and the sweeping tragedy of Tolstoy. If Russians really want to understand who Khodorkovsky is than they should watch this film. They would also get a better understanding of Putin’s ruthless character as well. Very highly recommended for anyone in the West concerned about human rights and national security, Citizen K opens this Wednesday (1/15) in New York, at Film Forum.