I’m not sure which is sadder — that the “president” of Russia approvingly alludes to Joseph Stalin in speeches, or that the Russian people respond with huzzahs.
Nearly every scene of the documentary Citizen K carries some such depressing detail as the film probes the ongoing conflict between tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former ally Vladimir Putin. The Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (whose many credits include Going Clear and Sinatra: All or Nothing at All) tweaks a common documentary formula — little guy who gets railroaded. This one is the story of a giant who got railroaded. In Russia, billionaires are victims of gross injustice too.
Khodorkovsky, who in the days following the demise of the Soviet Union launched Russia’s first commercial bank after reading a book on the subject, rapidly amassed shares in newly privatized industries in the Nineties, becoming one of the seven “oligarchs” who held half of Russia’s wealth. Amid economic turmoil, he and the others steered the country away from a relapse into Communism and backed the gangster capitalism embodied by Vladimir Putin. So why did Khodorkovsky spend a decade in jail, why is he now living in London, and why does he have excellent cause to fear Putin’s thugs even now? Pull up a chair and Gibney will tell you, in a doc that is frightening, bizarre, and comic. “Russian democracy” is, for now, largely an oxymoron, though the film concludes with hopeful sketches of some political figures who might help to restore it. Don’t hold your breath.
Khodorkovsky, whose interviews provide the spine of a film assembled from news clips, chats with his associates, and annoying bits of docudrama, explains how he fell afoul of Putin in 2003 during a televised discussion of current affairs. Putin didn’t like Khodorkovsky’s (mild) points about his corruption and started hinting that the mogul, whose interests included the gigantic oil company Yukos, might soon start having problems with the tax authorities. Those problems did indeed materialize, Khodorkovsky found himself in the dock for tax evasion, embezzlement, all the stuff any Russian businessman could be charged with at any time. Except Khodorkovsky was not just fined, he was sent to prison for ten years as the tax claims by the state bankrupted his oil company, whose assets were then nationalized. As that prison term was winding up, prosecutors dreamed up another set of charges, claiming that Khodorkovsky had stolen all of Yukos’s oil. All of this happened against a backdrop of frothing rage with the oligarchs for hogging all of the country’s wealth, as Putin turned the TV networks into his bullhorn. He vowed to “eliminate the oligarchs as a class,” a frankly Stalinist remark that nevertheless thrilled Russian masses who have been trained to think they were cheated when they agreed to sell their shares in state enterprises to canny businessmen like Khodorkovsky. In man-on-the-street footage, Russians praise Putin for providing “stability.” That’s one way of spinning barely disguised authoritarianism. Gibney has an eye for wry comic details, and Russian propaganda TV is rich with examples: Check out the women in peasant dress, deliriously singing, “We all want to marry Putin.” Russia is a Putinocracy and has been for this entire century.
Still, it eventually became so obvious that Khodorkovsky was a political prisoner (cue video of the defendant sitting in an actual cage during his show trial) that Putin freed him when he needed some favorable international press in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Much humbled by prison, Khodorkovsky, formerly one of the richest men on the planet, managed to get out of the country with $500 million and today runs a small activist group out of London called Open Russia that seeks to advance freedom and democracy in Russia. So far the outfit (as we see in an amusing clip) is having problems getting its posters to stick to walls. Meanwhile, high-level Russian expats in Britain keep dying under mysterious circumstances, which is why Khodorkovsky’s wife wishes he would shut his mouth. “It’s all funny,” says Khodorkovsky, referring to Russian spies who carried out a hit in Salisbury, England, “but on the other hand this isn’t funny at all.” Toward the end of the film, a group of protesters is seen chanting “Russia will be free.” Notably, they fail to mention when.