By Michael Sandlin.
After narrowly avoiding being nicked by the UK authorities for supposed “document theft” during the filming of his Troubles documentary No Stone Unturned, Alex Gibney is back tear-assing around the world with his camera crew making controversial films. In his latest, Citizen K, his subject is someone who did get imprisoned for theft – although of a much different kind. The titular Citizen K is Russian oligarch-turned-convict-turned-political-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose shady but incredibly successful post-Soviet business ventures eventually led to an alpha-dog struggle of epic proportions with President Vladimir Putin, a man who eventually grew tired of sharing power with the oligarchs. So, he had Khodorkovsky arrested, along with his partners, for tax evasion, and eventually for “stealing oil” as it were, from his own oil company, Yukos. With a mere snap of his fingers, Putin erases Khodorkovsky’s influence in the business world and soon has the holdings of his rival’s company nationalized. Next thing you know, Khodorkovsky is on a seven-day bus journey to a Siberian prison, where he will reside for a long, long while. For Putin, this is a hard-bitten move ripped straight from his hero Stalin’s playbook, sans the icepick in the head.
In one sense, Gibney’s film acts as a fascinating historical document of Russia’s post-Soviet descent into capitalist chaos, although the extreme neoliberal state Russia plunged into in the early 1990s was more like anarchy than anything as orderly as mere capitalism. As we learn, not many people in Russia knew what to do with their newfound freedom other than commit crime, as Moscow became the murder capital of the world for a time. But a few men like Khodorkovsky knew exactly what to do: start private businesses while the rules were still fluid (if there were any rules at all). Khodorkovsky started up the first commercial bank in Russia, then later moved on to owning Russia’s largest oil company. Putin also took advantage of the power vacuum after Communism dissolved and set himself up to be the successor of weak drunkard Boris Yeltsin, cannily plotting his rise by using the media and television to sell himself to the Russian public as its post-Communist democratic savior. Never mind the fact that this former grubby little KGB snitch’s real intention was to take the country back to its repressive authoritarian past.
Unfortunately, Citizen K doesn’t really fulfill its promise as a humanist study of its central subject, Mr. Khodorkovsky. Although there’s no doubting Khodorkovsky’s courage and selflessness: he managed to survive two hunger strikes in prison in protest of the inhumane treatment of his colleagues in the gulag. And there’s no question that his time in prison changed him at least somewhat for the better as a human being. Khodorkovsky certainly seemed more determined than ever to fight for democratic change in Russia, even though in his post-prison life he found himself exiled in London with potential assassination looming around every corner. But Gibney also tends to gloss over the fact that Khodorkovsky was a greedy bastard and, moreover, proud of it: he was, for much of his young life, something of a Russian Gordon Gekko – a man devoted to the ruthless accumulation of capital with little regard for personal ethics or broader societal concerns. He made hundreds of millions of dollars by cheating and gaming an already corrupt system, much like all the Russian oligarchs did. Only Khodorkovsky just happened to piss off the wrong thin-skinned Russian dictator.
The most pressing question that Gibney’s doc leaves unresolved is the question of Khodorkovsky’s motives in all his activist clamor. For all his newfound post-penal reformist posturing, one can’t help but wonder: does Khodorkovsky’s anti-Putin activism stem from genuine selfless ambition for a better future for all Russians? Or is this all just a self-serving platform to further publicize his ongoing personal vendetta against Putin? Even after his Siberian prison ordeal, Khodorkovsky still managed to retain much of his ill-gotten monetary gains (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars), so it’s hard to feel too sorry for the guy. If, in the end, Khodorkovsky can be seen as a sympathetic presence in the film, it’s only because almost anyone you can think of – perhaps with the exception of Jeffrey Epstein or Rudy Giuliani – would strike a more sympathetic figure than that current poster boy for the banality of evil, Vladimir Putin.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.