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Citizen K Captures the Rise and Fall of an Oligarch

Alex Gibney’s new documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky presents a complex picture of a dissident.

Courtesy of Zachary Martin/Greenwich Entertainment

The wealthiest man in the United States—and the world—built his fortune in part by strategically avoiding taxation as he established an online retail leviathan, which in turn allows him to invest in other industries, including media. He owns the biggest newspaper in Washington, thanks to which he wields enormous political influence and has earned the ire of our infamously thuggish president; and his flagship company, Amazon, now produces highbrow movies and TV shows. One of these, Alex Gibney’s new documentary Citizen K, tells the story of a different billionaire in a different country who built his fortune by skirting the law to establish an oil and gas giant, and who earned the ire of a different infamously thuggish president. The difference is that, unlike Jeff Bezos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in a Siberian prison and now lives in exile in London.

I approached Citizen K with some trepidation. Western coverage of Russia frequently lacks nuance, and it would be easy to imagine a one-sided, jingoistic account of a heroic dissident resisting Vladimir Putin’s evil empire, larded up with #Resistance sloganeering about the 2016 election and the urgent need to sell weapons to Ukraine. But I needn’t have worried. Gibney, whose previous documentary subjects include Enron and Theranos, fully understands that before Khodorkovsky was a prisoner of conscience, he was an oligarch who swindled a nation and left it impoverished, resentful, and ripe for a strongman promising to make it great again.

Gibney, in fact, has made one of the fairest and most accessible accounts of post-Soviet Russia to date. He is not preoccupied with the sins of the Communist era, or with Twitter trolls, or with Putin’s habit of shirtless horseback riding. He does not paint an unduly flattering portrait of Russia’s liberal opposition; at the same time, he is no apologist for Putin. He does not sugarcoat the chaos of the 1990s, nor does he use it to excuse the soft authoritarianism left in its wake. He does what documentarians are supposed to do, which is to present the truth in a way that a lay audience can comprehend. As someone familiar with most of the events depicted in Citizen K, I found little to quibble with in terms of how he frames them.

Khodorkovsky’s life, which Gibney uses to tell Russia’s story over the past several decades, can be divided into four rough chapters. The first, which we skip over briskly, is of a perfectly ordinary Soviet upbringing. Khodorkovsky’s parents were engineers, which meant that they were poor, and these modest early years go some way to explaining how our protagonist could endure deprivation later in life. The second comes with the fall of communism and the U.S.-encouraged “shock therapy” under Boris Yeltsin: seven years of “Wild West” capitalism characterized by elderly pensioners begging in the streets, lurid contract killings of the nouveau riche, and a dramatic society-wide decline in living standards. Khodorkovsky was one of a handful of well-connected businessmen who took advantage of this lawless era to buy up the state’s major assets and establish a tight-knit clique that, by the late 1990s, effectively ran the country. Gibney is unsparing in detailing the rigged auctions and elaborate schemes that delivered Russia’s energy, banking, and telecommunications infrastructure to roughly half a dozen oligarchs. Most of them were Jewish—Khodorkovsky is, on his father’s side—a detail the film omits but which is relevant to how their rise and fall were understood in a deeply anti-Semitic country.

One of these men, Boris Berezovsky, initially orchestrated the rapid ascendancy of Putin, who presented a youthful and vigorous alternative to the ailing, alcoholic Yeltsin when he assumed the presidency on December 31, 1999. By this point, the start of the third chapter of his life, Khodorkovsky was becoming concerned about the scale of corruption that he himself had partaken in, and he made the error of challenging the new president directly to his face and on camera. In response, Putin decided to make an example of Khodorkovsky, using the legal system to harass, arrest, and in one case effectively murder the tycoon’s business partners. After a show trial, Khodorkovsky was sent to prison, while the state seized control of his by-then-profitable oil company, Yukos. Berezovsky soon fled to the United Kingdom, where he would come to regret his role in bringing Putin to power; eventually he was found dead in his home under unusual circumstances, one of a number of high-profile Russians to die in suspicious ways in British exile since Putin’s rise.

Khodorkovsky’s sentence extended well beyond the 10 years he ultimately served but was commuted in an act of mercy from Putin—an international public relations gesture ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Although he is a free man to this day, Khodorkovsky does not believe he can safely return to Russia; in a heartbreaking scene, his ailing mother travels to Germany to embrace her son one last time. In this fourth chapter of his life, Khodorkovsky estimates on camera that he is still worth around half a billion dollars (“I have enough money,” he says, with characteristic understatement), enough to establish a nonprofit called Open Russia that attempts to document corruption and fund the opposition to Putin.

As Gibney shows, this idealistic effort is hampered by Khodorkovsky’s physical removal from the political scene, and the presence of his protégés on the ground is thin. Gibney takes us to the small Siberian oil-refining city of Nefteyugansk, whose residents believe Khodorkovsky is responsible for ordering the murder of a beloved young mayor in the 1990s (the actual circumstances remain unclear), and where Putin remains popular, as he does among Russians overall.

Through interviews with Khodorkovsky and various journalists, business partners, and political figures who have worked with him, Gibney depicts a man who may not be a murderer but who certainly participated in one of the biggest scams in modern history, and who is intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware enough to own this record. Khodorkovsky appears to have been deeply affected by his imprisonment. As he describes it, prison either breaks people or forces them to develop discipline and perspective in order to survive. Khodorkovsky is an example of the latter. Separated from his fortune, denied the opportunity to watch his young children grow up, and forced to watch on state-owned TV channels as Putin and his inner circle grew ever wealthier, he gradually metamorphosed from white-collar criminal to moral martyr. Multiple former skeptics tell Gibney they buy this transformation, and ultimately I do, too.

What’s more in doubt is whether Khodorkovsky has any prospect of changing Russia’s political course now. Beneficiaries of his support include Ksenia Sobchak, a controversial media personality (her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was the mayor of St. Petersburg who helped make Putin’s career), who in the most recent presidential election served as a puppet opposition candidate, as well as Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who is regularly arrested at rallies and has been barred from running for office. These two aren’t big fans of one another, and Khodorkovsky is guarded and diplomatic about why he has chosen to back both.

It’s not entirely clear what Khodorkovsky’s strategy is, but as he says toward the end of the film, prison taught him to think longer term. “For me, soon means five or 10 years,” he says, speculating on how Putin’s regime might end. Reflecting on the giant youth protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Khodorkovsky suggests that if the protesters had rushed the Kremlin, Putin would have been finished—“but they were not ready to do that.” Asked to imagine Putin’s worst nightmare, he describes wandering the halls of the presidential palace in the Kremlin alone, frantically trying to reach any of his apparatchiks by phone and finding that no one is picking up. It’s an evocative image; one thing Gibney does well throughout is to show the vulnerability of Putin’s seemingly permanent and stable power structure, and the thin-skinned and paranoid nature of the man at the top.

Citizen K begins and ends with its subject narrating over the image of an oil refinery belching smoke into a clear sky over a vast, otherwise pristine winter landscape. The earth’s changing climate never explicitly comes up in the film, but these bookends neatly capture how late capitalism is poisoning the planet. Khodorkovsky, we’re reminded, is not a saint, however much prison may have inculcated a saintly bearing. The source of his wealth wasn’t just stolen from the public; it’s contributing to the climate apocalypse we all face.

It’s Gibney’s willingness to hold his subject accountable that keeps Citizen K from drifting into dull hagiography. In footage from the 1990s, we see a young, mustached Khodorkovsky suggest to an interviewer that Russians begging on the streets simply aren’t working hard enough, perfectly playing the role of the bootstraps capitalist entrepreneur so celebrated in our own culture. That glibness and callousness eventually depart Khodorkovsky, after immense personal sacrifice, as he confronts what his country has become and his own complicity. Citizen K is a worthy document of Russia’s recent history, but what makes it compelling drama is the spectacle of a one-percenter punished and humbled—a spectacle that in the United States still feels like a distant fantasy.