Citizen K – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Featuring: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anton Drel, Maria Logan, Alexei Navalny, Tatyana Lysova, Leonid Nevzlin, Igor Malashenko and Derk Sauer
In cinemas December 13th
At a time when world politics seems to be imploding on itself, this extraordinary tale will leave you slack jawed. Acclaimed documentary maker Gibney tackles the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. If you haven’t heard of him he was a Russian oligarch who at one point was estimated to be one of the wealthiest men in Russia having initially made his fortune running a private bank in Yelstin led Russia in the 90s. He graduated to participating in a privatisation scam buying up the share certificates gifted to impoverished Russian citizens after the fall of communism. Following this, he and his fellow oligarchs lent money to the state in return for the right to buy up the national utilities on the cheap.
Much of the first half of this documentary covers his astonishing rise and it is impossible not to think that he was a less than savoury individual fuelled by greed. But then something shifted in him and he developed a social conscience after Putin came to power and slowly chipped away at the country’s newfound democracy. Khodorkovsky became outspoken about corruption within the government and he paid a heavy price. He was sentenced to prison in 2003 on trumped-up tax evasion and fraud charges. Upon his release, he was forced to flee the country as Putin’s powers that be had since accused him of murder and there is a warrant for his arrest if he returns to his homeland. However, his imprisonment actually turned into something of a martyr for the people.
Nowadays he lives in exile in the UK where he funds and runs Open Russia – an organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights in his birth country. He is aware there may be a price on his head but he goes about his day to day business more or less unfettered. Of course, it helps that he has managed to filter around £400 million of his fortune out of Russia. A fraction of his one time alleged $16 billion net worth but still nothing to sneeze at.
Gibney resists the urge to time hop in his storytelling and rather tells this tale in sequence. Archive footage is mixed with interviews with Khodorkovsky and other key players including journalists and lawyers who were there. It is a complex tale and really one of those “you couldn’t make it up” stories. However, despite extensive interviews with Khodorkovsky we never really get to the crux of the man or learn why he shifted from greedy capitalist oligarch to philanthropist and humanitarian. He went from trying to accumulate as much money as possible to going on a hunger strike to save others during his trial. This is not a change that happens in a person overnight.
At the end of this you are none the wiser as to what drives him. But you will find yourself astonished by the corruptions and complexities of the Russian legal and political system. It’s a truly extraordinary story but I did feel that Gibney could have pushed it further. Despite this, it is worth watching, if only to get a very disturbing insight into Putin’s Russia. Our politicians and system will seem almost functional by the time you finish this.