Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

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