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- 12/27/2010 - Mikhail Khodorkovsky in glass cage in second trial - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

So ex-oligarch Mr. K, how does Russian President Putin really feel about democracy and you?

By Nora Lee Mandel

Written & Directed by Alex Gibney
Produced by John Battsek, Alex Gibney, P.J. van Sandwijk, George Chignell, and Erin Edeiken
U.S./U.K. 126 min. Not Rated.
In English and Russian with English subtitles
Released by Greenwich Entertainment 1/15/2020

To Americans nowadays, Russia is the foreign boogeyman successfully interfering in U.S. and European elections. Providing useful context, Alex Gibney does a very good job of driving a complex story that lays bare just how much President Vladimir Putin sneers at democracy.

Gibney’s researchers in London, the U.S., and Russia found a trove of revealing public, internet and TV footage, translated by a team of Russian-born interns, that makes this more visually informative than PBS Frontline’s two investigations Putin’s Way (2015) and Putin’s Revenge (2017). Editor Michael Palmer, working on his second Gibney film after Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine (2015), does smoothly yeoman work of blending the images comprehensibly, between new interviews with lawyers, businesspeople, Russian and British journalists.

The domestic impact on Russia of Putin’s consolidation of authoritarian power since taking control in 1999 is traced through the singular career of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the titular Citizen K, who Gibney interviews on screen extensively. Where Putin had to withdraw from his KGB sinecure in East Germany with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and then with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 went home to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to be just a mayoral aide, he has hung onto that humiliation since, personally and for his country. At the same time, Khodorkovsky rose through the economic and political chaos that followed under President Boris Yeltsin to become one of the richest men in the country.

While Cyril Tuschi’s documentary Khodorkovsky (2011) focused on his personal aspects that landed him in an isolated prison by the Finnish border, Gibney lets “K” make the case for his business acumen. Smiling slyly, he remembers learning about the importance of banks in capitalism from a book, so he created one and realized he was good at taking these kinds of gambling risks. Gibney gives an excellent tutorial in how the privatization system worked with vouchers. A Moscow journalist explains that most Russians didn’t understand privatization or how to make constant choices. Khodorkovsky did – “I bought the vouchers up.” (Gibney says there were reports of Putin getting caught in a kickback scheme for food when his city was facing famine around this time, but he got promoted to Deputy Mayor.)

The handful of men called oligarchs, like Khodorkovsky, ran half of the country’s economy, dividing up the business sectors. Alexander Gentelev’s Thieves By Law (2010) revealed the gangsters protecting this form of capitalism; Citizen K has shocking TV footage of brazen shootings in the streets and bodies piling up in Moscow. Khodorkovsky compares the 1990’s in Russia: “It was the Wild West for seven years.” But the oligarchs who took over the media also allowed uncensored television, including political satire; the clips look a lot like the British puppet show Spitting Image as they made fun of Yeltsin. Even as he was ill and losing control, the oligarchs’ media propped him up with literal fake news to assure that the Communists wouldn’t return in the 1996 election.

Gibney’s description of the oligarchs pushing Yeltsin into the “Loans for Shares” program to alleviate government debt by taking over state-owned enterprises leads into Khodorkovsky defending his interest in buying Yukos, the state oil company. From his visits to snowy oil fields in Siberia with bags of cash, Khodorkovsky gets animated describing how he met with the workers and promised to try to save jobs, and we can see his nascent political charisma in action. However, his efficiency drive alienated local officials, and one mayor’s murder has been persistently blamed on him, even as other explanations faded over the years. People-on-the-steppes over the years all blame Khodorkovsky.

Several interviewees concur that the oligarchs got Yeltsin to abdicate to Putin on New Year’s Eve 1999, because they thought Putin would guard their wealth through the upcoming election. Putin mildly commented on TV: “I have no conflicts with the so-called oligarchs.” Gibney, though, has no election-era footage quite like Vitaly Mansky’s in Putin’s Witnesses (2018) where the candidate challenged the documentarian preparing a profile for an independent channel: “I hear you’ve been asking about me.” Gibney montages how the other networks sold Putin to the country. Putin cannily absorbed the importance of manipulating the media that he’ll put into effect when he later takes over the networks; Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018) and Maxim Pozdorovkin‘s Our New President (2018) demonstrate how skilled he has become in producing and controlling fake news.

Khodorkovsky enthuses how he sought to merge Yukos with the likes of Exxon and move towards transparency. When a deal suddenly appeared in 2003 that instead merged oil companies under a mysterious new one owned by a friend of Putin, a journalist says Putin created Oligarchs 2.0. Masha Gessen has reported that political scientists are still struggling to find a descriptive term for Putin’s non-ideological, nationalistic, authoritarian mafia-state.

Immediately, Khodorkovsky became an anti-corruption crusader, even challenging Putin in a live TV session. He re-watches the clip, with suspenseful music. His business partner remembers not bringing himself to watch; others note it was the first time Putin was seen angry on TV. Gibney shows how the immediate arrests of Khodorkovsky associates were well-publicized. His partner and lawyer warn him he’ll be next, so he should flee; his response was to be even more visible, so the men in black uniforms waited until his plane was refueling in Siberia. Various journalists note that the laws then were fluid, and other oligarchs were not arrested. Khodorkovsky paid the tax claims, and then new charges were filed. His parents weep on TV when he’s given a nine year prison sentence.

In prison, Khodorkovsky analyzed that Putin thinks like a criminal. He proudly recalls going on extreme hunger strikes, such as to help his ill counsel into a civilian hospital. But in 2010 Khodorkovsky was hauled back in court on Kafkaesque charges that added to his sentence. However, he challenges the court’s validity in a statement that earns him more respect, and international organizations ramp up pressure for his release. Briefly sensitive to Western opinions as the opening ceremony of his pet 2014 Sochi Olympics approaches, Putin suddenly releases Khodorkovsky on the excuse of his dying mother in Berlin.

Gibney doesn’t mention that the Russian wins at the Games turned out to be fraudulent, as exposed in Bryan Fogel’s Icarus (2017). Nor how Putin has used the Russian Orthodox Church as a conservative ally, adding blasphemy to political charges, as covered in Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (2013) and Yevgeni Mitta’s Act & Punishment:The Pussy Riot Trials (2015), whose band members were also released before the Olympics.

With hundreds millions that he had wisely secreted out of Russia before his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky established Open Russia, somewhat modeled on George Soros’s promotion of civil engagement through Open Society foundations, that Gibney doesn’t mention, perhaps because Putin and his allies, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have used Soros to stir up vicious anti-Semitism. Though Khodorkovsky is seen speaking at conferences and rallies at such places as Kiev, Ukraine (the takeover of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine aren’t mentioned, perhaps considered foreign affairs), he’s based in London despite all the well-known attacks on Russian dissidents in England. (Gibney didn’t need to repeat familiar footage about the most recent proven poisonings by Russian agents.)

Despite footage of urban demonstrations and arrests, people in small towns express support for Putin “to make Russia great again”. Russian television broadcasts “election theater” like reality TV version of democracy and keeps up a stream of invective against Khodorkovsky as a traitor. Gibney says Khodorkovsky now plays the long game by reaching out to the younger generation via the internet, including a YouTube Channel that is not yet blocked. As to Putin’s future, Khodorkovsky with a grin quotes Mikhail Bulganov’s masterwork The Master and Margarita that couldn’t be published under Stalin: “Yes, man is mortal. The worst of it is that he's sometimes unexpectedly mortal.”


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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