By Richard Ades
Early in the documentary Citizen K, Mikhail Khodorkovsky recalls Russia’s own “Wild West” era. It occurred during a roughly seven-year period following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of communist authoritarianism.
The resulting legal vacuum allowed Khodorkovsky and other enterprising individuals to make their fortunes through often-shady means. It also allowed many of these so-called “gangster capitalists” to be killed for their money while Moscow turned into the “murder capital” of Europe.
Fortunately for Khodorkovsky, he managed to avoid the assassins, though he soon made an enemy who was equally ruthless: Vladimir Putin.
Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Citizen K is a history of modern Russia as seen through the eyes of Khodorkovsky, who amassed billions through his ownership of a major oil company. It describes the ways he and other self-created capitalists attempted to remake Russia for their own benefit. It also describes how Putin, once an out-of-work KGB agent, rose to power by appealing to people’s nostalgia for Soviet power and influence.
Finally, it explains how Khodorkovsky and others found themselves working at cross-purposes with Putin, putting a target on their backs. Some are alleged to have paid for this with their lives. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he was put on trial for financial crimes and ended up spending 10 years in a remote prison.
Majestically photographed by cinematographers Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov, with an equally grand score by Robert Logan and Ivor Guest, Citizen K is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It’s also an invaluable history lesson for any who want to understand how Russia became the dangerous adversary it is today—and why President Trump’s apparent failure to recognize that fact is so concerning.
If there’s one thing the documentary lacks, it’s someone to root for.
The thousands of stories based on America’s lawless Wild West generally gave us a hero who showed up to save the day. In this tale of Russia’s “Wild West” and its aftermath, it’s hard to decide whether our protagonist deserves that label.
In an archival interview, a young Khodorkovsky proudly admits that greed is his chief motivator. Other historic footage makes it clear that he was willing to lay off thousands to achieve his financial goals. It’s even suggested that he may have resorted to tactics such as bombings or murder.
Only later, after being released from prison, does Khodorkovsky take on a task that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving: From his new home in the UK, he funds efforts to promote democracy in his homeland. That does seem heroic.
By this point in the film, however, we’ve learned enough about the way “politics” work in Putin’s Russia to suspect that it’s also a quixotic exercise in futility.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Citizen K opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.