TIFF 2019 Dispatch #2: In “Citizen K,” a Russian Oligarch Turns Anti-Putin Activist

TIFF 2019 Dispatch #2: In “Citizen K,” a Russian Oligarch Turns Anti-Putin Activist September 8, 2019

“Democracy is possible, but someone needs to be the first to be unafraid.  And I am unafraid.”

Those are brave words in 21st Century Russia.  And to all appearances, their speaker, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is a brave man.

He’s also a complicated one.  The subject of Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Citizen K, Khodorkovsky is a man whose twists and turns rival those of Odysseus.  In the Q&A following yesterday’s screening, Gibney used a more cinematic metaphor, describing him as a Jake LaMotta figure:  like the protagonist of Scorsese’s classic Raging Bull, Gibney is simultaneously attracted and repelled by him.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as seen in “Citizen K”

I felt the same ambivalence.  Charismatic, eloquent, brimming with Zen calm (or is it arrogance?), Khodorkovsky is easy on the eyes, an ideal interview subject.  Yet he didn’t climb to the top of the heap in post-Soviet Russia by being a nice guy.  And it’s fair to question whether his current pro-democracy urges are sincerely altruistic.

Once the richest man in Russia, Putin turned on Khodorkovsky in 2003, arranging for him to be arrested and shipped to a Siberian prison in 10 years.  Like many former oligarchs, he now resides uneasily in London.

Gibney covers all of this in a brisk prologue, then digs down and shows us how Khodorkovsky rose and fell, and what he’s up to now in London.  In doing so, Gibney also gives us the best overview of 21st Century Russian history that I’ve seen committed to film.

The child of poor yet educated parents during the Soviet Union’s twilight, the savvy, opportunistic Khodorkovsky formed Russia’s first bank following the collapse of communism.  In what sounds a lot like a massive swindle (again, that ambiguity!), he next seized sizeable chunks of formerly state-owned companies, before investing solely in oil.

Soon enough, Khodorkovsky was one of the seven oligarchs who controlled 50% of Russia’s economy.  To achieve his goal of turning a sluggish, state-owned oil company into a money machine, he laid off tens of thousands of workers, and possibly resorted to murder to silence opposition.

Gibney parallels Khodorkovsky’s ascent with that of a KGB nobody assigned to East Germany, who first ingratiated himself with St. Petersburg’s mayor, then with Russia’s ailing leader Boris Yeltsin.  In a mere six months, Vladimir Putin went from being the guy in the periphery of bigwig photos, to the person in the center, named by Yeltsin himself to be his successor on December 31, 1999.

Gibney, with the expertise of editor Michael J. Palmer, splices this into an engrossing, well-paced chronicle.  They achieve this by melding brief reenactments and media footage with their interviews with Khodorovsky and journalistic experts.

An alchemical mix of the tragic, comic, and grotesque has often been the way of great Russian artists, from writer Nikolai Gogol to composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Gibney is true to this style, showing us withering television satire of Putin that spurred him to make the seizure of television networks a priority.  Once achieved, Putin uses this tool to deliver his own pitch-black comic exhortations to oligarchs in exile, urging them to be careful, because so many of their kind are dying in accidents abroad.

The music, too, buttresses the spirit of the film’s place and circumstances.  Russian chestnuts by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev blend with an original score by Ivor Guest and Robert Logan.  Guest and Logan’s music would fit comfortably in a Hollywood Western, the better to emphasize the Wild West character of the 1990s mob wars as well as Russia’s current lawlessness.

I won’t fill in all of the chronological gaps that take us from Putin and Khodorkovsky in 2003 to the present day.  That’s the job of Citizen K!  But I will say that this is easily one of Gibney’s best documentaries.  Incredibly prolific since the late 1990s, some of his weaker efforts – like his Julian Assange doc We Steal Secrets, or this year’s profile of scammer Elizabeth Holmes The Inventor – feel bloated with repetitive video or photographic stills that lend no additional insight.

That’s emphatically not the case here, where nearly every minute feels essential to Gibney’s portrait of an era and its key figures.  And by the end, he’s brought us to the present day, with Putin clearly gunning to be Russia’s President-for-Life, ruling a teetering populace divided between urban pro-democracy protesters and a rural cult of personality, while surrounded by “Oligarchy 2.0,” a gang of thugs completely loyal and indebted to him.

With Putin’s pernicious tendrils extending to the Ukraine, Syria, Hungary, Germany, France, Britain, and the United States, this is also one of Gibney’s most immediately relevant films.  (Basically, wherever there’s a nationalistic, xenophobic, separatist urge, you’ll find Putin’s fingerprints.)  Given the comparable reaches of their subject matter, it’s essential viewing on a par with his 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, his thorough exposé of the Roman Catholic pedophile cover-up that extended to the papacies of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

 

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

 


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