In his latest documentary award winning director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) takes his audience into the world of the Russian oligarchs and their contentious relationship with Vladimir Putin. The citizen K of the title is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was at one time the richest man in Russian and one of the 7 oligarchs who controlled 50% of the country’s economy. They stepped in when the Soviet Union collapsed and took advantage of the vacuum, taking over the media, the oil industry and all the state’s most valuable assets. And they were flying high during the 90s, but when Putin came to power with their help, they expected that it would be business as usual. Boy, were they wrong!
Khodorkovsky rose from nothing. But he was a smart guy at the right place when the opportunity for big money in Russia presented itself. He describes those early post-Soviet days as “gangster capitalism”, where he was able to start a bank and eventually buy the Yukos oil company from the state. His friends bought the media and together the oligarchs decided who would be the leader of the country, first propping up a fading Yeltsin, then throwing their weight behind Putin. But soon Vladimir decided he wanted all the power for himself and so he began his own takedown of the oligarch, one my one. Khodorkovsky made the mistake of inviting Exxon in to partner in Yukos and share their expertise. He was suddenly accused of tax evasion and fraud and spent the next 10 years in Siberia. His company was taken by the state. And when he was released, Putin tried to try him again, but it turned the country in his favor. Sensing the change Putin released him as one of his benevolent PR acts during the runup to the Sochi Olympics. Khodorkovsky left the country, settling in London where he founded Open Russia, a foundation dedicated to fighting for a democratic Russia.
Khodorkovsky’s story is the perfect vehicle to view the rise of Putin and his strongman version of leadership. You see how good he was at using the media to make the people believe his version of things. You can see how a certain occupant of the White House might admire someone without a real political resume who is so media savvy, who can always shift the blame to someone else when anything goes wrong, and is capable of bending the government to his will. Khodorkovsky’s turn from less than ethical oligarch to anti-Putin activist is an understandable jailhouse transformation. He’s still got plenty of money though he’s unable to go home, and even in London, he is in fear for his life. But Gibney has given him a great platform to tell the story of the evolution of post-Soviet Russia and particularly the rise of Putin. And it is a fascinating tale. The film is a bit long and I could have done without Gibney inserting himself in it. But it is definitely a film people should see.