German documentary maker Eric Bergkraut’s Citizen Khodorkovsky (2015) follows the widely accessible 2011 documentary Khodorkovsky by Cyril Tuschi. Bergkraut’s sombre documentary focuses on an interview Khodorkovsky did in Bergkraut’s Zürich studio, where the Putin-critic resides in exile following his release from captivity in December 2013, prior to the Sochi Olympics.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in a POW (prisoner of war) camp in 2003, and received an additional six years in 2010. Yukos, his oil company was expropriated by the State.
Khodorkovsky’s voice from the interview carries the film, in addition to Bergkraut’s own first person voice-over. Bergkraut explains the background for the film with his initial fascination with Khodorkovsky during his 2003 trial, which led him to start a friendship with him. The focus of Bergkraut’s film switches from a running correspondence between himself and an imprisoned Khodorkovsky, and a normal day in the life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Putin’s Gulag.
Bergkraut’s second-person narration places the audience in Khodorkovsky’s position as he rises to become one of Russia’s (and the world’s) richest men, via a wish for using his wealth and power to further the civil Russian society, to his fall as Putin’s prisoner.
Khodorkovsky’s own voice starts the film. The fact that he seems devoid of bitterness despite his ten years’ demeaning incarceration and being robbed of great values, makes an impression. Instead, seemingly without irony, he expresses gratitude for everything his native Russia has given him. Firstly, a solid Soviet education, secondly, the opportunity to become the country’s richest man, finally, the incarceration, which, according to Khodorkovsky, functioned as an education: taught him how to be human.
Bergkraut’s personal friendship with Khodorkovsky provides the filmmaker with exclusive inner circle access. We follow Khodorkovsky’s parents on the train as they are going to visit the Karelia POW camp, where Khodorkovsky was transferred in June 2011, from the POW camp near Chita, Siberia. Jewish Boris and Russian Marina Khodorkovsky are a typical Soviet, industrial working couple, with modest mannerisms. They are sad to only be able to speak with their son through a phone and separated from him by bulletproof glass. However, they appreciate to at least be provided with chairs. Marina makes an impact on the film maker when she, in despair at seeing her son imprisoned, utters hopefully that to the Russians, there is an either or scenario: Either they sleep, or they «seize their axes».
Bergkraut’s film is about Khodorkovsky’s survival – physical and mental – in captivity. He shows a clip from a Khodorkovsky interview made prior to his fall in 2003, where he emphasises that he was going to leave the world of business in order to devote his life to the fight for a civil Russian democracy. Khodorkovsky explains that he chose to view his incarceration as a conscription for a democratic development in Russia. At the same time, he admits that the imprisonment lasted longer than he imagined, and is uncertain whether he would have allowed himself to get arrested had he known what was ahead.
During a visit to the Kabila prison, Bergkraut asks Katarina Moskalenko, Khodorkovsky’s renowned Russian human rights lawyer, to enquire where the prisoner would like to travel if he is released. A question Khodorkovsky did not want to answer in the in the Zürich studio. During his imprisonment, he did not allow himself to even consider the notion of a release, and after a while lost all hope that he would ever be free again.
This way, Khodorkovsky’s incarceration is a good example of the Russian tradition of religious self-sacrifice. We also meet Father Aleksei from Moskow who risked his own position by visiting the imprisoned Khodorkovsky to give him his blessings. This revered also transpires as lawyer Katarina Moskalenko awaits her return train to Moskow from Karelia. Her carriage number 11 comes to a halt just in front of her and she runs into her train conductor friend Natalja. The forces of the universe are at work for both Khodorkovsky and a democratic Russia.
One problem about this close personal view of Khodorkovski – with such religious undertones – is that the tough, political reality of Putin’s Russia and the conditions for his release become somewhat lost. Khodorkovsky proves evasive when Bergkraut asks about his political ambitions when he is suggested as a clear democratic presidential candidate.
What Bergkraut and Zosya Rodkevich’s (see the following article) documentaries have in common are their descriptions of patriotic martyrdom in the fight for democracy in Russia, and how this self-sacrifice is met with hard, political repression from a totalitarian Putin-regime which has good reason to fear this combination of democratic struggle and patriotism. In Bergkraut’s film, Khodorkovsky’s second-in-command at Yukos, Leonid Nevzalin explains how Khodorkovsky, prior to his arrest, could have made – but vetoed – a pact with the Putin-regime. Khodorkovsky, in Bergkraut’s film, wants to give the impression that he remains a challenger to Putin. Simultaneously, there are signs that the release and subsequent exile happened because Khodorkovsky gave into pressure and struck a deal with Putin.
At the end, Eric Bergkraut declares that he is in no doubt that we, in Khodorkovsky’s persona, have a plan at the ready. We, unfortunately, remain unconvinced.