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».
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