The Russia of the ‘90s is frequently referred to as a «Wild West». Its sudden transition from communism to free-market capitalism was brutally rocky, on a path uncharted. With legal structures unable to keep up, a handful of canny, self-styled entrepreneurs were able to grab astronomical amounts of wealth, while the majority of disoriented citizens, used to leaving everything up to the state, struggled to adapt. With this dynamic, Russia’s experiment in democracy very soon began to crack.
Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K looks at the era that succeeded the Soviet Union’s fall through the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who commandeered a number of Siberian oil fields to become Russia’s richest man, and one of the seven oligarchs controlling half of the nation’s economy. Crucially, on top of cash and ruthless entrepreneurial vision, Khodorkovsky had something his peers did not: political ambition. Increasingly perceived as a threat by the Kremlin, he was imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion in one of the country’s most remote penal colonies, near the Chinese desert. Gibney shows how the ‘90s made, not only, Khodorkovsky, but President Vladimir Putin, with the power struggle between the two elucidating much about the autocratic political landscape of Russia today.
Whether Khodorkovsky was guilty or not is far from a simple question, and Citizen K does a fine job of explaining why. Under «gangster capitalism,» the law was in such a fluid state, that there even came to be a popular saying: «The strictness of laws is compensated by the lack of obligation to follow them.» All of the oligarchs amassed former state assets in a similar manner of backroom deals and creative accounting. The new appearance of private wealth became a target the likes of which the mafia had never seen under communism, and Moscow quickly became a murder capital.
Footage from these chaotic transition days shows a young Khodorkovsky freely admitting, in an early television interview, to the pursuit of greed — a novel concept that had not yet had time to acquire the taint of shame. The opportunities of capitalism were still a game to those with the cutthroat acumen to bend and bleed profit from the voucher scheme the state had intended would entitle citizens to a share of the national wealth. The average citizen could be persuaded to sell vouchers for ready cash at a huge discount before they could grasp their value. Khodorkovsky was attracted to the oil industry «because of its scale,» he says, reflecting back on his boundless ambition. And, after creating Menatep, Russia’s first commercial bank, it was not long before he got his hands on state oil firm Yukos for a bargain, by means of a sham auction.
For all the vaunted idealism of the possibilities of democracy as the Soviet Union transitioned, president Boris Yeltsin’s government threw democratic processes out the window when his approval rating plummeted and it seemed the communists might return to power in 1996. As the television media conspired to hide his failing health, he cut a deal with the oligarchs for loans to pump into the dry coffers, in return offloading state enterprises to them at a steal and ensuring the prospect of a government that would protect their right to private billions. Citizen K does not attempt to make any case for moral legitimacy for the mass wealth the oligarchs accrued, in what was a free-for-all of cunning and naked power, but shows the complicity of politicians it suggests were more than happy to strike a deal with the devil to save their own skins. This all paved the way for Putin, who used the mass resentment against the oligarchs to leverage his own popularity. He made a show of bringing them to heel and renationalising firms including Yukos while fostering a new class of loyal «oligarchs 2.0.»
Public opinion shifted markedly in Khodorkovsky’s favour as he was tried again in 2010, just as it seemed he might get parole after seven years in prison. Released along with other high-profile prisoners in 2013 just before the Sochi Winter Olympics, he promised Putin he would stay abroad. Meanwhile, Russia’s increasingly autocratic president allows only an illusion of competition in the spectacle around election season. Saddled with a new charge for the 1998 murder of a Russian mayor, Vladimir Petukhov, who had come into conflict with Yukos, Khodorkovsky remains effectively out of Putin’s way. We hear he gained humility and a new perspective in prison, where he undertook several hunger strikes. He still commands a fortune of around half a billion US dollars and has founded the pro-democracy movement Open Russia.
Villain or dissident?
Is Khodorkovsky villain or dissident, exploiter or exploited? The question of what kind of figure we should consider him now to be is the most fascinating, and ultimately elusive, of the film. Despite the high level of access Gibney taps for long conversations plumbing the London-exiled oligarch’s thoughts, the mystery persists. This says much about Russia itself, that land of radical upheavals so disorienting none but opportunistic chameleons last long. It’s a traditional Russian historical habit, we’re told, that the people sympathise as soon as power starts stomping, with the underdog it creates. One of Khodorkovsky’s most memorable comments in the film is a loose quote from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, that satirical, Stalin-era classic about the visit of the Devil to the Soviet Union, that a man is «not only mortal», but «potentially mortal at any moment». The precarity of fortune in Russia is such, that today’s winner might be dead tonight — and it doesn’t pay to commit too definitively to any one role.