RUSSIA: Alex Gibney provides an intimate look at post-Soviet Russia from the perspective of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch turned political dissident.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: January 10, 2020

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.

Gangster capitalism

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 …


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