Documentary Review: Gibney’s history of Russia, Putin and “Citizen K”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Filmmaker Alex Gibney’s latest deep dive into complex and troubling history is another “How we got here” saga.

The director of “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” and too many authoritative biographies, histories and exposes to list here, grapples with Russia, oligarchy, “Putinism” and government by gangsters allied with the super-rich in “Citizen K.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of those Russian “entrepreneurs” who gamed the system as they navigated the shifting sands of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He came to be one of the seven oligarchs who held most of Mother Russia’s wealth when the sands stop shifting, or at least shifted a little less.

Just how dicey Khodorkovsky, now living in exile in London, is as the “hero” of the film can be gleaned by what the filmmaker leaves out in this two hours+ trip through 30 years of Russian history.

Somehow, this son of working class engineers who went to chemistry school because “all my life, I’ve been interested in things that explode,” came up with the cash to start Russia’s first post-Soviet collapse commercial bank. We’re not told, explicitly, how he got from the batter’s box to third base before he headed for home.

Because that banking operation allowed him to buy up the stock vouchers given out (at American suggestion) to every Russian citizen for all the state enterprises that the West rushed the Evil Empire into privatizing when communism collapsed.

Seven men bought up those vouchers for pennies on the ruble. They took over utilities, oil fields, TV stations, food production, basically “the works,” and went from rich robber barons to oligarchs — men with the power to run the country and bend its fledgling democracy to benefit them financially.

Sound familiar?

And from that rank corruption, “gangster capitalism” propping up the drunken and failing hero of the collapse, Boris Yeltsin, the table was set for a ruthless nobody, KGB functionary Vladimir Putin, to come to power to “clean up.” Or “drain the swamp.”

Gibney’s film takes us from the “Wild West” of mob hits among those “gangster capitalists” angling for an edge while a socialist nanny state’s citizens starved — their currency worthless, their jobs no longer paying them enough to survive as the economy went from total state control to a Darwinism decreed by global banking and endorsed by those who had already looted everything of value — the oligarchs.

Khodorksky moved into oil in a big way, “streamlining” and updating the infrastructure of the company he took over, Yukov, but laying off and impoverishing thousands in Siberian cities and towns where its facilities were located. A mayor who opposed his actions was murdered.

Putin’s projected image as a strong-man is traced to his early PR move, a self-financed documentary “Power,” and through to the moment when some oligarchs — not all — became his targets for a crackdown.

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Among them? Khodorksky. He was arrested on tax fraud and embezzlement.

It wasn’t that mayoral death (it’s uncertain who killed him) that did him in. It was showing up Putin at an anti-corruption conference that was nationally televised (“Putin hates being ridiculed,” he notes, in Russian with English subtitles). It was Khodorksky pursuing a merger with Exxon/Mobil at a time when Russian oil was Putin’s only bargaining chip in the face of growing Western alarm at his crackdowns, totalitarianism, and Western sanctions.
Khodorksky’s years in prison give him insight into the Russian system, the “election theater” staged for TV (free for all shouting match “debates”) to prop up the illusion of democracy, the “criminal thinking” that Putinism operates under.

“Everything is built on force,” the exiled oligarch says. With Putin, the only thing respected is being powerful enough and willing to fight back.

Gibney, seen in glimpses interviewing Khodorksky, his lawyer, Russian media figures and British reporter and Russia expert Martin Sixsmith (he did the reporting and wrote the book on which the Judi Dench/Steve Coogan movie “Philomena” is based), paints a picture of Putinism that 40% of America seems to have forgotten.

Vladimir Putin is murderous, ruthless, corrupt, a figure who you can only confront and attempt to contain until he dies and the hapless Russians let some other strong man take the reins of power. Coddling him, for personal real-estate or national interest reasons, only leads to disaster, death and international unrest.

It’s an authoritative take on “How we got here.” And it’s a lot to take in, almost too much at times. But “Citizen K” serves up these insights — from an admittedly tarnished “hero” who has used his exile to attempt to induce change — in Gibney’s usual arresting style. We’re meant to be appalled, edified and forewarned.

And if “Citizen K” turns up dead on your evening news one night under Epstein-styled circumstances? You can’t say you didn’t see it coming.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, scenes of violence

Cast: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin, Leonid Nevzlin, Tatyana Lysova and Martin Sixsmith

Credits: Written and directed by Alex Gibney. A Greenwich release.

Running time: 2:05

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