As a history lesson on Russia after Communism, Alex Gibney's new documentary is spot on. The story is told, however, through the eyes of a tarnished hero-Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the seven oligarchs during the post-Communist period, once dubbed the "richest man in Russia," prior to his fall from grace. Khodorkovsky sat for days of detailed interviews in London, where he now lives in exile. His rags-to-riches story is marked by quite a bit of candor, especially when he recounts his rise to the top as a young entrepreneur. It's probably best to describe Khodorkovsky as an opportunist, way smarter than his rivals, who viewed acquiring money strictly as a "game." Khodorkovsky was the first to establish a private bank in Russia and soon accumulated a great deal of wealth by buying up vouchers given to private citizens by the Yeltsin government, to encourage private industry. Khodorkovsky paid cash for these vouchers at bargain basement prices and eventually had enough money to purchase Yukos, which he turned into Russia's number one energy company. Khodorkovsky was able to purchase Yukos (again at bargain basement prices) after the Yeltsin government was forced to sell off various state enterprises to the oligarchs, as they had run out of cash. Things begin to get a bit murky at this point as Gibney makes clear that Khodorkovsky was forced to cut employee wages by 30%, with a promise he would pay them back with profits the next year. It appears that the company bounced back but not without incidents of violence in between (Khodorkovsky is still accused of murdering the mayor of the town adjacent to his oil company). After Vladimir Putin took over from Yeltsin on New Year's Day 2000, Gibney, through excellent use of archival footage (old Russian TV programs and news reports), chronicles how he rose to power and in effect became the country's top oligarch, eventually replacing all the old ones. In 2003 Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of tax evasion, convicted and sent to Siberia. This change coincides with the "dark moment" in any second act drama. Through self-discipline, Khodorkovsky maintained his sanity in prison and even had to face a second trial eight years later, in which he was sentenced to an additional ten years imprisonment (all along Putin and his government were conducting an extended disinformation campaign against Khodorkovsky). Putin eventually pardoned Khodorkovsky as he was trying to curry favor with Western Nations, so they would attend the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in Sochi. The last third of the film (which goes on a little too long), chronicles Khodorkovsky's effort to lead the anti-Putin, Russian democracy movement, based in London. Khodorkovsky still has millions left, which he ferreted away in western banks prior to his arrest. The movement's focus appears fragmented, with conflicting actors attempting to push various agendas in and outside Russia. Meanwhile Khodorkovsky appears to be a changed man-no longer motivated solely by materialism but by the love of country and the idea of freedom. While walking freely in London, he faces the threat of being murdered at any time by Russian operatives in that city-Citizen K makes it clear that there have already been a series of high-scale assassinations of Russian dissidents for which none of the perpetrators have been apprehended. Gibney hits the mark particularly in his exploration of the rise of "gangster capitalism" during the Yeltsin period and the subsequent push back into the authoritarian ways of old by Putin. While there is a good measure of redemption for Khodorkovsky, his subsequent activities as an activist in the film prove to be a bit long-winded and anti-climactic. One still is left feeling a bit uncomfortable in the thought that Khodorkovsky is still walking around with his millions which he obtained through dubious means. Nonetheless, his determination in exposing Putin's "old wine in a shiny new bottle," gives one hope that even a former rogue can now earn stripes, working for good.
The strange case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia, who rocketed to prosperity and prominence in the 1990s, served a decade in prison, and became an unlikely martyr for the anti-Putin movement.
August 5, 2020