Russia has been a specter that’s haunted the United States for generations in various forms. For decades, it was the catch-all menace that the U.S. government’s propaganda (in conjunction with Hollywood) made into the proverbial monster under the bed, a despicable place full of untrustworthy people. At the turn of the millennium, it was a country let down by its leaders that harbored a throng of citizens who had gone from living under oppression to suffering through a depression. In the last few years, Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, has become an insidious puppet master, a shadowy power player whose aim is seemingly destabilization of all other world powers. Of course, Russia isn’t a country full of cartoonish monsters or storybook peasants — these are real human beings, and it’s the circumstances they’ve been raised in and have to deal with on a daily basis that makes them what they are. It’s easier for a James Bond to see them as one archetypal thing than to deal with Russia’s tricky reality: the country is a place where a villain in any other story can become a humanitarian hero.
Alex Gibney’s Citizen K is the story of just such a man, the former oligarch turned political reform crusader Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It’s a name that many people know, though their response to it probably depends on the context in which they learned of him. Khodorkovsky came to prominence as one of the nine (or so) oligarchs who took power in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming one of the richest men in the country. After using his enormous wealth to take over the country’s oil industry, Khodorkovsky and his fellow oligarchs began to clash with Putin as the politician came into power. The then-new President was using his background as a former KGB agent to muscle out the men who had taken Russia for all it was worth during its confused transition to democracy, and Khodorkovsky was the only one who refused to either play ball or run away. He was jailed for his impertinence for eight years, a sentence originally longer than that but shortened thanks to Putin pardoning him as a publicity stunt prior to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Upon his exile to London, the Russian government declared Khodorkhovsky the unequivocal murderer of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, whose death in 1998 was seemingly motivated by failing to pay taxes to Khodorkhovsky’s oil company. The charge means that Khodorkhovsky cannot return to his home country to this day, lest he be arrested, and now the man, changed by his incarceration, runs the “Open Russia” organization, which continually seeks to take Putin out of power.
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Since Khodorkhovsky is a man whose reputation has been through so many revisions, all Gibney can do is present the facts as simply as he can. While there are moments where the director attempts to get inside Khodorkovsky’s head — tying his love of the oil industry into a visual metaphor for his determination as well as digging a little into his impoverished childhood — for the most part, Gibney is content to sit back and let the story do the telling for him. He narrates the film as a general guide, but there’s little editorializing, save for the selection of film and video clips he chooses to juxtapose together. There are interviews with a few of Khodorkhovsky’s colleagues and journalists who covered his story over the years, but the primary sources are file footage and an extensive interview with Khodorkovsky himself. It’s undeniable that it makes Citizen K biased, but Gibney is careful to never make his movie feel like a propaganda piece or a hagiography. It helps that Khodorkovsky has a Cheshire Cat-like demeanor, his poker face never giving way to naked honesty, even as his words do just that. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Gibney pulls it off, implicitly taking Khodorkovsky’s side without sentimentalizing him. There’s a sense that it’s due in part to the man himself — despite all his ordeals, he is still stoic, never cloyingly breaking down on camera.
There’s no telling the story of Khodorkovsky without telling the story of Russia, and it’s for that reason that Citizen K is rather invaluable to people like this writer, Americans of a certain age who perhaps aren’t well versed in Russian history. Gibney does a remarkable job of paring down the insanity of 1990s Russia to being clearly understood as a country in crisis, whose system of government changed so rapidly and totally that men like Khodorkovsky were able to essentially steal it. Citizen K treats Putin and Russia’s political system in the same fashion, showing nearly step-by-step how the man was able to weasel his way into office as well as keep his station. The ultimate implication is that Russia is a sort of petri dish of base human ambition, where its own destabilization has allowed the most ambitious people to seize all they can while playacting for state-owned TV, holding summits on corruption while they abuse power all they like. The sheer insanity of some of these actions is both jaw-dropping (culminating in the government accusing Khodorkovsky of physically stealing tons of oil) and a bit too much for the film to bear — Gibney meanders toward the end to find a resolution, because of course, there is no resolution. In those weak spots, Citizen K feels less like a documentary and more like a news report, and it loses the plot both literally and figuratively. Yet Gibney manages to pull off a magic trick or two, bringing a seemingly irrelevant tangent back to relevance when he reveals just how incestuous the world of Russian politics is.
An interesting tangent that Gibney doesn’t take is the mention of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose interactions with Putin seem to have influenced his approach to office. Gibney doesn’t need to, of course; the implications are there, and conclusions are easily drawn, but it’s still a bit of a missed opportunity. What Citizen K fortunately does show is an implicit comparison between Khodorkovsky and Putin, highlighting how similar the two are. As Gibney continues to tell Khodorkovsky’s story, it nearly becomes a variation on A Christmas Carol. The director makes use of the natural distrust of people who have been accused of crimes, compounding it when he shows clips of Khodorkovsky in an early television interview espousing, Scrooge-like, about his love of money and, essentially, stealing from the country’s poor. It makes the payoff of Khodorkovsky transforming in prison into a leader for reform that much more interesting. There’s no way to predict how the story ends, but based on Khodorkovsky, the history of Russia itself, and any pending visits from ghosts at Christmas, the potential for great and unexpected change is there.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.