The Oligarch and the Potentate

Citizen K is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. So to speak.

Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K doesn’t tell us anything especially new about its subject, exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or his nemesis, President Vladimir Putin. But to its credit, Gibney’s doc puts the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia’s messy transition from communism to capitalism, and the rise to power of Putin into one tidy, bite-size package.

Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London, grew up in 1960s-1970s Moscow as the scientifically precocious son of two engineers, a quick learner. By the time he was sentenced to prison in 2005, he was worth an estimated $15 billion. How did he do it? To hear the man himself explain it — Khodorkovsky appears as a talking head, along with several news reporters and former colleagues — he was smart enough to take advantage of the wholesale systemic change and the Russian people’s relative unfamiliarity with capitalist wiles to gain control of one of his homeland’s biggest oil concessions.

The good times didn’t last. Khodorkovsky and his fellow mega-rich businessmen may have possessed big-deal ingenuity, but KGB-man-turned-politician Putin had his hands on the levers of power. In Russia, whoever runs the military generally runs the country. The Khodorkovsky-Putin rivalry took the form of “Who will lead the new economy?” Ordinary Russians’ ingrained resentment toward the rich played an important part in railroading Khodorovsky to Siberia on made-up charges of unpaid taxes and embezzlement. As with his predecessor Joseph Stalin, Putin made a point of pushing aside anyone who disagreed with him, via prison, poison, or rigged elections.

Veteran documentarian Gibney’s sure touch with his sources gives the doc an occasional welcome whiff of humor. In describing the gangster-ridden 1990s, Khodorkovsky smilingly notes that in America the Wild West went on for more than a century; in Russia it lasted only seven years. Citizen K is the story of a man who refused to “just lie down and be a footstool before the throne,” and lived to tell the tale.

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