Citizen K

Here is a documentary about a Russian oligarch’s trials and tribulations that was interesting on a lot of levels. The backstory is this: When Communism fell in the Soviet Union, the USSR handed out little bits of paper signifying stock in formerly nationalized industries. Given that there wasn’t a lot of food to go around and the slips of paper were pretty useless short-term, a handful of people gathered up these papers and became the controlling powers behind most of the industry in the new Russian republic. This, of course, is so obvious an outcome it’s almost impossible for me to believe it wasn’t the intended outcome but whatever.

One of these oligarchs was a man named Mikhail’s Khodorkovsky  who started the first bank, then moved into the oil biz where he created a truly efficient, product-driven organization (after killing everyone who stood in his way).

Wait, what? OK, the documentary doesn’t say this at all about killing everyone. I just made it up because, again, I can’t imagine how else it was going to play out in a society which for eight decades had been governed by “will to power”. No, this documentary focuses on one death, in one town: The mayor of a drilling town where Citizen K fired a great many of the workers, and who was resisting Khodorkovsky’s takeover. Then, on Mikhail’s birthday, he dies. No, he’s murdered, there’s no doubt about that. But our oligarch is on the other side of the country when it happens so…couldn’t have been him, right?

Later, when Putin rises to power (with Khodorkovsky’s help), things start to go sour and Vladimir is basically going back to the old ways—I mean, it’s more strictly a form of fascism, but there’s just a hair’s difference between that and communism—doling out stuff to pals and suppressing dissent. And Citizen K objects to this. So Vladimir throws him in prison for…I forget the charge, and it doesn’t really matter. Some sort of fraud. Later when he is about to go free, they retry him on the charges of stealing half-a-billion barrels of oil, so you know the Russian judiciary is not super-concerned with making things look plausible.

He remains defiant in jail, where he stays many years, then finally flees to Europe when he gets wind of Putin’s plan to pin the death of the mayor on him and put him away for good.

And now he sits in London agitating with no clear degree of success against Vlad. And I have to admit, I was a little confused at this point because I feel like the director had a narrative, but it was being very muddled by the facts. Like, Khodorkovsky’s screen presence (and jail persona) is a little too perfect, a little too Nelson Mandela. A little too much “For Love Of Mother Russia”. As he coyly admits that despite Putin’s machinations he has a cool $400M tucked away.

I was not at all satisfied that he was not behind the mayor’s murder, either.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m not sure I would judge him for it. The ’90s were wild times in the former USSR. The vast majority of people were used to being peasants and probably if you didn’t want to be a peasant, there were all kinds of terrible things you’d have to do. But I feel like this documentary wants me to think of Citizen K as a good guy and Vladimir Putin (whose rise was facilitated by same Citizen K) as a bad guy, and while Putin is obviously a thug, the evidence Khodorkovsky isn’t is a bit, shall we say, light.

After the movie, I looked up the director—I had actually gone to see this on the basis of a tweet from the official account—and it was Alex Gibney. The only thing of his I’d seen before was Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, and interestingly I had a very similar reaction to it, except that one was much, much clearer in intent: You’re supposed to think of the Enron guys as crooks who thought of themselves as the smartest guys in the room. Yet from the documentary, they very clearly were the smartest guys in the room. Granted this is mostly because our elected officials are morons, but still, that’s who they were dealing with.

And while this documentary very thankfully stays away from Trump (except for one or two minor allusions), I think it’s pretty clear that this documentary exists because now it’s okay to talk about what a heel Putin is. Not back in 2012, when the President was “more flexible”. Not in 2008 or 2004 or even earlier when he was rising to power and crushing all in his path. Actually, that really stuck out to me, how little splash Putin made in our media back in the early- to mid-00s: It was far more important to drag W over the war than to shine a light on Russia which, of course, is the historic ally of the left in the US (and hence the media).

We were glad we saw and it was interesting for historical reasons, but that’s about where the Boy and I left it. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Obviously important on so many levels.
  2. Presentation. Pretty good. Not flashy but gets the job done.
  3. Slant. Eehhhhhh. Maybe? Maybe not?

I mean, point 3 is the stickler, but maybe it’s also not very important. It probably wouldn’t have even stuck out except, like a lot of docs, the movie tends to wear out its welcome. After we’ve seen all the action, we get a lot of little scenes that don’t seem to add up to much, as if it wants to mean something important but it’s not exactly sure what.

You kind of get used to that watching docs so there’s not a real inclination to “dock” (heh) any points for it. It’s worth a watch.

Not us.

Beatific? Megalomania? Who knows?

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