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Thu 24 September 2020
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Chris Sullivan reviews the latest documentary from Academy Award-winning Alex Gibney which follows the story of one of Russia’s richest men, now exiled in the UK.


Haunted by Russia

I first interviewed the director Alex Gibney over a decade ago on his excellent documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. He’d previously won an Ocsar for Taxi To The Dark Side, which tells the story of a 22-year-old Afghan who was relentlessly beaten and tortured by US soldiers until he died, even though the American authorities discovered his innocence. An enormously brave movie, especially considering the anti Islamic fervor endemic in the US in 2007, it deserved the acclaim and led to a string of superlative documentaries.

Gibney has directed some 26 including works on Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Scientology, corruption in the Californian water system, the unsolved 1994 Loughinisland massacre and paedophilia in the Catholic Church.

His latest picture, Citizen K, tells the story of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who, as one of the seven big oligarchs who controlled his country, played a major role in the state privatisation of the 1990s that transformed the country from its so called ‘communism’ into, as the documentary puts it, “gangster capitalism” that has besmirched the globe.

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Once the richest man in Russia, Khodorkovsky was arrested and seized by Russian special forces in 2003, convicted of fraud and tax evasion involving billions of Rubles and, after a decade in a Siberian prison, is in exile in London and wanted for murder. He is now one of Vladimir Putin’s biggest detractors and a staunch pro-democracy activist. The Russian President’s opponents regard him as a hero.

“Now out of prison,” says Gibney in Citizen K, “he is looking for a third act; this drew my interest at a time when we are haunted by Russia’s role in the world so I started a film about him.”


Get Rich Quick

Khodorkovsky was born in 1963 to a Jewish father and a Russian Orthodox mother, both of whom opposed Soviet communism and, like many well-educated Soviets, were silently sympathetic of dissidents.

He grew up in a suburban Moscow tower block as “an ordinary Soviet person in an ordinary Soviet family,” he says. “Born to engineer parents who, in Soviet times, were very poor… I earned my first pay check aged 14, studied chemistry all my life and have been interested by things that explode”.

Indeed, he was there for, and complicit in, one the biggest economic and political explosions of the 20th Century – the transformation of the USSR. Gibney uses the tale of Khodorkovsky to tell the story of the USSR from the end of the Boris Yeltsin era, explaining just how the oligarchs – some of whom, like Khodorkovsky, had amassed a considerable amount of cash post Glasnost – stepped in and took advantage of this rather unusual situation and made money beyond our wildest imaginations.

Khodorkovsky was the richest. In 1989, funded by money made from the selling of second hand computers and some say counterfeit alcohol, he opened the country’s first commercial bank, Manatee, and and enjoyed the riches that it opened up. “I have the personality of a banker,” he admitted in an interview at the time. “I am greedy with money.”

Egged on by American-style free market boosters in the form of $40 vouchers that were issued to every Russian citizen by the Government and could be traded for cash or shares in state enterprises, the likes of Khodorkovsky bought the vouchers from the public in bulk and privatised Russia’s assets.

 These oligarchs became obscenely rich. Seven – including Khodorkovsky –controlled 50% of the country’s wealth, including oil, gas and big business. Khodorkovsky bought the main television stations and a newspaper. But by 1993, the country was in a mess. Poverty was endemic, crime was high, wages and pensions weren’t being paid. President Yeltsin’s troops had to quell an armed uprising and it looked as if he was to be defeated in the 1996 election by his communist rival who had promised to return many businesses to state ownership – not what the oligarchs wanted. 

But, Yeltsin struck a Faustian pact with the rich men. He borrowed money to pay salaries and pensions from the businessmen and, in return, allowed them to buy up the biggest state enterprises for bargain basement prices in fake auctions run by the oligarchs themselves.

Khodorkovsky bought Russia’s biggest oil company Yukos, which was valued at $5 billion, for $350 million. Such shenanigans happened across the board, but the workers suddenly got paid. The oligarchs used every trick in the book including, fake news and character assassination of his Yeltsin’s rivals on television and in the press. He was re-elected.


The Power of Putin

Putin, meanwhile, was stepping up as a man who would protect the oligarchs’ interests once in power. Yeltsin stepped down and left office in December 1999 and named Putin as Russia’s Acting President – “another inside deal”.  

Undeniably, it was the television and media owned by the oligarchs which made Putin and placed him in office using propaganda and ideological coercion. He is still there 18 years later.  

Putin started by sorting out the mess Russia was in and – just like Britain’s Boris Johnson – promised to get the job done. “He seemed to be the person who wanted to push Russia towards openness and democracy,” explains Khodorkovsky in Citizen K. “Boy was I mistaken. He is a very good KGB guy.”

Khodorkovsky switched from banking to oil and was implicated in the killing of a local mayor. Food prices tripled over night, salaries dropped, and tens of thousands of  Khodorkovsky’s oil workers lost their jobs. But, in just a few years, he turned it around to become one of the world biggest oil companies. By 2000, the Russian economy was booming and, while some laid this at Putin’s door, others looked to Khodorkovsky who started speaking out about democracy and clashed with the President. Shortly afterwards, he decided to flee. He says that, if Putin wants him dead, “no amount of security measures can prevent that”.

Gibney’s movie is entirely prescient as it demonstrates just how big business, working with the media, can affect, manipulate and twist a country to its own ends. Given recent political events in the UK, it serves as a powerful warning to us all.

Citizen K is out now.


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