Russia's sudden transition from communism to free market capitalism was brutal, and Russia in the 90s is called "The Wild West": Without legal legislation or other mechanisms in place that could keep up with development, a handful of smart entrepreneurs managed to dig astronomical money and wealth. The majority of the citizens, on the other hand, who were accustomed to the state arranging everything, struggled to adapt to the new age. Russia's experimental attempt at democracy soon began to crack.
Controlled the nation's economy
Alex Gibney's documentary Citizen K takes the time after the fall of the Soviet Union, seen through history to Mikhail Khodorkovsky (b. 1963) – the man in control of a number of oil fields in Sibir, one of the seven oligarchs that controlled half the nation's economy and became Russia's richest man.
A decisive factor for Khodorkovsky's progress was not only plenty of money and a ruthless entrepreneurial vision, but something his competitors did not have: political ambitions.
The new, private wealth became an interesting target for the mafia, something it had never seen in communism
He was increasingly perceived as a threat by the Kremlin, and was imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion in one of the country's most remote penal colonies. The documentary shows not only how the 90s created men like Khodorkovsky, but also Vladimir Putin's progress and the power struggle between the two – which illuminates much of the autocratic political landscape in today's Russia.
Whether Khodorkovsky was guilty or not is a difficult question, something the film tries to explain the reason for. Under "gangster capitalism", the laws were so fluid that they gave rise to a popular saying: "The strict laws are offset by the inability to follow them."
The oligarchs secured the state's past assets in a way that could best be described as "creative accounting" and agreements made in the back room. The new, private wealth became an interesting target for the mafia, which had never seen communism in communism, and the number of murders in Moscow increased rapidly: Moscow became a "capital of murder".
Footage from this chaotic era shows a young Khodorkovsky in a TV interview admitting – without shame – his search for wealth and self-greed, a concept that was so new and strange that shame had not yet gained a foothold. The opportunities of capitalism were a game for those who could mercilessly squeeze profits out of the state's coupon scheme – a scheme that was intended for the citizens to get their share of the national wealth. Guilty citizens were persuaded to sell off their coupons at an underpriced price. They got cash in exchange and didn't understand what the coupons were really worth.
Got the claws in Yukos
Khodorkovsky was attracted to the oil industry "because of the scale," he says, thinking back to his boundless ambitions: After he started Menatep, Russia's first commercial bank, it wasn't long before he got the clutches in the state oil company Yukos For a lick and nothing at an auction, a transaction many called scams.
Despite eager idealism around the possibilities of democracy, Boris Yeltsin's government seemed to reject all democratic processes in parallel with his popularity falling. While the media did what they could to hide Yeltsin's failing health, he made agreements with the oligarchs and took out large loans to get capital into the empty treasury. In return, the oligarchs were allowed to buy up state-owned businesses at ridiculously low prices, while also being guaranteed that the government would protect their rights and private capital.
Guilty citizens were persuaded to sell off their coupons at an underpriced price.
Citizen K does not wave a moral index when it comes to the vast riches of the oligarchs and the power play around it, but tries to show the complex political game where some were more than willing to enter into agreements with the devil to save their own skins.
This paved the way for Putin, who used the dissatisfaction with the oligarchs and the chaos of the Yeltsin period to promote his own popularity. Putin made a big point of seemingly putting the oligarchs in charge by getting companies like Yukos rationalized. At the same time, he paved the way for a new class of loyal oligarchs.
Villain or dissident?
The public opinion changed in Khodorkovsky's favor when he was again indicted in 2010 [for a statement of 218 million tons of crude oil, ed.] And could be released on probation after seven years in prison. Khodorkovsky was released along with other high-profile prisoners in 2013, just before the Sochi Winter Olympics (2014), promising Putin to go abroad and stay there. Khodorkovsky remains at a safe distance from Putin, he is burdened with yet another indictment – this time for the murder committed in 1998 by Russian mayor Vladimir Petukhov, who came into conflict with Yukos.
We learn how Khodorkovsky both learned humility and gained other perspectives while in prison, he also hunger strike several times. He still has control of a fortune of about half a billion dollars, and has founded the pro-democracy movement "Open Russia".
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Is Khodorkovsky a villain or dissident, does he exploit others or is he himself exploited? The question of what we should now consider him is the most fascinating – but the film does not give a clear answer and does not address the question elusively. Despite Gibney's access to long talks with the oligarch Khodorkovsky, now living in exile in London, and access to his mindset, the mystery persists.
This tells a lot about Russia itself, a country with such radical and disorienting upheavals that only the most opportunistic chameleon can survive. One Russian tradition, we are told, is that the people show sympathy with the one on whom power treads.
One of Khodorkovsky's most memorable statements in the film originates Mikhail Bulgakov #s The Master and Margarita, the classic from the Stalin era about the devil's visit to the Soviet Union, that a man "is not only deadly" but "potentially deadly at any time." Having wealth in Russia is unsafe – today's winner may be dead that night.
Translated by Iril Kolle