When the collective republics of the Soviet Union began their conscious uncoupling in the early 1990s, many Russians saw the collapse as a bold new step toward freedom and democracy. Mikhail Khodorkovsky saw cash. The future billionaire had grown up with dreams of being an engineer — he lived on the corner of Cosmonaut Street and Rocket Boulevard, and confessed that “all my life, I’ve been interested in things that explode” — and was a card-carrying member of the Communist youth league Komsomol. Then, in the Perestroika era, he found a book titled Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries and created Russia’s first national bank. He began buying up as many state vouchers from private citizens as he could after Boris Yeltsin came to power, which enabled him to build enough equity to purchase about “100 substantial enterprises.” He also procured the Yukos oil company from the state, which he streamlined and turned into a hugely profitable endeavor. By 2003, Khodorkovsky was considered the richest man in Russia. He was also arrested that same year under questionable circumstances, courtesy of an enemy who’d also been acquiring power in the anything-goes ’90s: Vladimir Putin.
Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s surprisingly strong documentary on the rise and fall and rebranding of Khodorkovsky, does a good job of charting the contours of this controversial figure’s story; that the filmmaker was able to get the subject himself to tell so much of it in his own words feels like a coup. (Given the “kill order” that hangs over the Khodorkovsky’s head, there’s the sense that he’s living as a moving target.) Its real strength, however, is proving that both this aspiring industrialist and his often glowering, occasionally shirtless bête noire were genuinely men of their time. Thanks to the abundance of both personal and big-picture archival footage, you get a God’s-eye view of how Russia, freshly liberated from a longstanding political doctrine yet totally unprepared for the free market, goes into a free fall. “Gangster capitalism” becomes the name of the game, along with a certain dog-exploit-dog mentality. “In America, the Wild West lasted for decades,” Khodorkovsky notes. “In Russia, we managed to fit it into seven years.” He thrives in the nation’s shiny new Age of Oligarchy. So does his dark-shadow counterpart.
What you get here is really a dual portrait, tracing not just the businessman’s money moves but also Putin’s arc as he went from run-of-the-mill apparatchik to “Russia’s most liberal mayor” (an actual talking-head quote!) to Presidential terror. Viewers see how this environment bred a sort of bend-the-rules type of mogul, as well as a media that can be manipulated or stifled and a politician for whom the image of iron-hand politics becomes paramount. (TV helps tear down and weaken Putin’s predecessors and rivals, as well as serving to build his strong-man persona up; it also becomes an obsession when it ridicules him. No wonder our commander-in-chief feels both a kinship and harbors a boycrush on him.) The eventual head-to-head encounters between the two men, especially once Khodorkovsky becomes openly critical of the leader’s crush-into-submission ruling style, feel inevitable once the scenes that will lead to 2003 are set.
This is where Gibney excels as a docmaker, gilding a history lesson and social-issue deep dive with investigative chops and weaving it all into a compelling story. For the first two-thirds of Citizen K, he delivers the sort of momentum-driven nonfiction that has characterized his best work, namely Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side. (It also keeps Gibney’s first-person insertions to a bare minimum, though we’d be ecstatic if he gave up narrator duties as well. The invisible touch suits him.) Once we get into Khodorkovsky’s post-prison reformation, in which talking heads speak glowingly of how human he’s become since being locked away for a decade and his status as an anti-Putin activist is almost treated like sainthood, the format seems to switch up. Suddenly, you’re reminded that the filmmaker has a prolific side career as a celebrity profiler as well.
It’s not a dealbreaker — especially when the movie uses this to underline how England, the exile’s current home, has become a dangerous haven for Russians who speak out — though it is slightly deflating to Citizen K‘s overall vibe. Still, as a microcosmic primer on how the philosophy of the West changed a nation in the East, and the way that power, corruption and lies became part of our sociopolitical moment’s DNA, the movie is a sobering treatise. It ends with one lone crusader declaring he wants to undo the damage in his homeland. The fact that he utters this phrase on an airplane, a man without a country who’s unable to return to that place without risking a bullet to the head, says it all.