'Citizen K' recounts horrifying tale of Russian oligarch-turned-dissident

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks on from behind a glass enclosure in a Moscow courtroom in 2010. The Russian oligarch-turned-dissident is the subject of the documentary "Citizen K."

    Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks on from behind a glass enclosure in a Moscow courtroom in 2010. The Russian oligarch-turned-dissident is the subject of the documentary "Citizen K." Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Posted1/23/2020 6:00 AM

"Citizen K" -- ★ ★ ★

Perhaps you never heard of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. How is that possible, when there have already been multiple attempts to tell the story of the Russian oligarch-turned-dissident before now, including two documentaries, released in 2011 and 2015. The latter has an Orson Welles-ian title, "Citizen Khodorkovsky," that beats the newest entry in the genre, Alex Gibney's accessible, informative and horrifying "Citizen K," to the punning punch. There's even been a play about the man, Kenneth Lin's "Kleptocracy."


But it is Gibney's film -- built around extensive interviews with Khodorkovsky, who lives in London in exile after being freed in 2013 from more than 10 years of prison on charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement -- that best tells this complex, contradictory tale of a businessman who rose from middle-class anonymity, the son of engineers, to become one of Russia's richest men during the early days of Russia's post-Soviet experiment with capitalism.

Gibney presents "Citizen K" as if it were a drama, opening with on-screen titles that list its subjects -- Khodorkovsky, the onetime head of the Yukos oil company, his attorney, his former business partner and others -- as "starring." And it truly does seem like a story of Hollywood fiction, with themes of greed (to use the description of a young Khodorkovsky, shown in archival footage talking about his motivation); immense wealth (Khodorkovsky still lives off some of the billions of rubles he -- or his friends -- squirreled away after he was arrested); and murder.

Yes, Khodorkovsky has, since 2015, been wanted for murder in Russia, charged in absentia for the 1998 killing of a Siberian mayor, although he denies involvement. The outstanding warrant explains why he cannot return home. Though he's arguably in more danger remaining in London, where a number of Russians who ran afoul of the state have, in recent years, been assassinated or died under suspicious circumstances.

About that. If Khodorkovsky -- who gradually evolved from a simple billionaire to one of the Russian state's harshest critics, a reform-minded champion of freedom, democracy and openness -- is the hero of "Citizen K," spending his money on the human-rights initiative Open Russia, then the movie needs a villain. And boy, does it ever have one, in the person of Vladimir Putin, whose ongoing war with Khodorkovsky and efforts to silence him (or worse?) are the true subjects of "Citizen K."

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Gibney himself admits as much, explaining, in voice-over narration, that the film arose out of his curiosity about Putin's Russia, in light of the country's relationship to the United States and the Russian president's connections to the current occupant of the White House.

There are other guides than Gibney to this fascinating story, including, most notably, the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, author of "Putin's Oil," and Derk Sauer, the Dutch-born founder of the Moscow Times. It is Sauer who probably sums up the film's handful of still-unsolved mysteries and many delicious ironies, all of which seem to be visually epitomized by the wry, Cheshire cat smile -- suggesting both resignation and fierce resolve -- that Khodorkovsky wears throughout the film.

"He wants to be Jesus Christ," Sauer says of the film's enigmatic title character, who talks about his own potential martyrdom with a shrug, "but he has a past."

• • •

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Other: A Greenwich Entertainment release. Unrated. Contains mature thematic material, language and violence. In Russian and some English with subtitles. 126 minutes

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