As America finds itself in the unfathomable position of carrying out an impeachment inquiry for a president who has been tilting the country into a sort of quasi-totalitarianism (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), perhaps the more bizarre reality is that it’s all carried out in the shadow of Russian interference in the American “democratic” process. And into this ideological maelstrom comes a chilling new documentary, Citizen K, opening this Friday, November 22.
Back in the early oughts, Europe and the Euro were booming, Vladimir Putin was newly in power to the east, and the Russian oligarchs were living the high life – with obligatory model girlfriends, extravagant art collections, and the implied protection of the Kremlin.
Yukos oil honcho Mikhail Khodorkovsky was perhaps the greatest benefactor of the glasnost/perestroika fallout, with a fortune said to be in the area of about $15 billion. But in October 0f 2003, he was arrested and charged with some vague concept of fraud – which was kind of like singling out one mafia don for extortion. To be sure, almost no one at Khodorkovsky’s level was free from suspicion of all manner of corruption and collusion, so the charges seemed nothing if not highly politically motivated. And in truth, the supreme oligarch had simply fallen out of favor with Putin – so in keeping with accepted practice, was to be dealt with accordingly. He would, following a kangaroo trial, spend eight years in prison before his early release in 2013.
Citizen K (directed by Alex Gibney, who the NY Times called “one of America’s most prolific documentary filmmakers”) tells the story of MK’s redemption, as he went on to become a vocal, highly outspoken critic of Putin, though he has mostly done it from a safe perch in Switzerland – where he also enjoys a financial cushion of about $250 million (it sucks losing $14 billion plus, but were guessing he’ll be fine). So the film is not so much attempting to make a knight-in-shining-armor of him, but rather to convey a narrative that perhaps epitomizes the two decades that Putin has remained in power (save for the sham 2008 – 2012 puppet presidency of Dmitry Medvedev).
We’re reminded that Putin was, in fact, a minor political player who, by virtue of certain promises to the “Big 7” oligarchs to protect their financial fiefdoms, became one of the most powerful people in the world. And despite regular elections, his reign is unabashedly referred to as a “dictatorship” in the film. Khodorvsky’s rise and fall is documented in a convincingly dramatic arc, and the filmmakers don’t seem to be asking for viewers to like him or hate him (he didn’t end up a billionaire by being a pillar of society).
But he becomes a de facto hero (at least to Russians) as a result of his prison time and his willingness to speak out against the strong man in The Kremlin – with the hope that the latter will finally be brought down.
“For Putin,” he reveals, “there is a horrible feeling that at any moment, the system might fall apart.”
And what Citizen K is really trying to make clear, is that there is inarguably a system in place in Russia that is in dire need of massive, sweeping reform. And as we watch the hearings unfold across American television screens this week, with their chilling revelations of abuse of power by President 45, it’s safe to say that may just be exactly what is needed here, as well.