Absolutely fearless documentarian and muckraker Alex Gibney (Zero Days, The Armstrong Lie) has taken on The Powers That Be before, but never on this scale. With Citizen K, he uses a problematic protagonist to tell the tale of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in order to explain why the Russian pretty-much-dictator is so dangerous not only to his own nation and his own people but to the world entire.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the richest man in Russia, an oligarch who, in the early post-Soviet years, took full advantage of the chaotic “Wild West” atmosphere in the new Russian republic to amass a huge fortune. And if Khodorkovsky may be something of an unreliable narrator as he relates how he came to be an anti-Putin political dissident, well, what’s that saying? It takes one to know one. Khodorkovsky’s insider knowledge, as a player in the complex world of Russian “gangster capitalism,” is far more important than whether he is downplaying his own crimes (which it seems likely he is). He understands how Russia worked then, and continues to work today, in a way that perhaps only a turncoat could. And in speaking out publicly from his self-imposed exile in London — where Russian ex-pats who piss off Putin are offed with shocking ease and regularity — Khodorkovsky is painting a huge bull’s-eye on himself, which he needn’t have done. We can probably trust the meat of what he has to say.
The film’s title, a clear reference to Citizen Kane, encompasses Khodorkovsky’s knee-deep complicity in the gangster-capitalist takeover of media, from newspapers to television, in 1990s Russia, a stranglehold that continues to this day, which helps perpetuate the profoundly undemocratic status quo. If that sounds familiar, it should. Western nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom may have longer-standing traditions of democracy than Putin’s dominion, which we may like to think makes them more resilient. Yet this gloss on post-Soviet Russia is a stunning reminder of how quickly a nation can be transformed when the influence of obscene wealth and entrenched and tolerated corruption are in play.
Citizen K offers some vital context for the apparently ongoing Russian interference in US and UK politics, but even more vitally, it is a warning that the outright monstrosity of the current Russia mess is not far off for us as well if we don’t find some way to turn away from our own looming cultural disasters.