Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Citizen K

Russia has produced Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Lenin and Stalin, Trotsky, Malevich and Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov (whose Man With a Camera is one of the greatest documentaries of all time). Then as Alex Gibney’s Citizen K, currently playing at Film Forum, demonstrates came Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oligarch who presided over the oil and gas giant Yukos, and his arch rival Vladimir Putin. Despite the Hermitage and Peter the Great, Citizen K doesn’t paint Russia as a very nice place (it's ruthless, lawless and while an important proxy player on the international stage, fundamentally poor with an economy about the size of the state of Texas). Maybe it never was. To take a totally jaundiced view, that the director probably didn't intend, the two protagonists of this drama may truly have deserved each other. Citizen K is certainly no Joseph K. Khodorkovsky made his money stepping on little people who didn’t know better, then using the proceeds for loans to Boris Yeltsin’s bankrupt government. The deal led to the acquisition of Yukos for a song and a dance. When the newly minted billionaire challenged a diminutive and little-known diminutive KGB agent, with a Napoleon complex, who’d made an astonishing rise in the Kremlin, he undoubtedly had political aspirations of his own. Was it hubris or a sense of justice that led to Khodorkovsky’s jailing and final exile? Citizen K is inconclusive, but the portrait of the one-time energy magnate is complex. The film is a valedictory without being a hagiography. If Putin verges on the satanic, then Khodorkovsky is at least Machiavellian. “Power,” he intones at one point in the film, "is only a projection of peoples’ willingness to protect it.”

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