Alex Gibney isn't able to lighten the very heavy load of information covered throughout a broad timeline quite like he typically does. Nevertheless, CITIZEN K demands and commands attention all throughout and asks a very worthy question at the end
0.5 of 5 stars
Neoconservatives and neoliberals alike prove yet again that they are not above making alliances with murderers, thieves and gangsters if they believe it will help their geopolitical ambitions for global hegemony. This is political propaganda at its worst.
3 of 5 stars
Factually comprehensive but suffers from an over-idealisation of its subject
Directed by prolific Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, Citizen K is a documentary about Russian oligarch/dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. However, it's far more concerned with painting Vladimir Putin as the big bad than it is with critiquing Khodorkovsky himself, who emerges as the default hero – if your villain is villainous enough, anyone who goes up against them, regardless of their own moral fibre, is going to look pretty good. Partly in service of this reading of history, although the film is undeniably informative in a factual sense, it suffers from an absence of any kind of psychological deep dive and gives Khodorkovsky more of a pass than seems appropriate.
In the confusion of a country transitioning to a capitalist system it didn't fully understand, Khodorkovsky, who opened one of Russia's first privately owned commercial banks in 1991, made millions from buying privatisation vouchers – free vouchers distributed to Russian citizens entitling them to shares in formerly state-owned assets. Later, he was involved in a "loans-for-shares" scheme, whereby some of the largest state-owned assets were leased through auctions for money lent by commercial banks. However, because the auctions were rigged and controlled by insiders with political connections, neither the loans nor the assets were to be returned. In this sense, the scheme was really a clandestine method of privatisation, but at exceptionally low prices. By 2003, Khodorkovsky had become the richest man in Russia, and in 2004, he was listed by Forbes as the 16th wealthiest person in the world, with an estimated personal fortune of $16 billion.
In February 2003, at a televised conference on corruption, Khodorkovsky accused Putin's government of accepting bribes. In October, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In 2004-2005, in a blatant show-trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to nine years. In 2010, while still incarcerated, he was charged with stealing 350 million tons of his own oil and his sentence was extended to 2017. He was unexpectedly pardoned in 2013, possibly because of international pressure, and moved to Switzerland. By now, his personal wealth had dropped to $100–250 million. In 2014, he launched Open Russia, an advocacy group championing democracy and human rights, and calling for reforms to Russian civil society. In 2015, a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant, charging Khodorkovsky with ordering the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, who had clashed with Khodorkovsky over local taxation issues. He currently lives in London, and will be arrested if he returns to Russia.
Although the film doesn't technically absolve Khodorkovsky of his questionable behaviour, it is disappointingly uncritical. For example, the murder of Petukhov is a major part of his story and the main reason he can't return to Russia, but Gibney and editor Michael J. Palmer skim by it in a minute or two. And whilst they do feature some material on the (a)morality of the loans-for-shares scheme, there's virtually nothing on how Khodorkovsky essentially scammed poor people into selling their privatisation vouchers, exploiting their ignorance of capitalism to line his own pockets. Gibney is far more focused on proving Putin's nefariousness than examining Khodorkovsky's imperfections, focusing on his latter-day dissident activities rather than his early capitalistic ruthlessness.
As this might suggest, one of the most significant problems is that Gibney is unable to strike a balance between championing Khodorkovsky the symbol of anti-Putin resistance and interrogating Khodorkovsky the man. In reaching for a grand political sweep and focusing on decades-spanning geopolitics, Gibney misses the opportunity to make a more intimate documentary about a fascinatingly contradictory individual. Indeed, had he given more time over to the mistakes of Khodorkovsky's past, it would have made for a considerably more compelling narrative, investing his later attempts to right some of the wrongs he has done to the country with considerably more gravitas and pathos.
Ultimately, Citizen K is an average documentary that provides an admittedly accessible overview of post-Soviet Russian politics, but which is unsatisfying as a portrait of its ostensible subject. This is an unscrupulous billionaire who mistakenly believed himself untouchable, who only learned humility in his nine years of incarceration; the one-time richest man in Russia who became one of the most outspoken critics of the president he helped to install. There's inherently great drama there, with an inbuilt character arc that any screenwriter would kill to come up with. Unfortunately, that's not Gibney's focus, and ultimately, his Khodorkovsky is an abstract symbol of an ideal, one that is far less interesting than a flesh and blood man with ideals.