13 December, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K
THE effects of oligarchic cash flooding into London over the past 30 years would make for some fascinating research.
Questions could range from how many pubs have been shut by firms bankrolled by wealthy Russian-backed funds, looking to park their cash in bricks and mortar? How many yet-to-be-built apartments have been bought using such cash – and then left empty as our city’s housing crisis spirals out of control? And, of course, how much Russian money has been donated to political parties to try and influence policy?
The effect of the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of a neo-capitalist oligarch class has not just had long-term, damaging effects on Russia – it has rippled across Europe, too.
In this timely documentary, director Alex Gibney tells the story of one such oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He explains where his vast wealth came from – and how he spectacularly fell out with Vladimir Putin and has become a thorn in the Russian president’s side.
Gibney offers an excellent primer in recent Russian history. As the USSR fell in 1991, the new government under Boris Yeltsin saw the economy tank and chaos on the streets.
Yeltsin struck on a wheeze to issue vouchers worth $40 to its citizens that represented a share in state-owned industries.
Khodorkovsky saw an opportunity: with the nation in complete disarray, he offered to buy people’s vouchers at a fraction of their true worth. He capitalised on both hunger and ignorance – and quickly amassed enough of a fortune to be able to establish Russia’s first private bank of the post-Soviet period. From here, he branched out, buying up Yukos, the state oil firm.
Gibney describes this post-Soviet Russia as a wild, wild west – a place where unfettered capitalism was exploiting the people, where gangsters were flashing their newly acquired wealth, where business deals were sealed with threats – threats that led to a climate of corruption and murder.
It was as the civil society in Russia crumbled that Putin emerged: previously a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, he became invaluable to Yeltsin and when the president had to step aside due to ill health in 1999, Putin was appointed caretaker – and quickly established a power base that would set him up to be president proper, a situation that continues today.
When Putin won control of the Kremlin, he realised the main rivals to his power were the oligarchs – so he set about demolishing them. Khodorkovsky did not play ball – and did not, like many other Russian billionaires, flee westwards. Instead, he sought to take on Putin – and was given a 10-year jail term in Siberia for his trouble.
At times this film rambles, as if the sheer size of the topic bursts out of its narrative. While it is obvious the gangster capitalism of Putin is in Gibney’s sights, his dealing with Khodorkovsky is more ambiguous. Khodorkovsky bankrolls Open Russia, a pressure group. His motives pose questions: Does he care about the average Russian, or is he locked into a vendetta with his former friend? His altruism was not on display when he earned his personal fortune at the expense of others. What has changed?