To make an excellent documentary, you need a good story. For it to be captivating, its subject needs to be able to pull in the viewer and keep them glued as events unfold.
This is precisely what happens with Citizen K, which focuses on Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his business interests following the fall of the Soviet Union, his relationship with Vladimir Putin, and, inevitably, Khodorkovsky’s transformation into a dissident.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the dust could even settle, Khodorkovsky saw an opportunity to take control over industries that were previously unavailable to private enterprise. Getting his hands into financing and oil, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia. This wealth also cemented his place as one of the most powerful men in the country.
However, money and power always come with attention. While at the top, Khodorkovsky resisted efforts under Vladimir Putin’s young government to shore up resources and keep state-owned businesses running. Khodorkovsky resented Putin’s corruption and accused him of such, which made him a quick target.
Citizen K recounts what the Putin regime did to Khodorkovsky, going so far as to frame him for murder, all to take him, and his business, out of the picture. Vladimir Putin, while extolling the virtues of democracy, quickly centralized Russian influence and power and brought the government under his control.
This documentary, written and directed by Alex Gibney, also brings the story to the present day. It catches up with a Khodorkovsky, now exiled in London, after serving a near-decade prison sentence. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is now a reformer and critic of Putin and the Russian government. He finances protests and activist groups in Russia to continue efforts in democratizing the country. The documentary also spends time going over Khodorkovsky’s hopes and motivations in why he’s doing all of this, acknowledging that change won’t happen overnight.
As much as Khodorkovsky is the subject of this film, Putin is as well. His rise to power, control of state resources, command of the military, and Russian intelligence are all recounted. Putin’s continued support in Russia, both organically and through clear cases of corruption, is examined in contrast to Khodorkovsky and why the latter’s efforts are seen as challenging to overcome. The 2016 presidential election and Russia’s place on the world stage even earn some time.
The documentary’s narrative hangs on an open question. How long will Vladimir Putin maintain power? He was just elected to another term as president in 2018.
The answer is simple: Nobody knows. But we know what Khodorkovsky hopes the answer is. And we know why. Even in exile, Khodorkovsky remains one of Putin’s biggest political threats. As this documentary grapples with the truth of Russian politics and corruption, viewers are forced to accept how little they actually know and it challenges them to become more aware of what is taking place.
Citizen K opens in limited release on November 22nd in Los Angeles.