Citizen K Review
Corruption in Russian politics is not a shocking revelation. To differing extents, the West has consistently viewed corruption, gross misconduct and manipulation within the Russian government almost as background noise - occasionally the butt of a TV comedy sketch, or (more recently) weaving its way into recent US/US political campaigns. We might think we have an idea about what happens behind the Kremlin's walls, but how much do we actually know about the reach of the corruption in Russia?
Alex Gibney’s latest investigative documentary takes a deep dive into the absurdities, fatalities and casualties of Yeltsin and Putin governments. Gibney is a seasoned veteran at handling difficult subjects on film but, unlike Going Clear or Enron, where there are very clear cut narratives, Citizen K is a far more complicated story to tell with no discernible heroes. It’s hard to put together a film which relies on a nuanced understanding of recent Russian political history, without a clear, honest protagonist to guide the audience through the many obstacles. Utilising constructive, not obtrusive, voice-over narration, and taking his time to give the audience the information they need to understand the complexities of public/private oil-company shares, Gibney just about pulls this one off.
The citizen K of the title refers to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia and associate of Putin, now an exile living in London in fear of being assassinated. Khodorkovsky makes an unlikely figurehead for the movement attempting to bring democracy to Russia, and his chequered past doesn’t aid the idea of him as the hero to Putin’s villain.
This is dense material, somewhat difficult to digest and fully understand in one sitting, but Gibney makes full use of an array of journalists, a comprehensive voice-over and archive footage to try and ground the quite frankly unbelievable acts of both the Russian government and the Oligarchs themselves. Khodorkovsky is not a ‘good guy’ - this would be a simpler film if he were - he freely admits to exploiting company shares given to the public after the country’s transition to capitalism, and there’s also a huge question mark on his head over the murder of a small-town Russian mayor who stood up against Khodorkovsky ’s own oil company.
Still, Khodorkovsky speaks in a way which makes you want to believe him. Perhaps that is why we are partially inclined to side with him, though it’s abundantly clear he is just as amoral as Putin himself. The argument almost veers into capitalism vs communism territory, but Gibney wisely steers clear of this and focusses instead on the cost of truth and lies in an already vulnerable society. In this respect, Citizen K makes a perfect companion piece to HBO’s Chernobyl, picking up at the tail end of Gorbachev’s presidency and detailing the crossover to a supposedly more democratic state. In a world now invaded with fake news, there’s sadly not much in Gibney’s film which feels unfamiliar now. Inevitably, this is also why the film works as well as it does.
The latter part of the film ties together Khodorkovsky and the Open Russia movement, focussing on the renewed commitment to democracy from activist groups within the country. Whilst this is interesting, it is far less captivating than how Khodorkovsky became an oligarch, and the resulting fallout. The film tapers off as Khodorkovsky escapes Russia - the less threat, the less is at stake. It’s difficult to keep the tension after a certain point, and though it’s important to be honest that the issues of corruption are still at large in Russia, this just doesn’t have the dramatic effect that first half of the film has.
A complicated topic, with two very unlikable power hungry figures at its helm - Citizen K could have been needlessly difficult to wade through. Luckily, it’s safe in Gibney’s expert hands and though it dips slightly towards the end, is a fascinating and terrifying look at greed, power and dictatorship.
Citizen K is released in UK and Ireland on December 13