Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney, P.J. Sandwijk, George Chignell and Erin Edeiken   Director: Alex Gibney   Screenplay: Alex Gibney   Cast: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, Igor Malashenko, Anton Drel, Maria Logan, Alexei Navalny, Tatyana Lysova, Derk Sauer, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Martin Sixsmith and Arkady Ostrovsky   Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment

Grade:  B

It took some chutzpah for Alex Gibney to allude to Orson Welles’ masterpiece in the title of his documentary dissection of Russian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union;  he could hardly hope that “Citizen K” would approach the quality of its sort-of namesake.  But the cheeky in-joke seems appropriate in view of the sometimes attitude of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-Russian oligarch and former prison inmate, now a staunch critic-in-exile of Vladimir Putin, from whose perspective the story is basically told.

The film is organized around excerpts from interviews with Khodorkovsky conducted in London, where he now resides after being released from a Russian prison in 2013 after serving nearly ten years, pardoned by Vladimir Putin as—some argue—part of his public relations campaign in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  It also follows his activities in connection with the ant-Putin Open Russia Movement that he had founded in 2001 and re-launched in 2014.

Khodorkovsky’s story is presented as a microcosm of the trajectory of the Russian government and economy in the post-Soviet era, a period marked by the erosion of the hope for democracy and capitalist enterprise that followed the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the rise of Putin to dominance in the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s sad tenure as president.  Gibney presents him as Khodorkovsky portrays himself—as a man who took advantage of the admittedly shady opportunities offered by what he refers to as the Wild West capitalism of the nineties to build an oil empire that made him arguably the richest man in Russia—until he fell afoul of Putin’s drive for control and was charged with fraud and embezzlement, convicted and jailed, thus becoming an activist icon opposed to the president’s increasingly despotic tendencies, who continues his work for change in Russia today. 

It’s in many respects a cleverly self-serving portrait, which admits his early business double-dealing in the freewheeling economy of the nineties but in effect justifies it by emphasizing how he used the influence his wealth brought him to fight against the autocratic tendencies that became evident by the early 2000s, only to be crushed by them—and yet survive.

But though Gibney presents him in generally heroic mold, with his sometimes bemused tone Khodorkovsky still emerge in the film as a man of contradictions, who by no means apologizes for his early activities (and, in fact, squirreled away enough of his riches to be able to live comfortably in exile now, and to finance his anti-Putin campaign) but has adopted a position in favor of true democracy and economic freedom in Russia that happily coincides with Western ideals and thus has earned him staunch supporters in Europe and the US.

Nor does Gibney overlook dark clouds that continue to hover over Khodorkovsky.  He includes comments from his critics as well as supporters and early business partners, and does not ignore the charges that Khodorkovsky was involved in the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, a Siberian mayor who had accused his company Yukos of tax evasion (though the implication is that the case was used by the regime not merely to cast doubt on his character, but to continue to keep him out of the country). 

While Khodorkovsky remains at the center of “Citizen K,” moreover, Gibney situates his story within the context of Russian politics over the past thirty years.  Integrating archival footage, commentary from experts like the BBC’s Martin Sixsmith (who reported from Moscow) and detailed narration with the interview excerpts, Gibney and editor Michael J. Palmer have constructed a perceptive primer on how things have developed over the three decades, moving from the chaos of the Yeltsin period, when oligarchs like Khodorkovsky became supremely powerful (even manipulating the media to ensure the unpopular, ill president would remain in power), to the era of Putin, whose canny consolidation of control the film meticulously records.  The new president’s ruthlessness in dealing with Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs like him is presented as an integral part of that process.

So “Citizen K” Is actually as much about Putin as Khodorkovsky.  The difference is that the latter gets his say (including the observation that Putin’s hold on power is actually fragile and doomed ultimately to unravel) while the latter doesn’t, except in footage of public events—and reports of how his opponent are likely to meet with unhappy fates.

But even if Gibney’s film essentially offers the view of Khodorkovsky that he himself promotes, it also provides an engrossing overview of the post-Soviet Russian history in which Vladimir Putin plays such an oversized role.