Review: Citizen K

3 March 2020

Content warning: violence, suicide. 

Citizen K, directed and written by Alex Gibney, tells a side of the Cold War story that is arguably more interesting, and indeed more deadly, than the war itself: how does a nation with a communist backbone going back centuries suddenly make the transition to capitalism? How do its citizens get by? How does the government and its laws catch up to such an upheaval? To put it simply: it doesn’t; they don’t; they don’t. 

To put it unsimply: a virtually lawless system of “gangster capitalism” emerges in which seven men control 50 per cent of Russia’s economy and Moscow becomes the “murder capital” of the world. Meanwhile, most of the population are woefully unprepared, having been introduced to capitalism through films showing businessmen with “big cigars and money coming out of their pockets,” and believing that “they would get rich automatically”. 

To counter the abject poverty that ensued, the Russian government issued vouchers to citizens which could be traded, sold for cash, or used to buy shares in companies. 

At this stage of the documentary, the audience is treated to possibly the most morbid advertisement in the history of television, right up there with WorkSafe ads. A man is standing on a chair, about to hang himself, when suddenly he is presented with a voucher, causing him to take off his noose and break into song and dance. 1990s Russia was truly wild. 

One of the seven oligarchs who successfully exploited the nascent capitalist economy was oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose surname lends him the titular moniker. Khodorkovsky made his first fortune buying vouchers for bargain prices from citizens who were unaware of their value, and using them to snatch up enormous shares of several companies. 

This sequence, and indeed the entire documentary, is intercut with interviews of modern-day Khodorkovsky, who attempts to justify his patently exploitative techniques. Gibney elects not to include many voices that are critical of Khodorkovsky, apparently leaving the audience to make up their own mind about his actions. 

This directorial decision is probably worth interrogating considering the long list of controversies in Khodorkovsky’s past that are largely ignored by Gibney, and especially considering that much of the documentary is centred around his reformation into a human rights activist with a pure soul. 

Nevertheless: the historical aspect of the documentary is fascinating, and its myriad elements are juggled masterfully by Gibney. What elevates Citizen K from ‘worth watching’ to ‘essential viewing’, however, is its gripping account of Vladimir Putin’s political rise, from his humble beginnings as an advisor to a mayor, to leading Russia for 20 years straight

Putin is on track to serve out his presidency until 2024, though not due to a lack of opposition. Unfortunately, it would seem that his detractors and political opponents have an odd habit of being exiled or murdered. 

Only three weeks ago, anti-Putin blogger Imran Aliev was murdered in his Paris hotel. 

Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, became politically active in the early stages of Putin’s presidency, before being imprisoned in 2003, just as he was beginning to gain political notoriety. In the words of Dash’s teacher in The Incredibles: Coincidence? I think not. 

His ten year imprisonment was condemned internationally as a farce, not least because it was comprised of two seperate jail sentences, the charges for which were completely contradictory. 

Khodorkovsky is now exiled from Russia on account of dubious historical murder charges, and in his own words, he is “living under a kill order”. 

It is hard to root for a former oil magnate who exploited a broken political and economic system to become one of the richest men in the world, but at the very least, Gibney succeeds in portraying Khodorkovsky as the lesser of two evils. 

It follows that the greater of two evils is currently the leader of the second most powerful nation in the world, and that is something we should all know about. Along with Gibney, the subjects he interviews all do an outstanding job of explaining it all. 

Citizen K is exclusively showing at Cinema Nova from March 5.

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