Khodorkovsky (2011)


From oligarch to the Siberian gulag, Cyril Tuschi’s documentary Khodorkovsky shines a light on Russia’s murky politics and its most infamous dissident. Oh, those Russians.


How The Steel Was Tempered by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Cyril Tuschi’s documentary on the imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky opens in Siberia with a slow circular pan from a snowy oil field to the prison gulag behind. It’s a cinematic gesture that mimics both the landscape’s majesty and the spectacular fall of one of Russia’s richest and most powerful men. The image widens from a narrow sliver centre-screen to its full height, like a prison window opening onto an exterior world. Including an unparalleled interview with the jailed Russian millionaire, the documentary not only offers Khodorkovsky a window unto the world, his own perspective on a story addled by politicking propaganda, it also represents the viewpoint of Tuschi himself, imprisoned by Russian red tape and deliberate obstructionism, advised to steer well clear of modern times and people, and to limit himself to the white blankness of landscape.

But like his hero, Tuschi can’t help himself. And pieced together out of archive footage, talking-head interviews and animation sequences, Khodorkovsky is not only a fascinating look at the oligarch’s plight, but also a diverting and edifying insight into contemporary Russian politics. Tuschi guides us through a potted history of the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – from the young jewish Chemistry student in the Soviet Union forced to choose science over business, the Omar Sharif lookalike and wannabe apparatchik who ran the Communist Youth League to his early business ventures made possible by the thaw of glasnost and perestroika.

A leading light of post-Soviet Russia, Khodorkovsky shot to fame with his capitalist handbook The Man With The Ruble before establishing his business empire with the founding of the Menatep Bank in 1989. During the wild west frontier days of the fall, Khodorkovsky purchased the previously state-owned Siberian oil company Yukos and crossed the oleaginous waters from rich to superrich. Known for his “western” business acumen, Khodorkovsky became a Government darling, an oligarch too interested in the ruble to give a hoot about politics. The times however, they were a-changin’. And by the millennium Khodorkovsky was opting for a Western-style transparency, founding Open Russia – an organisation striving for open education and free press, and railing against the post-Soviet business climate of bribery and corruption as unbecoming to foreign investors. A pronouncement which, in turn, wasn’t very becoming to Russia’s politicians.

With interviewees speaking out from exile in London and Israel, Khodorkovsky’s sudden fall from grace is well disputed – was it his open support for liberal opposition leader Nemtsov or his accusation that Putin was covering up corruption in the state-controlled oil company Rosneft? Was the President afraid that Khodorkovsky might sell a majority stake in Yukos to Exxon and Chevron, or was Putin simply insulted because the arrogant CEO refused to wear a tie?  Whatever the reason, the richest man in the world under 40, now beloved for his liberal attitude, his attitude towards human rights and his good looks, was arrested, imprisoned and tried in an independent court for fraud.

Like Persepolis, Waltz With Bashir or Howl, Khodorkovsky’s own black-and-white animated sequences open an otherwise hidden window into Khodorkovsky’s capture and imprisonment. And with his bewildered blinking and stoic sky-gazing, Khodorkovsky’s plight is wordlessly evangelised. Warned by Putin to stay away from politics, Khodorkovsky was allegedly offered the opportunity to avoid arrest by giving the Government $100 million. But it’s an old-system politic that the oligarch refuses, preferring instead the mantle of the wronged martyr fighting for justice in a corrupt Russia, stripped of his assets over alleged tax evasion and his name dragged through the Siberian soil.

It’s a difficult sell, a lefty documentarist pleading for a capitalist, who in his own country is seen as the typical oligarch plundering Mother Russia, charged with stealing enough barrels of oil to encircle the Earth three times. And Tuschi does draw a veil over the truth behind the allegations of tax fraud and the economically motivated murder of the mayor of Yugentska, instead casting the billionaire in the role of a political prisoner worthy of Nelson Mandela. Khodorkovsky’s move from business into politics is perhaps most cynically revealed in his decision not to go into exile, deciding to remain in the Mother Homeland to fight for his innocence and to defend his small island of western values. Whether the now unseen and unheard prisoner can win against Putin’s Russia, with its muzzled media, partial politics and enchained law courts, seems unlikely. But as Khodorkovsky finds humility and redemption from his past crimes of greed, ambition and wealth, it’s a pyrrhic defeat aimed at galvanising a future president.

Despite its eponymous title, it’s questionable whether Khodorkovsky is a bio-doc or a film about the director’s own trials and tribulations. We’re privy to the dire financial straits Tuschi finds himself in, his Sisyphean attempts at circumnavigating Russian bureaucracy and his own anxieties at being tapped and trailed by the FSB, but only the director’s experiences seem to merit a voiceover. It’s a personal story amidst the political controversy, a refreshingly simple thread of subjectivity in an otherwise complicated maze of objectivity. Whether Tuschi is an idealist hoping for a cinematic hero or a realist granting an amnesty on Russia’s best hope is unclear, but as a peek into the coffers and behind the coulisses of modern Russia, Khodorkovsky is thoroughly enriching.

Khodorkovsky is released on 2nd March 2012 in the UK

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