I applaud this film most for demonstrating so clearly how a dictatorship can evolve in a country newly liberated from Communism and asking for government to be more accountable, to be hijacked, a lesson for many democracies in the world today. Citizen K (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) is about a man whom we will all recognize. He’s flawed—at least among even some sympathetic observers—but he speaks and works for the democratic principles we have come to value. I had heard about the Russian oligarchs who exploited the demise of the USSR to enrich themselves in outsized proportions, but Alex Gibney’s documentary gives us detailed descriptions of the billionaires who surfaced during that time, the consequences of their achievement of power, and the one (not the only) man who learned from his experiences and maintained fundamental democratic principles throughout. He’s Citizen K, who is pitted against the dictator Putin who ultimately comes to power.
First, comes a brief history of Russia after communism and the USSR in the early 1990’s. Boris Yeltsin emerges talking about his visions for a more democratic system and the advantages of capitalism. Feeble attempts (like vouchers) are made to introduce people to a different kind of government, showing how little Yeltsin and his advisors understand the dynamics of a capitalist system. So little does he foresee: That people do not know how to use the vouchers given to them, the chaos that will ensue following the socialist state, and the opportunity for those cagey enough to exploit the situation to their own benefit. This is what happens, which results by the mid-1990’s in seven oligarchs controlling 50% of the Russian economy, and the rest of the population in dire stress. The government runs out of funds, and is not able to support all the economic and social programs it has in the past, and the economy bottoms out.
In the meantime, Yeltsin has become a hopeless alcoholic and gravely ill when he tries to negotiate with the oligarchs for the country’s benefit. He makes a “Faustian” bargain with them in which they will loan the government huge sums. Of course, when the government is unable to pay back the loans, the oligarchs have a huge menu of government enterprises and assets they can pick up on the cheap.
Enter an unknown but scheming small bureaucrat with a history of being in the KGB, who manages to get close to Yeltsin and become his heir apparent. Vladimir Putin is astute and recognizes that he must bargain with the oligarchs, which he does. They will be ignored for any lawbreaking if they will concentrate on their businesses and stay out of politics. This goes well until Khodorkovsky begins to feel more and more passionate and outspoken about Russia becoming a democratic country.
This man, the Citizen K of the movie, is fascinating on a number of counts, which makes the crux of the documentary so powerful. He came from modest circumstances, although his parents were engineers. He was crafty and unabashed in his pursuit of wealth and reading the signs of opportunistic possibilities, but somewhere along the way, he maintained a fundamental belief in equity, honesty, and human rights. A testament to his sincerity are the numerous people close to him unwilling to testify against him after his arrest to lighten their own sentences. That is, he is willing to sacrifice himself to what he believes in.
Citizen K clearly stands as a lesson for people in western democratic countries today. The forces and events across time can serve as critical points when we the people have to be aware and stand up to subtle or not so subtle threats to a democratic system of government. This film is certainly a demonstration that those who opt for chaos (someone to “shake up” the government, “clear the swamp”) may be disillusioned and will pay the price, along with the rest of us, later.
Once again, documentarian Alex Gibney tells it like it is, and brings us along on an introspective journey that is highly relevant to politics across the world today.