Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the richest man in Russia, an oligarch who worked hand in glove with the Kremlin while filling his pockets with rubles in the heady post-Soviet Union days of the late 20th century. Khodorkovsky, however, fell out of favor when his thirst for wealth began to impinge on the nationalist policies of President Vladimir Putin.
The strange but true story of this multi-billionaire is told in Khodorkovsky, a new documentary from German director Cyril Tuschi. (The film, originally booked to open this Friday, February 24th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, will now only be playing at San Francisco’s Opera Plaza).
Born in 1963, Khodorkovsky was a chemistry student and eager Komsomol (Communist Youth League) member during the early 1980s. His favorite novel was a piece of agit-prop entitled How the Steel Was Tempered; his dorm room prominently featured a portrait of Lenin. His future as an apparatchik seemed all but assured.
The end of the USSR, however, signaled a profound sea change in Khodorkovksy’s ideology. Taking advantage of the former Soviet Union’s “shock doctrine” decision to privatize public assets, the young chemistry student used Komsomol funds to acquire a small bank, Menatep, which he then leveraged into control of the Yukos Oil Company. Yukos’ vast Siberian oil fields made Khodorkovsky a billionaire several times over.
As long as his interests didn’t conflict with those of the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky was allowed to become richer than Croesus. As soon as he started funding journalists and the political opposition, however, President Vladimir Putin began to sour on him — and when Khodorkovsky travelled to the United States with an eye to selling part of Yukos to American-based multinationals, his fate was sealed.
By 2002, Khodoroksvky was the richest man in the world under the age of 40, a close Putin confidante, and the CEO of the company that paid more taxes to the Russian treasury than any other. A year later, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion, tried and found guilty in 2005, and convicted of additional charges in 2010 that extended his sentence until 2017. He currently resides in jail in the Siberian border town of Chita, maintaining his status as Russia’s most prominent political prisoner.
Tuschi’s film features a revealing Khodorkovsky quote: “Our moral standards match those of the society we live in.” Rather than being a hagiographic study of its subject, Tuschi provides an unflattering portrait of two extremely powerful and utterly ruthless men locking horns while simultaneously engaged in the lowering of Russian society’s moral standards. For true cynics, the suggestion is even made that Khodorkovsky is happily biding his time in prison, knowing that, upon his release, the glow of unjust persecution will propel him to the presidency.
Khodorkovsky blends extensive interview footage with Russian politicians, journalists, and businessmen, rare television and trial footage, and distinctive black-and-white animated sequences to tell its sordid tale. Far more than just a look at a man of unrivalled wealth and influence, it’s an indictment of no-holds-barred crony capitalism — and for what it’s worth, the only film you’ll ever see in which a man promises to bring a hippo an avocado.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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